By halftime, the ASA College Silver Storm had a commanding lead over the Alabama Prep Sports Academy Bearcats. The late Sunday afternoon sky was overcast and the metal bleachers all but empty at Ricky M. Cairns Memorial Stadium, a high-school field 35 miles south of Birmingham where one end zone is so close to a leafy neighborhood of modest, single-story gray houses that a kicked field goal could theoretically crash through someone's window.
With minutes left in the game, on a third down in Bearcats territory, the Silver Storm, a first-year junior college program from North Miami Beach, signaled for a time-out. Ernest Jones, the team's quietly charismatic head coach, gathered his players on the sideline; the offense huddled close as Jones spoke with a sudden intensity.
"We're going to run the Ghost Play," he announced, referring to a play the team had practiced for days where the left tackle position would be intentionally left vacant — meaning the Silver Storm would momentarily field ten men instead of 11.
"We talked about it all weekend," Jones later explained. "We said that if we put you in the game as these ten people, you give everything you got on this play, and we get to that end zone."
It was a tribute. Just one week earlier, soon before midnight on October 17, a gunman in downtown Fort Myers had opened fire into a crowd of pedestrians, many wearing gory makeup and Halloween-themed costumes, at the huge street festival known as Zombicon. Five young people were hit by bullets. But only one, ASA College's star 20-year-old left tackle, Tyrell Taylor, remained flat on the street, his oversize red sneakers pointing straight toward the sky.
The real-life horror at the mock-horror festival quickly generated national and international headlines: In a year marked by mass shootings — at the time it was America's 273rd of the year, according to the website gunviolencearchive.org, and Florida's 20th — this bloodshed was among the strangest, its news value enhanced by the surreal irony of its setting.
The shooting also brought sudden attention to an otherwise mostly unknown Miami-area college and its football program. ASA College Miami, a new campus of an existing for-profit school based in New York, had been operating for only several months. The school's football team, consisting of mostly local athletes seeking a shot at big-time NCAA ball, was having a breakout year.
But for the team's close-knit players and staff, everything changed that Saturday night. A hundred miles away, the news hit hard, too, in one of Florida's poorest communities. There, no young man had endured a tougher childhood than Tyrell. No one had dealt with adversity better, or had a better attitude. No one had been more loved.
"For Tyrell, it's easy to say good things about him," said Jerry Mayernik, his high-school track coach. "That's just who he was."
A couple of hours and half a world north of Miami, at the other end of a lonely highway that cuts for miles through table-flat Everglades grassland, the dozen or so small communities that dot the banks of enormous Lake Okeechobee are known for just a few things: sugarcane and sweet corn farms; hardscrabble rural poverty, with per capita incomes of $15,000 or less; and football.
One New York Times article counted more than 60 former and current players — including five who played in the 2013 Super Bowl — from the area, which has a combined population of only around 50,000. One high school, Pahokee, won four state championships and lost in only one final between 2004 and 2008; another, Glades Central, has won seven state titles, the second most of any school in Florida. It's football, more than anything, that's often seen as a way out for the area's young men — including one particularly motivated teen from a splintered family who grew up shuttling between different homes around the lake communities.
Expavious Tyrell Taylor was born October 5, 1995, in Belle Glade, just south of the lake, to Stephanie Washington and Anthony Taylor, a legendary local high-school wrestler. Tyrell had three older half-siblings, all on his mom's side, although the kids wouldn't stay together for long: Washington suffered bad seizures, and when Tyrell was a baby, according to his older brother Terrence Saint Lot, the Department of Children and Families was on the verge of revoking custody. So Washington's mother stepped in to take the kids — except for young Tyrell, who moved to the town of Okeechobee with his mom, dad, and other grandma, Mildred Woods, who worked at a nearby prison.
Taylor's family was athletic. In addition to his wrestler father, an uncle had won a football scholarship to Florida State University before he was injured in a car crash on his high-school prom night, and by the time Tyrell was in middle school, he was already filling into an enormous body. "He was huge," Terrence said. "I guess he just grew up."
Taylor was always an involved, energetic kid, shuffling among sports, band practice, and church, where he was a member of the praise dancing squad and nurtured his own personal connection with God. He was known for his teddy-bear personality and big smile, but his young life was also marked by tragedy. On December 30, 2006, when Tyrell was 11, he was staying in the nearby town of LaBelle visiting his siblings for the weekend when Tyrell's mom abruptly called, saying she needed her son to come home.
An hour or so later, when Tyrell arrived home, Washington rushed to the car. Tyrell got out, and before anyone could say anything, his mom swept her youngest son up into her arms, holding him for several seconds. When she regained herself, she told Tyrell that his father was dead. (From complications arising from an infection, Terrence said.)
Tyrell was devastated, but the loss also motivated him. He poured his energy into sports and church performances, emerging as a leader with the Chobee Steelers, a traveling steel drum group, and always seemed a happy-go-lucky kid. As his mother continued battling medical problems, his grandma Mildred assumed more of a parenting role and encouraged him to stay as busy as possible to avoid trouble.
"The only time Tyrell had was when he came home, took a shower, and then went to sleep," said his brother, who at one point also moved in with Tyrell and Mildred in Okeechobee. "And he woke up the next day and did it again."
By eighth grade, Tyrell had the physique of a well-built man and had emerged as a force on the basketball court; the next year, midway through his freshman season at Okeechobee High, he was moved up to the varsity squad. During one game, coach Shawn Hays told the Okeechobee News, Taylor "caught the ball at the three-point line and took two dribbles and threw down a monster dunk" — one of the most impressive plays the coach had ever seen.
Taylor was a kind of man among boys, with facial hair and developed muscles, but underneath his hulking frame — he was already six-foot-four and maybe 250 — was an emotional, kind-hearted teenager. He called one of his teachers "Ma" and won over authority figures with his ever-present smile; he appeared and sometimes acted tough, but joked like a kid with friends and was painfully shy around girls. "He looked mature," said Jerry Mayernik, the track team sprints coach, who at first glance assumed Taylor was someone's dad. "But he did not act that way."
Taylor won a spot on the track team's four-by-100-meter relay squad, and even as a freshman became one of the team's leaders, vocally encouraging his teammates and displaying the kind of drive that's rare for any athlete, let alone a teenager more interested in other sports. "He did it for himself," Mayernik said, "but he also did it for the people around him. He wanted so badly to be accepted as something other than a great big mass of meat."
The impressively built teenager and the full-bearded, middle-aged coach quickly became close. When Taylor couldn't afford running shoes, Mayernik, whom Taylor dubbed "Papa Coach," bought a discount pair for him online. When Taylor's grandma, suffering from her own health issues, couldn't pick up her grandson, Mayernik gave him rides. He drove a tiny Smart car, and Taylor could barely squeeze into the front seat. Instead of being embarrassed, he loved it — often asking Mayernik to drive around the neighborhood so Taylor could wave to his friends.
Taylor didn't like talking about his family issues much, Mayernik said, but it did become clear that the young man viewed sports as his ticket to success in the outside world. "It was pretty cool," Mayernik said, "because he was so excited at the idea of going to college and that he was going to be a college student."
Taylor's personality was magnetic, and he was typically lighthearted, although he also had a reputation among classmates for possessing an explosive temper. After one relay, Mayernik called out Taylor in front of the team for slowing down before a handoff, and the big teen erupted.
"So you're saying it's my fault!?" he yelled at his coach.
"You slowed down," Mayernik replied.
Taylor slammed the baton to the ground and stomped off. Other teammates warned Mayernik to stay away, worried that Tyrell could lose his cool and do something stupid; after a few minutes, Taylor, with an intense look on his face, marched toward his coach, and Mayernik suddenly became worried.
"Coach, I'm sorry," Taylor said. "I won't do it again."
In the summer of 2013, Taylor's junior year, he made the varsity football team, playing tight end and defensive tackle. On September 20, Okeechobee High had an evening game against Fort Pierce, and after school let out, the players went for a pregame meal. When the bus returned to campus, Taylor learned that his mother had died. Taylor immediately left to be with relatives. A couple of hours later he came back, hugged his coach, and suited up. The Brahmans defeated Fort Pierce 44-0, behind a stellar game from Taylor.
"There's no use sitting around moping," a teary-eyed Taylor told a newspaper reporter after the win. "I found something inside of me to keep going because she would have wanted me to do whatever I could to just play for her."
After his mom's sudden death, from a seizure, Taylor tried to remain upbeat — and for the most part he did, regaining his signature smile and outgoing personality — but the world around him kept crashing down. His high-school girlfriend became pregnant, but the child died at birth. Before his senior year, sensing that football would be his best chance at a college scholarship, he moved the 50 miles or so south to Clewiston, where he still had extended family, to concentrate on football.
At his new school, the dynamic, friendly transfer student quickly made an impression in the classroom, where he walked in every day with "that big glorious smile on his face," one teacher, Kristine Petersen, later told the Fort Myers News-Press. In the locker room, too, Taylor was a welcome addition — a fun, supportive teammate who was universally liked. But Clewiston's program was significantly stronger than Okeechobee's, and although Taylor possessed obvious natural ability, he faced a steep learning curve on the field.
"Just learning the game," Clewiston High coach Pete Walker said. "It would have been nice to have had him a year or two earlier."
Still, Taylor improved quickly, earning a place as a starter. He also won over his new coach, who taught Taylor's weightlifting class during the school day. "He always came in," Walker said, "and the first thing out of him was, 'I love you, Coach.' "
Taylor was at his new school barely a month when he got more bad news: On September 28, a year after his mother passed, Taylor's grandma Mildred died, after suffering a stroke. Tyrell, who was staying with godparents, "took it hard," his brother said, but he also kept himself together — for himself, but also for his siblings and extended family. They were counting on him.
Clewiston finished the season 11-0, then lost in the second round of the playoffs. Taylor had put in an impressive enough year to think about college ball and, more important, maintained grades good enough to be on track to graduate. In a family where no one had ever attended college, he came to embody generations of hopes and dreams, and spent the remaining months of high school more determined than ever. He buckled down in his classes and became increasingly close to a girlfriend, Jasmine, gradually assuming a pseudo-father role to her three young children.
A full class load and several months later, on the evening of May 29, Taylor put on a light-blue graduation gown, which fit tight over his large body, and rode to the middle school, where Clewiston High's commencement was held outdoors on the football field.
It was pitch dark by the time all the names were announced and diplomas handed out; after the closing remarks, some 200 ecstatic teenagers waited in white folding chairs lined on the grass, then stood and cheered as brilliant purple and white fireworks lit up the sky. For Taylor, who had endured so much, the symbolism was particularly poignant — the future, finally, seemed dazzlingly bright.
In early summer, the first day of tryouts for ASA College's new football team, the coaches grouped prospective players by position to run a series of 100-yard sprints. In the first race for the linemen, a mostly unknown kid from Clewiston easily scorched everyone. He also won the second sprint, and the third. The coaches blew the whistle for 16 sprints. Taylor won every single time. Just as impressive, his emotional energy seemed to be infinite.
"Give me more!" he screamed after each sprint. "Give me more!"
"It was like, Who is this guy?" Coach Jones said.
Out of the dozens of players who showed up that day, Taylor "was the one guy we noticed," the head coach said. Before Taylor even had a chance to shower, the ASA coaches sent him to the team's equipment room, where he picked out jersey number 68. Taylor would be playing college football.
ASA College was founded in Brooklyn in 1985 as a small, for-profit computer programming school. It gradually expanded to include several two-year associate degree programs — concentrating on job-oriented fields such as technology, business, health, and criminal justice — and later added another campus in Manhattan. Like other for-profit colleges, the school has recently come under fire for allegedly exploiting students: In July 2014, the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), on behalf of several former students, named the school in a class-action complaint, charging that ASA exaggerated its job placement success and misrepresented its tuition costs. (ASA denied the allegations, and the two parties are in settlement talks.)
The college established athletics programs in 2008 and soon earned national junior college rankings in football and tennis; last year, when ASA opened a campus in North Miami Beach, next to the Intracoastal Waterway at NE 163rd Street, the school again opted to add a nearly full slate of athletics. In talent-rich South Florida, a men's football program was an obvious fit, and the soft-spoken Jones, with 15 years of college football experience — including as director of player development for Notre Dame's 2012 national
Jones and his staff were committed to developing a program that could become a springboard to top Division I schools for players who were talented but needed an extra year or two to get noticed or gain academic eligibility. But ASA Miami's was a new program, and expectations were low. "They didn't think we could win but two games at the beginning of the season," Jones said.
In early summer, after Taylor made the cut, he walked up to the Hotel Roma — a sprawling, half-decrepit, coral-pink, Italian-themed place in Miami Gardens that serves as the players' dorm — wearing tight-fitting Under Armour gear and toting luggage and a refrigerator. "Everybody wanted to see who he was," one teammate, Kevin Ferguson, remembered. "He was big. We were like, 'OK, we got some competition!... He do look pretty good!' "
ASA lost its first game, on the road at Blinn College, in Texas. But in their home debut, they shocked ASA Brooklyn, ranked in the top 20, beating their biggest rival in an emotionally charged, lightning-delayed defensive battle. ASA Miami won its next game 20-0 and its next two by a combined score of 63-0. In early October, the team broke into the national rankings. "Maybe we caught people off-guard," Jones said.
Taylor's size and speed had won him a starting spot on the line, and his passion and personality had transformed him into a team leader — he was a freshman, but in practices shouted encouragement and offered advice as if he were a team veteran. "He made guys around him better, and he loved to compete," Jones said. "He was everything that you want — and I mean that with sincerity — in a football player."
Off the field, too, Taylor emerged as one of the team's most beloved players. Partway through the season, he moved into Ferguson's cramped hotel room, taking the bed underneath the window by the back wall, and quickly became a source of hilarity. Everyone in the hall knew when Taylor was home, Ferguson said, because of the gospel music blasting from his speakers.
Taylor was always bugging his teammates to go to South Beach — a nearly impossible mission, because almost none of the players had a car. In addition to his Mohawk and outlandish sense of humor, he earned fame among teammates for his country accent and frequent trips to the corner Winn-Dixie, where he would buy his favorite meal: steak and shrimp.
But Taylor also won respect for his maturity and sensitivity: After Ferguson's uncle passed away, it was Taylor who tried to cheer him up. He offered condolences, then told Ferguson he was off to Winn-Dixie. He returned with steak and shrimp, which he cooked for his teammate while the two talked and listened to music. "It brought me really close to him," Ferguson said. "He was really like my brother."
As the Silver Storm kept winning, the team attracted increasing attention from Division I college scouts, including those from big-time programs such as North Carolina, Michigan, and Florida State, who stopped by on recruiting visits to South Florida. All the ASA players had hopes of moving on to a D-1 school, or maybe even the NFL, but Taylor never talked about it.
For him, it seemed, football was also about something else: He was playing for his family and his people back around Okeechobee. And for fun. "He just loved football," Ferguson said.
The weekend of October 17, the team was scheduled to participate in a charity cancer walk, but Taylor asked for permission to head back to Clewiston instead. His older brother Bernard, who is physically disabled, had a doctor's appointment that Taylor wanted to attend, he told Coach Jones, and he also wanted to watch Jasmine's son play peewee football for the first time.
Jones was well aware of Taylor's difficult life story and had long been impressed by his maturity. Now he was also struck by his candor.
"This guy's honest," Jones thought to himself. "You didn't have to tell me all that."
That Saturday afternoon, thousands of people flooded downtown Fort Myers' normally quiet, palm-lined streets. Most were young, and many wore costumes: intricate blood- and gore-painted faces; makeup fashioned to create bulging eyes or creepy, pock-marked skin;
Taylor showed up on a whim, wearing a clown mask.
After Jasmine had picked him up Friday in Miami Gardens, the two drove the couple of hours north to LaBelle, where they stayed at her place. Taylor accompanied his brother Bernard to his appointment. He also spoke on the phone with his sister Amanda, who was visiting family in Georgia, and the two worked out a tentative plan to visit family in Clewiston once Amanda returned Sunday. "Hopefully, you'll still be there when we get back home," she told her brother.
Saturday morning, Tyrell and Jasmine attended her son's peewee game, then later that evening drove the 45 minutes or so west toward Fort Myers. The two met up with a group of friends and around 10 p.m. decided to head to Zombicon — Tyrell and Jasmine weren't really festival fans, but it was rare for him to have a weekend off, and they wanted to have a fun night out.
They arrived after 10, when the streets were already teeming with revelers. Tyrell wore loose black-and-white pants, along with his favorite red sneakers, and a clown mask. After listening to a DJ set, he and Jasmine lingered on First Street, and around 11:30 they decided to grab drinks at a place across the street from Capone's Coal Fired Pizza. They were still there, standing in a crowd with their backs to the street, when the sound went off.
Jasmine instinctively hit the ground as chaos suddenly consumed the festival: screams, costumed bodies running, shaky cell phone videos, confusion. After a few seconds, Jasmine looked up. She saw Tyrell lying flat on the sidewalk. She screamed. He didn't answer.
As emergency responders rushed to the scene, Jasmine frantically called Amanda. "Tyrell got shot!" she yelled. "He won't move! He won't move!" At 11:46, Taylor was pronounced dead, from a gunshot wound.
Jones was relaxing at home when his phone rang, and his heart starting pounding. He spoke to the police, and with a distraught Amanda and Jasmine; the next morning, he and the ASA coaches drove to Clewiston to meet with Taylor's family. Sunday night they also called a team meeting, and at 6 a.m. Monday ASA's players and staff all gathered in a large lounge at the Hotel Roma, taking seats in rows of plastic chairs surrounded by the room's tacky
Jones stood in front, addressing his team in a somber voice. "We have lost a brother," he said, "a teammate." The coach spoke for a few minutes about life, and about Tyrell, and encouraged some players to meet with him individually and attend grief counseling. Ferguson sat silently, tears streaming down his face.
The team decided to dedicate the rest of the season to Tyrell. They would shout out "six eight" — Tyrell's number — every time they put their hands together after a huddle in games and practices. They would carry his jersey onto the bench for every game and check his name off the attendance sheet.
But in the short term, ASA, riding a five-game unbeaten streak, also had to prepare for another matchup the next weekend, on the road against Alabama Prep. Later in the week, as players tried their best to hustle through deeply emotional practices, another close friend and roommate of Taylor's, Danian Alvarez, had an idea for a more visceral tribute, modeled after a play he had seen done in the NFL. "That always stuck with me," Alvarez said. "I thought that was the best way to honor Tyrell."
It didn't matter much that nobody really expected it to work.
At the huddle on the sideline in Alabama, Jones told Darius Tolbert, a lineman, to stay put. Then ten ASA players jogged back onto the turf, their hearts pounding. When they lined up, heavy-loading the right side of the field in order to leave the left tackle position blank, the referees didn't notice that ASA was shorthanded; neither did the Alabama Prep players, who, dumbfounded at the odd, unbalanced formation, started taunting the ASA line.
ASA's quarterback called for the snap, a half-dozen very large bodies crashed forward to block, and the ball was handed off to running back Trey Middleton, who bolted up the right side of the field. Middleton made it to the end zone; ASA erupted — but just for a second. There was a penalty flag down. The play was called back; ASA's elation transformed into anger.
Now it was fourth and more than ten. On the field, in a matter of seconds, the ASA players, more motivated than ever, decided to run the same play. Again they lined up in the strange formation. After the snap, the linemen crashed forward and Middleton grabbed the ball. He juked one defender, then kept sprinting forward. He dodged another tackle — and scored again.
On the sideline, Jones and the other coaches practically jumped out of their shoes. In the end zone, the players lifted Middleton on their shoulders. Everyone hugged and screamed, in celebration and disbelief.
Throughout the season, the memory of the play remained a sparkling point of pride for players and their families — "That'll be with our program forever," Jones said — but three months after Taylor's death, the police have not named any suspects or released information, and Tyrell's friends and family are waiting for answers. "I don't have no closure at all," Terrence said. "It's just so unbelievable."
Soon after the shooting, students at Clewiston High held a fundraiser, selling 800 hamburgers to collect money for the funeral. At the service at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Okeechobee, hundreds packed into the pews to mourn Taylor's death, and former coaches and mentors spoke of how proud Tyrell had made his community. Jones spoke, too, telling of Taylor's unique journey and how well he had carried himself in Miami. Once he finished, the coach told his players to come together in front of the crowded pews, and more than 50 young men formed a close huddle.
Ferguson began the breakdown, calling out, "Six eight on three, six eight on three." For a moment the entire church waited in complete silence. "One, two, three!" Ferguson continued. And then, in perfect unison, Taylor's teammates answered back, producing a sound so loud the walls of the small church practically shook.
After the emotional win in Alabama, ASA lost its next game against Georgia Military College and fell out of the national rankings. But they won their subsequent game in a blowout and then lined up at their home field in Hialeah the afternoon of November 14, under a threatening sky, for their last game of the season, against Georgia Prep Sports Academy.
It was a rout: By halftime, ASA was up 20-0, and in the second half they only consolidated their lead. With three minutes left in the game, ASA was up 58-0. On the sideline, someone dumped a bucket of ice water on an assistant coach, which triggered more bucket showers, and then more.
As fans leaned over the fence hollering, one coach, his face utterly serious, sprinted around the sideline, dodging and weaving between players to avoid the ice dump; with still minutes to play, nearly the entire team spilled onto the field, which was covered in ice, and everyone — players, coaches, and fans — roared and laughed and celebrated.
Several days later, Tyrell's brother Terrence told New Times he had heard various rumors about the shooting. At one point, Fort Myers PD released a rough sketch of a person of interest, a young Caucasian or Hispanic man who had been seen running from the scene with a handgun, and Terrence had been able to find someone on Facebook he thought matched the description, a guy who had pictures of Rebel flags and guns in his profile. He turned the information over to police, who later said they had no leads; Terrence had also heard other stories and really had no idea what to think, he said.
It didn't help that Tyrell's death, he said, had led to bickering among his family members, who were filing a $5 million civil suit against Zombicon organizers and their security company; Terrence had also become a father only weeks earlier and was struggling financially, despite working two jobs. He was staying in a trailer in the country with his girlfriend, several miles away, and lately had been walking to and from work because his car was in the shop.
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Terrence, who bears a strong resemblance to Tyrell, met a reporter at Beef 'O' Brady's in LaBelle, just across from the shopping center on the edge of town with the Save-a-Lot and Dollar Tree where he works. At the restaurant, he ordered chicken fingers and fries, not for himself but to take back home, and he spoke in rapid-fire, sometimes rambling sentences. He often grew emotional — it was the first time since his brother died, he said, that he really had let himself open up. "I'm all mixed up right now, man," he said. "I'm just all mixed up."
At one point in the long conversation, a young couple in the next booth politely interrupted. They were from Clewiston, they said, and just wanted to tell Terrence how much his brother had meant to everyone there: The man told him how his younger brother had played basketball with Tyrell and how the whole team cried when they learned what happened; the woman sidled up to Terrence and scrolled through pictures of mutual acquaintances on her phone.
At the unexpected gesture, Terrence's face brightened, but as he talked more, he grew sad again. "I don't even know what life's about no more, man," he said. Tyrell had been excited to be an uncle to Terrence's new baby, Terrence said, predicting that the girl would be born before the month finished, which she was. Tyrell had recently visited his older brother to celebrate Tyrell's birthday, and now that Terrence had his own place, his brother had promised to come back more so the two could hang out again, like they did when they were younger.
"We was looking forward to that," Terrence said, his voice drawing lower and more somber. "We was looking forward to a lot of stuff, you know what I'm saying? I guess it just got caught short."