Junior Seau's death further saddens his 1994 Chargers teammates
Once again the phones started to ring, former San Diego Chargers from the franchise's lone Super Bowl team calling each other and digesting the news that another one of them was gone. With word that Junior Seau died Wednesday, the number of Chargers who played in the Super Bowl on Jan. 29, 1995, and are now dead, is eight.
Eight in 18 years; too many in too little time.
The subject is one I discussed, somewhat uncomfortably, with several of the former Chargers in 2008. This wasn't long after Chris Mims, their gregarious defensive end, was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment. Five had died back then. And that seemed like a lot.
[Michael Silver: Gregarious, hilarious and immensely popular Seau will be missed]
I called a professor of actuarial science at the University of Wisconsin to see if she could put number on five men from a 53-man roster – all in their 20s and 30s – dying in so short a time. She said the odds were less than 1 percent.
In the resulting story that ran in The Washington Post, many former players and coaches talked about emotions that ranged from sadness for former players who were no longer there to a looming sense of unease about the uncontrollable.
"Is this a curse or something?" center Courtney Hall said then. "I just hope I'm not next."
On Wednesday, Hall sounded drained. Hours of phone calls with teammates had tired him. And there lingered that sense of confusion over how so many men who would be in their 40s, who seemed so vibrant, are no longer alive.
"I'm still kind of processing everything right now," Hall said. "I had more to say back [in 2008] than I do now. I really am at a loss for words."
The unsettling thing about the Chargers' deaths is their randomness. Five months after the Super Bowl, running back David Griggs died in a car accident on an off-ramp of the Florida Turnpike that was no more than 10 minutes from where the game had been played at Joe Robbie Stadium. The next year, running back Rodney Culver and his wife died on a ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades, also not far from Miami. In 1998 linebacker Doug Miller was struck twice by lightning while camping in Colorado. Backup center Curtis Whitley died of a drug overdose in 2008 only months before Mims died from an enlarged heart and heart disease. Linebacker Lew Bush and defensive tackle Shawn Lee had fatal heart attacks last year.
And now Seau. The irony is that as a player he might have been the liveliest of them all – the first one to laugh, the one with the biggest smile, the biggest star – and to hear reports he had killed himself? It didn't make sense.
[Video: Junior Seau's mother reacts to tragedy]
"The thing I related to everybody is that we are a brotherhood of those of us who played football," Hall said Wednesday. "We developed bonds and dealt with the same issues and the same ups and downs. For me, I've gotten to the point where I wish we as a group of elite athletes are able to reach out to each other more and are able to talk about what's going on in our lives."
Back in 2008, Hall talked about looking for some of his Chargers teammates. He found tight end Deems May on LinkedIn and asked the team for the phone numbers of other former players. Some of those may have been the same men he spoke with Wednesday.
Perhaps there's nothing anyone can do about a plane crash or someone getting hit by lightning twice, but so many of the other deaths seemed preventable. Tackle Stan Brock wondered in 2008 how Whitley could die alone in a trailer. "Where were his friends?" he asked. Mims suffered from weight problems and became depressed before his death. Lee was reported to have had weight and other health issues when he died.
Could phone calls have helped? Should they have been calling Seau and checking on him? Hall wonders. He said several of his teammates did too.
"In general we talked about getting together and reaching out to one another," he said. "I woke up this morning in pain [from old football injuries]. Everyone deals with everything differently."
He seemed to hope this latest bad news would bring them closer together.
[Y! Sports Radio: Jason Cole talks about being fortunate to be around Junior Seau]
Whenever players from the Super Bowl team talk about that season they always marvel at the magic they felt. They describe the locker-room camaraderie as the best they were ever around. Players stayed late at the practice facility. They ordered food. They arrived at the stadium early on home game days, throwing on their uniform pants and pads, then sitting in a room just off the stadium locker room playing Mortal Kombat and Madden NFL until they had to go onto the field for warmups.
It was a happy time. It was a wonderful time. It was the best time many of them ever had.
Then Wednesday they mourned another of them, the biggest name of them all.
And like with the others, it's too soon.
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