SUPER BOWL XXIX / SAN DIEGO CHARGERS vs. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS : The Junior Mint : At Least One Charger Will Have a Prayer Today, as Seau Will Hear His Father’s Blessing--and Then Try to Destroy the 49ers
An old man with white hair, gaps in his teeth and eyes pointing in two directions will shuffle to the door of the San Diego Chargers’ locker room this afternoon at Joe Robbie Stadium.
He will be stopped by security guards, but he doesn’t mind. He has been stopped before.
He will talk to them. He will explain things about a man and his son and the strength that is pumped between two hearts.
The guards might not understand all of his words, which are coated in a thick and halted tongue of the South Pacific. But they will understand his meaning. They always do.
The old man will be allowed into the room. He will spot his son. They will embrace. Together they will search for a quiet spot, maybe in the corner of an equipment room, maybe under a back doorway.
Tiaina Seau Jr. will grab his father again.
“Daddy,” he will say, “Pray for me.”
And so Tiaina Seau Sr., a minister in a Samoan church, will begin.
Every week that the old man can attend a game, the prayer is the same. Every week, it is a prayer born not only of faith but desperation.
“I pray for my son a strong heart,” Tiaina Sr. said. “I pray for him a strong body. I pray for him not to be scared.”
Afterward the old man will shuffle out the door leading to his large loving family in the stadium seats.
The son, known to the football world as Junior Seau, will charge out the door leading to bright lights, big money and mayhem.
In front of millions worldwide today in Super Bowl XXIX against the San Francisco 49ers, linebacker Junior Seau will represent the game’s most uncomplicated image.
See Junior fly around left end. See Junior leap over linemen up the middle. See Junior drag down the quarterback with one arm. See Junior celebrate with a move that is part sack dance, part Samoan slap dance.
Intensity. Recklessness. Rage.
“Sometimes you’ll feel him behind you at the start of a play, and then at the end of the play he has made the tackle on the other side of the field,” Charger tackle Reuben Davis said. “You wonder, ‘How in the world did he do that?’ ”
The cameras will capture Seau as a simple man full of passion and nerve, a man who lives for nothing but to tackle.
And as usual, the cameras will lie.
Junior Seau is the most complicated of Chargers, a man who travels between worlds old and new, clinging to notions of the past while buying into the trends of the future. This son of the low-rent neighborhoods of Oceanside is also a product of the dizzying hopes of Hollywood.
“What has happened to me is more than you can ever dream of,” Seau said. “It is something you cannot describe.”
One can only try.
He was raised in the “old Samoan” way, in a four-bedroom house in a battered Oceanside neighborhood. He did not speak English until he was 7.
A photo that hangs in his parents’ house pictures him wearing his Oceanside High basketball jersey . . . and a Samoan lavalava skirt.
He still prays with his father before games, and with the entire family in the parking lot after games.
“The one thing that is instilled in Samoan children is to do right by the family name,” said his older brother, Savaii. “Don’t do anything to hurt the family name.”
Seau has modernized that ideal by using his name on an apparel line called “Say Ow Gear.”
He is rarely seen without a piece of “Say Ow” trademark clothing. Much to some teammates’ dismay, he sometimes wears “Say Ow” visors on the sidelines between series.
He has promoted it so much that even Steve Young, the 49er quarterback who will run from Seau today, was recently seen wearing the signature clothes.
Says Seau: “None of that is a problem with the team. It is not a distraction, it never was.”
But when asked to compare himself to Seau, quiet defensive teammate Leslie O’Neal said, “I don’t want to say guys around here are pimping themselves, but I would never put myself in that position. When I leave the game, I just want to be known as a guy who got paid because he makes the plays.”
His coach, Bobby Ross, says that Seau “has a chance to make the Hall of Fame.”
One of the opposing coaches today, 49er offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, said, “Junior’s just a great player. . . . He’s a difference maker. One of the great players.”
And then there are those four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances.
Yet even members of his own organization believe he might be overrated. Opposing linebackers certainly do.
The word around the league is that Seau takes so many chances, he runs past as many ballcarriers as he tackles.
“I watch film, I know the position, so this is straight from the horse’s mouth,” one all-pro linebacker said earlier his year. “Sometimes Junior hurts them as much as he helps them.”
Teammates feed off his emotions, appreciate his recklessness, and would never criticize his play. But they say his incredible regular-season tackle statistics--155, nearly more than any two other Chargers combined--are misleading.
Explained defensive tackle Les Miller: “A lot of times, the play will end, and you will see him up there dancing, and the public address announcer will say, ‘Tackle, Seau’ and the crowd will go wild. But he wasn’t anywhere near the tackle.”
Seau is also known for “run-throughs,” where he wildly charges past the play. Ross acknowledged that his staff has worked with Seau on this.
“That has happened, but that’s where Junior is very improved,” Ross said.
According to Ross, and many agree with him, Seau played perhaps his best game of the season in helping shut down the Pittsburgh Steelers two weeks ago for the AFC championship.
“He played the perfect game, responsibility-wise,” Ross said. “He had no run-throughs. He was vastly improved on this all year long.”
There is also criticism that Seau acts as if he is not included in the playbook, which also hurts the team, particularly on pass coverages.
In the 49ers’ 38-15 victory over the Chargers earlier this season, Seau was burned by tight end Brent Jones three times. This included once on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Young in which Seau wasn’t within five yards of Jones.
“We cannot allow a guy to free-lance, that would be silly,” Ross said. “But we do things to free him up. Junior is first and foremost an instinctive player, and that’s what you want.”
Seau shrugged. “I go out there and I perform,” he said. “I let everybody else judge.”
Seau is one of the most charitable players in the league. This was confirmed this week when he was named 1994 NFL man of the year, an award once won by legendary good-guys Warren Moon, Steve Largent and Mike Singletary.
Seau’s foundation supports child-abuse prevention efforts, drug and alcohol awareness, and anti-delinquency programs.
He stages golf tournaments that raise thousands of dollars, he makes speeches at malls that move disadvantaged families to tears.
Yet he is quietly tormented that he was unable to help one of his own.
His 17-year-old brother Tony is serving 10 years at the California Youth Authority detention facility for his role in a gang-related attack two years ago that wounded a man.
The younger Seau smashed a baseball bat through a window in an Oceanside apartment just as another man fired one round into the apartment. A man was wounded, but no other shots were fired, apparently because the gun jammed.
A diagnostic report from the Youth Authority, based on interviews with Tony Seau, noted that he had “low self-esteem,” partly because of constantly being compared to his older brothers.
The report also claimed that he was “the product of a severely dysfunctional family unit,” and he had been physically abused by his parents as a youngster.
According to family members, Junior has not visited or spoken to his younger brother this season. Tony refused a written request for an interview concerning their relationship.
“Junior loves his brother; he is so upset about him,” said Tiaina Sr. “But we told him, ‘Leave Tony to us. We’ll worry about him this year. You just play football.’ ”
Junior shakes his head.
“(Tony) is family, and family with me is first,” he said. “I will do for him whatever I can. But to complain that it is a distraction, that it makes it tough for me to play, that is ludicrous.
“I cannot complain about anything. If I saw somebody who was in my shoes, I would want to be that guy. I am very, very lucky.”
His father’s constant harangues rang in Junior Seau’s ears from the time he was old enough to realize that his bedroom in the garage was one of the safest places in the house.
Failure is a sign of weakness. Fail once, fail forever.
His father worked at a rubber plant and was a deacon at the local Samoan church on weekends. His mother, Luisa, worked at various Laundromats and the Camp Pendleton commissary.
Their six children would do better. They would have no choice.
“Growing up, any time we played something and lost, Dad would put it on us,” Savaii said. “He would say it was our fault. He would say we did not play hard, that we did not give an extra effort . . . that we did not push the family name.”
Junior and Savaii would escape the anger by retreating to their beds in the family garage, where they slept at first out of necessity, then out of choice.
They would lie in the cold, surrounded by a dishwasher and toolboxes, clothes hanging above them on a string, Motown tunes blaring from a tape player, dreams in their heads.
“Everything about our growing up gave us incentive to get ahead, to get out,” Savaii said.
The pressure that might have later driven Tony to join a gang drove Seau to become the one of the best prep athletes in the history of San Diego County.
“My childhood is a key to my success,” Seau said. “I learned how bad it could be.”
It soon became obvious how badly he wanted to make it better.
Dave Barrett, one of his defensive coordinators at Oceanside High, remembers spotting Seau on the grass outside the weight room there one morning.
“He was the first guy there, and he was outside doing shuttle runs, sprints, pushups, sit-ups, all by himself,” Barrett said. “To this day he doesn’t know I was watching him. But I just stopped in amazement.”
The time? 7:30.
The season? Summer, when the school was empty and the weight room was deserted.
“Junior was always driven, like an artist, to greatness,” Barrett said. “He would never accept anything less than his best effort.”
Rocky Aukuso, a childhood friend, recalls: “In high school, all of us guys would sit around drinking soda pop . . . and Junior would be drinking orange juice. Even then, at something that simple, he was determined.”
Seau’s extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins would line up to greet him after prep games to hug him and stick money in his hands. They were also there after losses.
But the money was not.
“Some people in this world, their body is strong but their heart is weak,” Tiaina Sr. said. “I tell my children, that is not you.”
On the rare occasions Seau did fail, he learned to work even harder.
In his junior year, after being involved in a basketball scuffle with rival El Camino High, coaches ordered him to visit an El Camino practice and apologize to their team.
He did, and the next season became the first player in county history to win player-of-the-year honors in both football and basketball.
After being offered a football scholarship to USC, he suffered failure again by scoring 690 on his SAT, less the NCAA-mandated 700 score for freshman eligibility. He was banned from the football team for his freshman season.
That long line of aunts, uncles and cousins vanished.
“There is a lot of jealousy among Samoan people from the neighborhood,” Aukuso said. “A lot of them look for any little thing Junior does so they can criticize it. Those people don’t understand.”
But Seau did. He spent that year in the weight room and classroom, and by the next season no Trojan was stronger or more determined.
After drafting him as the fifth overall selection in 1990, the Chargers witnessed that determination on the second play of Seau’s first exhibition game.
He was thrown out of the game for fighting one of football’s dirtiest players, Raider guard Steve Wisniewski.
Five seasons later, that determination is evident not only in his play, but in his pain.
He is suffering from a pinched nerve in his neck that sometimes renders his left arm useless, yet he refused to miss any regular-season games even though both teammates and opponents pleaded with him.
“After we beat them earlier this year, I could tell he wasn’t right, and coming off the field I told him I thought he should sit out a game,” 49er tackle Harris Barton said. “All he said was, ‘No, man, I just can’t.’ ”
Last week Seau was asked how he was doing physically.
“Mentally, I’m doing great,” he said.
He was asked again, with emphasis on the word physically .
“Mentally, I’m doing great,” he said.
He later said, “I’m going to suck it up, I’ve got to suck it up. There is no other way.”
Late one recent Friday night, the custodian and equipment manager at El Camino High emerged from under the bleachers to watch the last few minutes of a high school basketball game.
His white tennis shoes were scuffed, his pants faded, his smile weary.
“I work when I am sick, I work all the time, nobody can stop me,” he said. “They all say, ‘Daddy, why don’t you quit?’ I say, ‘What else do I do?’ A man must work.”
Tiaina Seau Sr., 60, then excused himself to make sure the court had been swept.
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