LANDOVER, Md. -- The message was all too clear: Sean Taylor is gone forever.
For all of the No. 21 jerseys, waving towels and handwritten signs in the stands Sunday, for all of the flowers at a makeshift memorial outside the stadium, for all of the pregame tributes to the Pro Bowl safety, the most stark reminder of Taylor's plight came when the Washington Redskins lined up on defense for the first time since he was shot to death.
Instead of 11 Redskins on the field, as rules allow, there were 10.
As the Buffalo Bills got ready to run their first play midway through the first quarter, the man who replaced Taylor in the starting lineup, Reed Doughty, stood near coaches on the sideline with his arms crossed. After watching while Bills running back Fred Jackson gained 22 yards, Doughty entered for the next play - and made the tackle.
The 24-year-old Taylor died Tuesday, a day after being shot at his home in Florida during a burglary. Four men have been charged. The shock has yet to dissipate for Taylor's teammates and fans, and the grieving process continued on game day.
"The only way we can honor him right now is to go out there on the field and play. Go out and play football," Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels said during a pregame video tribute to Taylor.
Before entering the stadium, spectators talked about Taylor in the present tense, as though it all hasn't quite registered.
"I just love the way he plays," said Joshua Skeen of Manchester, Md., wearing a white jersey with Taylor's No. 21.
Skeen's brother, Jason, wore No. 36, Taylor's uniform as a Redskins rookie.
Not surprisingly, those numbers were everywhere Sunday, including on black versions of the jersey, on handmade T-shirts, on hats, on wristbands. A trio of teenage friends each wrote the number on a cheek.
While tailgating did carry on in the parking lots before the game began -- with beer and grilled food, with chips and salsa -- things were somewhat more subdued. Stereos didn't blare. People spoke instead of screamed.
"Oh, yeah, it's quiet," said Adrian Moore of Springfield, Va., who was wearing a long-sleeve white shirt with a yellow candle between the numbers 2 and 1. "It's a lot more somber than normal."
One fan, Joe Yang of Chantilly, Va., painted "Sean Taylor, Go Skins, R.I.P 21" on two of his black SUV's windows, and "We Miss You Sean Taylor" on the rear window.
"I just feel like we owe it to Sean, we owe it to the team, we owe it to the Redskins," Yang said. "I just wanted to make sure that no one should forget."
A short walk away, people approached a memorial to Taylor near where the Redskins painted his number on a patch of grass near the team store - which was under orders not to sell jerseys or other items with his name this day.
Starting at 7:30 a.m., fans began arriving to look at the display, snap a photo of it and leave objects. The piles were continually spreading, with flowers in the team colors of burgundy and gold, leather footballs, burning candles, and posters with personal messages. And on and on it went: balloons, teddy bears, hats. One little child left a piece of paper with a poem.
James McClendon of Stafford, Va., watched as his 10-year-old son, Dhimani, offered a football with an inscription. Father and son came to their first NFL game together Sunday, to honor Taylor.
Both wore burgundy No. 21 jerseys.
"If I don't ever come to another Redskins game again, it had to be this one," the elder McClendon said. "I felt, you know, this would be the best way for us to, you know, say goodbye to Sean Taylor."
There were plenty of ways in which he was saluted, off the field of play and on.
After making a catch, Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss, also a teammate of Taylor's at the University of Miami, would pound his chest and put up a hand with his thumb and ring finger tucked down and the other three fingers raised. It was his way of saying, "21."
On a facade above one end zone, there was a new sign with Taylor's name and uniform number in white writing on a burgundy background, with pictures of black ribbons on each end.
The Redskins Marching Band wore black hats and used instruments covered with black sleeves while playing a funeral dirge on the field, before a slow, mournful rendition of the team's normally peppy theme song, "Hail to the Redskins."
After the public address announcer noted that, "We gather here today shocked and saddened," the scoreboard showed a 4-minute video filled with still photos of Taylor with his 1-year-old daughter; footage of him playing football in high school, college and the pros; and clips of interviews with him, teammates and coaches.
After Taylor was shown saying, "My favorite part is when we have home games and the fans are cheering," the crowd roared and waved the white hand towels with the No. 21 they were given as they entered the stadium.
Those tiny towels swirled around and around, a silent and moving tribute.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press