The first time I interviewed Junior Seau, he was wearing fluorescent board shorts on a January day in Pittsburgh. Suffice it to say, he was pretty far from cold.
Granted, this was an unseasonably mild afternoon, with the temperature still in the 50s as the sun began to dip. Yet at that moment – having just summoned a phenomenal performance to lead the San Diego Chargers to a stunning upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1994 AFC championship game – the great linebacker looked impervious to the elements, or anything else for that matter.
[Related: Junior Seau was Chargers' lightning bolt]
Seau, I would write later that night, had charged out of the Three Rivers Stadium tunnel as though he were "listening to a voice from another realm." Over the next three hours he "played like a man who had spent the morning mainlining ginseng. … There is no more satisfying circumstance in sport than to see a great player play the game of his life in the biggest game of his life."
Tragically, hauntingly, Seau's life ended Wednesday of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. The future Hall of Famer, one of the greatest players of his era, leaves behind a massive legacy, and his loss reverberates throughout the NFL community.
The circumstances of his death at the way-too-young age of 43 also carry ominous overtones surrounding depression and the possible connection to head trauma, issues that imperil the future of football with an increasingly accelerated sense of urgency. I'll get to this unpleasantness, in time. For now, I want to spend a little while reflecting upon the man who'll be greatly missed by his loved ones, and by innumerable players, coaches and others in the football world.
Gregarious, ebullient, hilarious and immensely popular, Seau provoked smiles in San Diego, Miami, Foxborough and throughout the NFL universe for more than two decades – and, on Wednesday, so many tears.
Mine are flowing as the memories come flooding back, beginning with that afternoon in Pittsburgh 17 years ago.
There was a lot of over-the-top bravado in that visitors' locker room at Three Rivers, as the Chargers had taken the field feeling disrespected and overlooked and now wanted to revel in their unlikely triumph. Seau, however, had spoken humbly and quietly, projecting a sense of calm that seemed uncanny for a fifth-year player.
Eventually, the crowd around his locker dispersed, and I'd followed him out to the parking lot, where he was preparing to board one of the team buses. Scores of possible questions raced through my head, yet the one I chose to open with was completely silly, a query I'd blurted out before I could think better of it:
How many pairs of pants do you own?
Seau stopped and turned to face me. He smiled broadly. "One pair, jeans," he said. "One pair, slacks. Some sweats that someone sent me for free."
He paused. That was it?
"That's it," he said, satisfied, and I was pretty much the happiest Californian in sports journalism history. The quote didn't make the magazine, but it made me an unabashed Seau devotee for life.
The following year, a few days before the Pro Bowl, I was shuffling across the pool deck at the Ihilani Resort and encountered Seau and then-Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh sitting at a shaded table, locked in deep concentration. During the playoffs, I had written about each athlete's aptitude for chess, and that had led to a series of challenge matches in paradise.
Given the casual atmosphere at the Ihilani and my familiarity with the subject matter, I stopped to talk to the NFL's Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky and ask how the Clash of the Century was proceeding.
[Y! Sports Radio: Jason Cole talks about being fortunate to be around Junior Seau]
Seau took his hand off the bishop and looked up at me, his eyes full of fury. "Silver, what the [expletive]?" he said fiercely, his voice rising. "We're just out here trying to relax after a long season, and you're out here working. This isn't for the media. This is our thing. Get out – or I'll kick you out."
I stood there, paralyzed, as several bystanders gawked. Harbaugh didn't offer me a lifeline, and Seau kept giving me that linebacker's stare. I began to stammer some sort of weak apology, and then I saw that familiar grin.
"Silv, I got you!" Seau said, pounding his fist on the table. "Oh my god, Buddeeeee, you got moist."
And then, blessedly, we were all laughing.
I'm racking my brain, and I can't remember too many interactions with Seau – if any – that didn't involve some sort of laughter.
There was the time in the summer of 1997 we met at Japengo, a La Jolla sushi spot teeming with fresh fish and fresher females, for happy hour after an August training camp practice. Seau, ever the ringleader, had invited about half the team, at a time when sushi was still a strange concept to many players in the league.
Seau, of course, did the ordering, and he was not subtle. Nigiri and Sapporos were consumed with abandon, and the table was locked in a heated conversation about which NFL coach was the biggest jerk when someone made the mistake of looking at his watch.
"Meeting starts in 10 minutes!" someone yelled, and the Bolts began bolting as if afraid of being struck by lightning.
Only Seau had the presence of mind to attend to the business end of the interaction.
"Silv, you've got the check, right Buddeeeee?" Seau said, patting me on the shoulder as he headed for the door, adopting the tone of a man whose charm allowed him to leave without listening to the answer.
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It helped that I had a ready-made solution for recouping some of the damage: Seau had his own restaurant in Mission Valley, near Qualcomm Stadium, a testament to the native of nearby Oceanside's vast popularity in America's Finest City. Like "Anchorman's" Ron Burgundy, Seau was kind of a big deal, even after he left the Chargers to play for the Miami Dolphins (from 2003-05) and New England Patriots (from 2006-09). His foundation was a fixture in the San Diego community, having distributed nearly $4 million to organizations providing services to children and young adults. Chilling at his expansive beach house in Oceanside, playing volleyball and catching waves on his surfboard, he was basically the King of the Beach.
As ferocious as he was on the field, he played with a childlike exuberance that carried over into the locker room and beyond. Listen to Seau's former teammates mourn his loss, and don't believe for a moment that anything they're saying is insincere or exaggerated for effect. They loved the guy, and there were a lot of people who felt that way.
I remember back in 2003, when Seau, in his first year with the Dolphins, was asked how to stop his former teammate, All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson, and responded, "You give him watermelon and load him up with fried chicken and tell him to keep eating."
Oops. The ensuing controversy subsided largely because Tomlinson laughed off the comments, as did everybody who knew Seau. A couple of weeks later, I saw LT in the Chargers' locker room and asked him about Seau's quotes and how (in the days before pervasive smartphones and Twitter feeds) he learned of them in the first place.
"After practice, I showered and headed to the parking lot, and I turned on my phone," Tomlinson said, laughing. "The first voicemail was from Junior: 'Budddeeeee. I think I 'expletive' up and said something I shouldn't have. …' That's how I found out!"
So no, Seau, one of the three greatest linebackers (along with Lawrence Taylor and Ray Lewis) I've ever covered, was not perfect. Though well-versed in strategic acumen, the man had a knack for self-audibilizing at the line of scrimmage, relying both on film study and pure instinct when making the executive decision to alter his assignment. This is the type of stunt that can drive coaches and teammates mad; Seau tended to get away with it because he was right often enough – and arrived with such destructive force.
Yet when Seau joined the Patriots, it seemed to me that the potential for culture clash was great: Seau, the quintessential freelancer, playing for Bill Belichick, the ultimate stickler for discipline and detail.
That led me to a story about Seau and Patriots assistant Pepper Johnson getting into a scrap that spilled out into the parking lot at Gillette Stadium. Seau's reaction after the story was printed?
Images like that one – or this video from Seau's unfortunate rodeo experience a few years back – make me smile, if only for a moment. I hope that, eventually, I'll be able to think of this larger-than-life athlete without feeling overcome by loss and the tragic circumstances which, on Wednesday, punched the NFL community in the stomach.
I know death is part of life and that everything is ephemeral and that I should spend every waking breath cherishing those dear to me and holding them close, but that doesn't make this any easier, and I'm getting sick of this feeling.
I loved covering that '94 Chargers team, and eight players are no longer with us.
I've already been crushed by the loss of one Hall of Fame linebacker, Derrick Thomas, and Wednesday's sequel was just as haunting.
This time, it's not just fate that I'm cursing. Depression is a serious mental-health illness that is often misunderstood, and though Seau may have been struggling with it for some time – as suggested by his possible suicide attempt less than two years ago, when he drove his SUV off an embankment – speculating as to why he might have taken his own life is difficult to do.
This much, we know: Depression is not rational. One of its symptoms, in fact, is an irrational thought process that is overly negative and hopeless in nature pertaining to one's self and surroundings. It's usually exaggerated, and it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with reality. For some sufferers, it's like going through life wearing a pair of tinted glasses that distort one's perception of reality in a ruinous manner.
In Seau's case, at first blush, there is some circumstantial evidence that points toward a possible connection to head trauma. It evokes comparisons to last year's suicide of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the chest and left notes for family members asking that his brain be donated to science and studied. Researchers at Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University's School of Medicine later determined Duerson had "moderately advanced" brain damage and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative neurological condition associated with repeated concussions.
Seau, according to reports, shot himself in the chest. That would seem to suggest that he, too, at least considered the possibility that all of the celebrated head-knocking he'd engaged in 20 NFL seasons had caused changes to his brain worthy of posthumous exploration.
If it turns out Seau had CTE, it will provide a chilling jolt to the already tense landscape of 21st century football. As the game's guardians attempt to adapt on the fly and figure out a way to address this growing concern, having a player as accomplished and popular as Seau as a possible poster child for the evils of concussions only ratchets up the stakes.
Perhaps, in the end, Seau will be an impact player in death, as he was in life. For now, he's a man whose passing made a lot of people very sad, and my thoughts and prayers go out to his loved ones, and to all those he touched.
Seventeen years ago in Pittsburgh, Seau took the field for the biggest game he'd ever played like he was listening to a voice from another realm – and left the stadium like a dude who'd just taken a stroll on the beach. I revered him then, and I hear him now, and his voice sounds vibrant and confident and inviting and timeless.
As I hear this, my eyes are closed, and I'm back in that parking lot chasing a memory. Somehow, it feels a tiny bit better that way.
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