FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Seat 2A can wait a few more weeks.
Not that New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau's one-liner that drives coach Bill Belichick a little crazy isn't still funny. During the dreary days of offseason mini-camps and workouts as the players were doing conditioning sprints under Belichick's watchful eye, Seau would break the monotony by yelling out, "Seat 2A."
That was the location of his seat for the plane ride home to San Diego when the workouts were done. The players would all chuckle. Belichick would fume, but just a little.
"'Seau, can't we just (expletive) concentrate on what we have to do right now,'" Seau says, imitating Belichick's reaction from the offseason. A few feet away, fellow linebacker Adalius Thomas shouts "Seat 2A" in Seau's direction and starts to laugh at the image of Belichick getting a little frosty with the troops.
"Yeah, Belly likes to get on us," Seau said with a smile as he took a moment from his preparation for Saturday night's divisional round matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Belly? Hold on! Is that some endearing nickname for the NFL's premier taskmaster and resident genius? You get the feeling that if anyone but a veteran player with at least 12 years and a half-dozen Pro Bowl selections notched on his belt were to call Belichick by that name, he'd be cut on the spot. However, Seau can pull it off and still maintain an air of respect for the brilliant coach.
Truth is, on a team loaded with football purists like Mike Vrabel, Kevin Faulk and Tom Brady, no one concentrates or loves the game more than Seau and Belichick knows it. In fact, the coach has a great appreciation for the 18-year veteran who has spent the past 13 years just trying to get back to the playoffs.
As the Patriots attempted to reach their fourth Super Bowl this decade, Seau missed last year's run with a season-ending broken right arm suffered in Week 12. His loss was part of a physical meltdown at linebacker last season for the Patriots, who were eventually beaten in the AFC Championship game. Still, despite Seau's age (he turns 39 on Jan. 19) and recent run of injuries (he missed a combined 17 games with injuries in 2004 and 2005 with Miami), Belichick wanted him back.
"Every day, every practice," Belichick said when asked about Seau's expressed enthusiasm for the game.
"He's here early, stays late, has a lot of energy out on the field, very vocal, communicating guy. Every time we go in the huddle he has an energy and a presence about him that's pretty much non-stop. I think he's obviously one of the most respected players in the league, certainly on this team. He has a good message and people listen to him, as they should. He has a lot of experience and comes from the heart."
Realistically, Seau doesn't need to be here. He has plenty of money. He has a pretty good shot at the Hall of Fame. He would become the first Samoan or Tongan player to make it there, a sweet footnote for a player from a culture that loves the game and its direct relative rugby.
But Seau doesn't have a ring.
"I'm not here for anything else. I'm not here to practice. I'm not here to go to meetings. It's a great game, and I do love the game, but you would love to finish it the way you dreamt of finishing it when you were a kid. I knew coming here there was a chance of winning. Not to win just the Super Bowl, but to just win.
"And I knew that in this league if you win consistently enough, it allows you greater things and that's the formula that I've been going with ever since I started. And the chance of winning has led us to where we are today. That's all we have – just a chance. Hopefully at the end of the day we can meet on this and talk about something else, but until then, we have a job on Saturday."
All Seau has from his one Super Bowl appearance is a bitter memory. The last time Seau was in the playoffs was the 1994 season with the Chargers, when San Diego made an improbable run to the title game. Seau was in his fifth season after being the No. 5 overall pick in the 1990 draft. He was the best linebacker in football at the time.
He wasn't nearly enough to contain a San Francisco team loaded with Jerry Rice, Steve Young and Ricky Watters. The 49ers ran away from San Diego for a 49-26 victory. The next morning, Seau was at Miami International Airport, waiting to board a flight to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl.
As he sat there, all he could think was that people were staring at him and laughing underneath their breath. Seau was humiliated from the lopsided loss.
"Going to the Super Bowl and facing the San Francisco 49ers and all of the talent that they had, they took it to us. Sitting in the airport … it was embarrassing. As an athlete, as a professional athlete, to go in there and compete at the high level that you had hoped to and to go out there and have it handed to you on national TV as the world was watching – it was embarrassing. I've always dreamt to have another opportunity and another chance, and that's why I'm here," Seau said.
As solemn and serious as that sounds, that doesn't mean the journey can't be fun. In fact, Seau's humor often helps other players forget how much they can't stand the process. It's the natural coach-player (or boss-employee) dynamic. Eventually, everybody gets on each other's nerves. As much as the players respect Belichick, he has also drawn his share of contempt from them.
Seau does his best to make everybody forget that. Another of his favorite lines comes every Wednesday during the regular season. In the midst of practice, Seau will yell, "Two days till Friday, coach." It's a little reminder that if a player makes it to Friday in the NFL, he has to be paid for the week.
"You make it to Friday, you gotta be part of the game plan," Seau said with a knowing grin. "Can't get rid of me then. (Belichick) hates that. He doesn't want the younger guys to hear that. He says, 'Seau, can we just (expletive) concentrate on what we have to do Wednesday.'"
Of course, it's just a game for the two of them. Belichick trusts that Seau is fully into the game. Seau trusts that Belichick gives him the best chance for that elusive ring.
They both know, Seat 2A can wait for that.