ASHBURN, Va. (AP) -- A little girl changed Sean Taylor's life.
Before the birth of his daughter Jackie, the Washington Redskins safety was nothing but trouble, on and off the football field, an extremely gifted athlete known more for his misdeeds than for any tackle or interception.
If he could just clean up his act, the thinking went, he could become one of the best ever to play the game.
Taylor died on Tuesday after he was shot during a possible robbery at his home in the Miami suburb of Palmetto Bay, a tragic turn for a 24-year-old star who had matured immeasurably since Jackie's birth in May 2006 and, by all accounts, was having the best year of his career and his life.
"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."
Teammates and coaches often have portrayed Taylor as misunderstood, and that much was true. A private man with a small inner circle, Taylor became distrustful of reporters and anyone else he didn't know well. He rarely granted interviews, sometimes declining with a smile and a handshake and sometimes with a snarl that said: "Get out of my way."
But, behind the scenes, Taylor was described as personable and smart -- an emerging locker room leader.
"From the first day I met him, from then to now, it's just like night and day," Redskins receiver James Thrash said. "He's really got his head on his shoulders and has been doing really well as far as just being a man. It's been awesome to see that growth."
Taylor starred as a running back and defensive back at Gulliver Preparatory School in Miami. His father, Pedro Taylor, is the police chief of Florida City, Fla.
An All-American at the University of Miami, Taylor was drafted by the Redskins with the fifth overall selection in 2004. Coach Joe Gibbs called it "one of the most researched things" he's ever done, but the problems soon began. Taylor fired his agent, then skipped part of the NFL's mandatory rookie symposium, drawing a $25,000 fine. Driving home late from a party during the season, he was pulled over and charged with drunken driving. The case was dismissed in court, but by then it had become a months-long distraction for the team.
Taylor was also fined at least seven times for late hits, uniform violations and other infractions over his first three seasons, including a $17,000 penalty for spitting in the face of Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman during a playoff game in January 2006.
Meanwhile, Taylor endured a yearlong legal battle after he was accused in 2005 of brandishing a gun at a man during a fight over allegedly stolen all-terrain vehicles near Taylor's home. He eventually pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors and was sentenced to 18 months' probation.
Taylor said the end of the assault case was like "a gray cloud" being lifted. It was also around the time that Jackie was born, and teammates noticed a change.
"I even talked to Sean about it," left tackle Chris Samuels said. "I said, 'Man, I'm proud of you. You're doing a great job.' And he was like, 'Thanks, man, I'm just focused on my job and staying out of trouble and doing all the right things."'
On the field, Taylor's play was often erratic. Assistant coach Gregg Williams frequently called Taylor the best athlete he's ever coached, but nearly every big play was mitigated by a blown assignment. Taylor led the NFL in missed tackles in 2006 yet made the Pro Bowl because of his reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the league, one that earned him the nickname "Grim Reaper."
This year, however, Taylor was allowed to play a true free safety position, using his speed and power to chase down passes and crush would-be receivers. His five interceptions tie for the league lead in the NFC, even though he missed the last two games because of a sprained knee. Teammates said he had overhauled his diet this year to include more fruit, fish and vegetables and less red meat.
"I just take this job very seriously," Taylor said in a rare group interview during training camp. "It's almost like, you play a kid's game for a king's ransom. And if you don't take it serious enough, eventually one day you're going to say, 'Oh, I could have done this, I could have done that.'
"So I just say, 'I'm healthy right now, I'm going into my fourth year, and why not do the best that I can?' And that's whatever it is, whether it's eating right or training myself right, whether it's studying harder, whatever I can do to better myself."
His hard work was well-noted.
"He loved football. He felt like that's what he was made to do," Gibbs said. "And I think what I've noticed over the last year and a half ... is he matured. I think his baby had a huge impact on him. There was a real growing up in his life."