Junior Seau brought joy to many, but we didn’t really know him
A few months ago, the radio daughter and I were in Las Vegas for March Madness and she said she heard Junior Seau was signing autographs across the hall.
I bounced from my chair, and at my age bouncing doesn’t come so easily anymore.
But just the mention of his name prompted this incredible feeling of joy, and what a delight it would be to say hello again to someone always so full of life.
How do you not remember someone who took it upon himself to work with the basketball daughter? He invited her to eat with him in training camp, watched her shoot, stressing the importance of working hard. And harder, he would tell her, than any other athlete she could imagine.
He was describing himself, of course, as hard a practice competitor while with the Chargers as I have ever witnessed in almost 40 years doing this job.
He was all out, all the time, and so out of control. But he was also so fast he could almost always recover to make the incredible play.
He was also so quick with the kind heart. When a young girl witnessed her father shoot her mother and then himself, Seau joined with Bill Walton and many of the Chargers’ players at a charity basketball game to raise funds for the girl and her four sisters.
When Ryan Leaf came to the Chargers, Seau pulled the same kind of pranks on him that veteran linebackers Billy Ray Smith and Gary Plummer had pulled on Seau.
He bid on a Qualcomm Sky Box for $1,500 in Leaf’s name, and after borrowing Leaf’s credit card, charged a $2,800 dinner for 21 of his teammates.
Leaf complained to management and the next day Seau decked him in practice, apparently not noticing the bright red jersey Leaf was wearing that made him off limits for contact.
“It’s just part of the growing-up process in the NFL,” Seau would explain later.
Seau was the quintessential NFL player, the full-speed warrior every Sunday, announcing his retirement and four days later signing on to play again.
I remember the thrill of seeing him sit behind an interview table at Super Bowl XLII. A deserving honor.
He was a New England Patriot, but we laughed about the early days in San Diego, continuing to laugh whenever we bumped into each other in the last few years.
But the daughter was mistaken. It was Gale Sayers signing autographs across the hall, and how she got Seau out of Sayers can probably be answered only by her ear doctor.
The next time I heard Seau’s name was Wednesday, and there was no mistake. And now I struggle trying to reconcile the joy he brought to so many and the despair he must have felt.
But then I knew him only as an athlete.
I remember when Kobe Bryant got into trouble in Colorado and Times reporter Ken Reich sent me a scathing email for not defending “my friend.”
I had a good relationship with Kobe, as good as a columnist can have with an athlete while standing in front of a locker.
But when we left the arena we went our separate ways. And although most people are convinced no one has it better than an athlete, darn if they’re not all human as well.
I knew the Chargers’ secretary, who would later marry Seau, before they began to date. But I have no idea why they split, or what it did to him.
I knew the football sledgehammer who would become so big he would have a clothing line named Say-ow.
I knew him as a Charger, Dolphin and Patriot, but I cannot tell you the toll it took on his body, or the void it left when he was done.
Sometimes when he spoke it would be gibberish. Who knows now if it was one hit too many to the head, or maybe it’s just there in hindsight as some kind of explanation.
Before I began to rummage through the memories, I had forgotten the kid football player who had struggled after becoming an overnight millionaire in San Diego.
He was the fifth pick in the draft from USC, still smarting from being “labeled a dumb football player” for failing to have the SAT score needed to play his first year as a Trojan.
He held out of training camp wanting more money, and took off for Cancun with the secretary who would become his wife while his teammates practiced. They were slow to forgive.
He signed in time to play the final exhibition game, lasting two plays before being ejected for fighting. The fans were not happy.
It was a nightmarish start, his hometown fans booing him in his first game in Qualcomm Stadium.
A penalty called on him would lead to a loss against Dallas, another a loss to Houston.
That was 22 years ago, and looking back on The Times’ story written at the time — chilling now.
“Junior is a guy that gets easily frustrated when things aren’t going his way,” said Chargers General Manager Bobby Beathard at the time. “The thing we have to watch out for with Junior is that he doesn’t get too down on himself.”
The Chargers were 1-3, the 23-year-old Seau slumping under the pressure of seemingly letting everyone down.
“You just can’t be fun-loving when things aren’t going right,” Seau said. “It hurts. It hasn’t gone like I thought it would. I take it all in and I’d just like to choke myself.”
He didn’t know it then, but no matter how badly things might appear, they do get better.
Last November more than 70,000 fans were on their feet showering him with love as he was inducted into the Chargers’ Ring of Honor.
It was everything an athlete could want, or so you would think. But sometimes beyond what we see, there’s so much more.