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SUPER BOWL XXIX : He Won’t Say Awe : Charger Linebacker Has 49ers Where He Wants Them: Right in Front of Him at Joe Robbie Stadium

ASSOCIATED PRESS

“SAY OW.” That’s what the hat atop Junior Seau’s head usually reads. It’s the style he brings to the field, the reaction he gets from opponents.

This time, the hat said something entirely different and certainly just as appropriate: AFC champions. Seau gladly placed it on his sweat-soaked hair.

“Say Ow!” somebody shouted.

“Say Wow!” a teammate replied.

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And that’s just what everyone is saying about the Chargers’ All-Pro middle linebacker, a major reason San Diego is at its first Super Bowl. Seau says everything with his play, which has been outstanding this season despite injuries that would have sidelined a lesser man.

“Yeah, I have the injuries,” Seau said of a pinched nerve that has caused periodic numbness in his left shoulder and arm. He also has had knee problems.

“But you still have to out there on the field and perform the way you are expected to, the way you expect to. I’m not going to help this team by not being out there performing.

“We just played in two of the biggest games we’ve been in. Everyone of us laid it all out there for each other. That’s how you win as a team.”

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Seau is the focal point of this surprising Super Bowl squad. Not only is he the Chargers’ best player, he is by far their best-known player.

When San Diego lines up opposite the heavily favored San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, the recognition factor--like just about everything else--will be weighted heavily toward the NFL champs. Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Deion Sanders, Rickey Jackson, Ricky Watters, Ken Norton and how many other stars will represent the 49ers at Joe Robbie Stadium?

For the Chargers, there is Seau.

“I don’t look at it that way,” said Seau, the NFL’s best linebacker the last three years and the closest thing to Lawrence Taylor the game has seen since Taylor began to fade at the beginning of the decade. “There are a lot of great players on this team who don’t get a lot of attention yet, but they will. We have a mixture of young players and old veterans, and they all contributed to us getting this far.

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“If we win, that recognition will come. But we’re not in this game for that recognition. We’re in for the winning.”

Seau is obsessed with winning. His teammates say he is the hardest worker on the Chargers, rare for a team’s best player. He has been compared to Taylor by some Chargers, and to Michael Jordan by another.

He led the Chargers with 155 tackles this season, a preposterous 66 more than the runner-up, safety Stanley Richard. Sure, the rushing schemes up front are geared to freeing Seau, giving him a lane to the ballcarrier or the quarterback. But no inside linebacker in football pursues as well as he does; most outside linebackers, who are supposed to be faster, don’t get to the ball anywhere near as quickly.

Offenses build game plans around avoiding Seau, and he still averages 10.4 tackles a game. Miami paid extra attention to him, even beat him once for a touchdown reception early in the divisional playoff game. But in the second half, when the Dolphins were blanked, Seau was everywhere.

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And the Steelers didn’t come close to neutralizing him last Sunday. Seau made 16 tackles, even though his shoulder was bothering him again.

“That’s something I had to deal with,” he said of playing in pain. “It wasn’t going to get any better. I knew that and the coaches knew that.

“I had to alter my hits in the sense of working on the right side (of his body). It worked out well. Besides the injury and everything else, everything is worthwhile when something like this happens.”

He was looking at the AFC champions hat.

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To become NFL champions, the Chargers might need a superhuman effort from the five-year veteran. But, as Seau says on a radio commercial: “I’m not the Bionic Man. I’m worth a lot more than $6 million.”

Actually, he’s worth a little over $4 million a year for four years to the Chargers, who rearranged his contract last year.

There also were personal problems during the 1993 season, the only one of the last three in which San Diego didn’t make the playoffs. Seau’s daughter, Sydney, was born six weeks premature. His 16-year-old brother, Antonio, was involved in a gang brawl and was charged with attempted murder.

Those woes distracted Seau, although he made All-Pro again and was, as usual, San Diego’s most noticeable player. To Seau, they were necessary distractions.

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“My family comes first,” he said. “If it’s a time and period where I’m going to put my family before football, it’s going to be there.”

Just as Seau is there, all over the field, when the Chargers need him most--precisely what General Manager Bobby Beathard expected when he chose Seau with the fifth overall pick in a loaded 1990 draft.

“When Junior was in college (USC), he made all the plays you could want from a linebacker,” Beathard said. “His work ethic was obvious then, and he’s only built on that.

“The best thing about him is his enthusiasm. It’s just the way he plays the game. It’s the way he practices. When you talk about enthuasism and intensity and competitive drive, he is at the top of the charts.”

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Which is where Seau--who was born in San Diego, moved to American Samoa as an infant and returned to nearby Oceanside to attend grade school (he didn’t speak English until he was 7)--stands right now. As do the Chargers, right alongside those star-studded 49ers.

“We won’t be in awe of them,” Seau promised. “We won’t be in awe of anybody.”


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