PALMETTO BAY, Fla. Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor was critically wounded in a pre-dawn shooting at his home Monday, and doctors were encouraged when he responded to simple commands after several hours of surgery.
The 24-year-old player was shot in the upper leg, damaging an artery and causing significant blood loss. Family members were concerned that he could have permanent brain damage.
"The doctors are being very guarded about their prognosis," said family friend Richard Sharpstein, Taylor's former lawyer. "They're being a little bit skeptical about either whether he might make it or whether it might cause some permanent brain injury."
Later Monday, Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' vice president of football operations, offered encouraging news from the hospital.
"He was responsive to the doctor's request to squeeze his hand and show facial expression, and so the doctors were very happy about that," said Cerrato, who flew to Florida on owner Dan Snyder's plane with Snyder, running back Clinton Portis and trainer Bubba Tyer. "They told us to hope for a miracle, and I think the positive news we got was extremely good news."
Miami-Dade Police were investigating the attack, which came just eight days after an intruder was reported at Taylor's home. Officers were dispatched about 1:45 a.m. Monday after Taylor's girlfriend called 911. Taylor was airlifted to the hospital.
"For all of us here, we're obviously in shock," Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said at the team's practice facility in Ashburn, Va. "I know I can't put it in words."
Sharpstein said Taylor's girlfriend told him the couple was awakened by loud noises, and Taylor grabbed a machete he keeps in the bedroom for protection. Someone then broke through the bedroom door and fired two shots, one missing and one hitting Taylor, Sharpstein said. Taylor's 1-year-old daughter, Jackie, was also in the house at the time, but neither she nor Taylor's girlfriend were injured.
"It could have been a possible burglary; it could have been a possible robbery," Miami-Dade Police Lt. Nancy Perez said. "It has not been confirmed as yet."
Taylor was shot at the pale yellow house he bought two years ago in the Miami suburb of Palmetto Bay. Taylor played at the University of Miami, where he was an All-American in 2003, and was also a high school standout in the city. His father, Pedro Taylor, is the police chief of Florida City.
Known as one of the NFL's hardest hitters, Taylor played in his first Pro Bowl last season. He is tied for the NFC lead this season with five interceptions, despite missing the past two games with a sprained knee. He did not travel with the Redskins to Sunday's 19-13 loss at Tampa Bay because of the injury.
"We are numb right now," Washington wide receiver Keenan McCardell said.
Assistant coach Gregg Williams' voice cracked and his red eyes welled with tears as he spoke about Taylor.
"Whether he plays again, I don't know. If he does, great. If he doesn't, great. OK? Just want him to recover," said Williams, who runs the team's defense. "Just want him to be all right."
Taylor had a troublesome first two years in the NFL after he was drafted No. 5 overall by the Redskins in 2004, but he had mostly behaved after his daughter was born in May 2006.
"It's hard to expect a man to grow up overnight," said Redskins teammate and close friend Clinton Portis, who also played with Taylor at the University of Miami. "But ever since he had his child, it was like a new Sean, and everybody around here knew it. He was always smiling, always happy, always talking about his child."
Taylor has been fined at least seven times during his professional career for late hits and other infractions. He was also fined $25,000 for skipping a mandatory rookie symposium shortly after he was drafted.
In 2005, Taylor was accused of brandishing a gun at a man during a fight over some all-terrain vehicles that had allegedly been stolen. Last year, he reached a deal in which he pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors and was sentenced to 18 months' probation. The pleas prompted another fine from the NFL but kept his football career intact.
Redskins coaches and players have defended Taylor, saying he was smart and misunderstood. Taylor has been slow to let anyone in his inner circle and has rarely spoken to reporters, saying he doesn't trust them.
The shooting came about a week after someone pried open a front window, rifled through drawers and left a kitchen knife on a bed at Taylor's home, according to police.
"They're really sifting through that incident and today's incident," Miami-Dade Police Detective Mario Rachid said, "to see if there's any correlation."
Taylor called Gibbs on Nov. 19 to let him know he'd miss that morning's regular team meeting because he was in Florida dealing with the first break-in.
"I said, 'I understand that.' I said, 'Take care of your house and everything you have to there,"' Gibbs recalled.
Taylor returned to the Washington area and had treatment on his knee, Gibbs said, adding he wasn't aware the player then went back to Florida over the weekend.
A group of fans held a two-hour vigil Monday evening in the rain outside Redskins Park in Ashburn. Gibbs was joined by the team chaplain at the Redskins' usual Monday meeting, and a small group of players held a separate prayer gathering.
"This is not just a member of the Washington Redskins," safety Pierson Prioleau said. "But we're talking about a dad, a brother, a friend of ours, and that's where we're at with this right now."
With his team 5-6 and coming off three consecutive losses, Gibbs was asked how he'll prepare players to focus on their next game, at home Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.
"I don't know. I can't answer that," Gibbs said. "I've never been through this. I've never been through anything like this."