The Junior Seau no one knew

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OCEANSIDE, Calif. — Junior Seau spent Monday morning surfing in San Clemente and that afternoon playing in a charity golf tournament in Dana Point. He joked with his playing partners, was the first to offer fist bumps after clutch putts, sought out course workers to pose for pictures with him and seemed like a retired NFL superstar without a care.

Less than two days later, in a bedroom of his beachfront home in Oceanside, while his girlfriend was at the gym, Seau, among the greatest linebackers in football history, put a handgun to his chest and pulled the trigger.

His girlfriend returned home around 9:30 a.m. Wednesday and found Seau’s lifeless body on a bed, the gun beside him. She frantically tried CPR, a 9-1-1 operator calmly talking her through the steps, but the desperate attempt was futile.

The suicide of Seau, 43, sent shock waves through the sports world, which struggled to make sense of the death of a pro football icon who ostensibly had it all — good looks, a superhero’s build, adoring fans, fame, money and a happy-go-lucky habit of greeting friends and strangers alike with a gregarious, “Hey, buddy!”

Everyone knew Junior Seau. And no one knew him.

“You’d think that a guy would show signs of being depressed,” said former NFL receiver Tim Brown, the golf tournament’s co-host. “The guys who played with him in the group were devastated. They said that for 5 1/2 hours they laughed and joked and took pictures and did all this stuff, and how could this same guy turn around and do that? That’s the thing that’s mind-boggling to everybody.”

When news spread of Seau’s death, long before it was officially ruled a suicide a day later, people began to connect the dots to an incident in October 2010, when he was behind the wheel of a Cadillac Escalade that sailed off a beachside cliff in Carlsbad. Police estimated Seau was going about 60 mph when his SUV went airborne off the edge, tore through the brush and finally came to rest on the beach, roughly 100 feet below the road.

Seau, who had been arrested hours earlier on charges he had assaulted another girlfriend, was not seriously injured in the accident. There was speculation that it was a suicide attempt — conjecture that was rekindled this week — but at the time he insisted he had simply fallen asleep at the wheel.

Shawn Mitchell, chaplain for the San Diego Chargers, Seau’s former team, said he remains convinced that was not a suicide attempt or cry for help.

“I was with him in the hospital when the accident took place,” Mitchell said. “And his incredible sense of gratitude over the fact that he lived through it. He was highly emotional and absolutely believed that God had spared his life. I can say after being there with him quite a bit, I have no question that Junior fell asleep.

“But, with all those years and us talking openly, I didn’t find in the last several months that Junior was significantly different than at other times.”

Not everyone close to Seau believed the accident was unintentional.

“We just allowed him to tell us, ‘Nah, I just fell asleep,’” Brown said. “And that’s what you feel bad about today because you know now it was different than what he was saying.”

Former Chargers linebacker Gary Plummer, who played alongside Seau and remained close to him after their careers ended, had lingering doubts after the SUV accident. In fact, he reached out to his old friend in hopes of offering him safe haven.

“I called him and offered up my home just as a kind of an escape for him,” said Plummer, who lives in San Diego. “I knew that the media would be at his house. He said, ‘Hey, I’m good. I just fell asleep at the wheel. No worries. I got this.’”

Plummer has heard that type of talk before. It’s all part of the linebacker lexicon.

“Your entire life, that is probably your most revered characteristic as a player — your toughness, your ability to handle pain, your ability to overcome adversity,” he said. “And you take that to a mental level as well. You’ve got to be mentally tough, you’ve got to overcome. Just block out this pain. It’s taught from coaches from the time you’re in Pop Warner. I’ve done it myself as a coach, coaching my kids through high school.

“So it’s not a stretch to be able to understand that in a player’s mind, having mental issues or feeling depressed is weakness in your own mind. So the only thing you know how to do is fight through it and pretend like it doesn’t exist.”

If the football gods made a perfect linebacker, it would be Seau. From his days at Oceanside High, through his years at USC, to years in the NFL with the Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots, he was the prototype. He played 20 NFL seasons — the average career lasts only 31/2 — and made the Pro Bowl an astounding 12 years in a row. He retired after the 2009 season and will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2015.

He was also viewed as a pillar of the community in San Diego, from his many charities to the sports-themed restaurant that bears his name.

Being a hometown celebrity comes with a price: He always had to be ready for a smile, to take a picture, to shake a hand. Someone was always watching.

“He wanted the public to see what they expected,” friend Angelo Damante said. “It’s a lot of pressure — it’s a task. It’s a tremendous burden to always be on. He did it in such a manner that no one knew it was such a burden.”

Seau, clearly a master of disguise, showed nary a hint of problems two days before he took his life. He talked to his golfing partners about the Chargers’ draft picks — he liked the selections — and told them he wanted to sit down with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and figure out a fairer system of fining players. He laughed about the goofy, rubber-soled surfer shoes he wore on the course, far from the standard-issue golfer footwear.

“He would go up to everybody who worked there and say, ‘Let’s do a photo,’” said Mitchell Sacharoff, who shared a cart with him for five hours in the tournament. “So rather than them having to ask him, he’d just say, ‘Come on over here.’ He was constantly in a great mood and taking care of everybody.”

Sacharoff, who works in public relations and knew Seau from other events, said the only time he was at all subdued Monday was when he discussed his four children.

“He said his daughter was starting at ‘SC, one of his sons is a Texas Longhorn, and he had four kids,” Sacharoff said. “But he didn’t go on and on about them.”

Seau’s ex-wife Gina is the mother of three of those children. The day before Seau ended his life, he sent them all simple text messages saying he loved them.

“But that wasn’t unusual,” she said. “We didn’t think, ‘Oh, there’s something wrong.’ He was just very loving. He was always telling us that.”

Nothing unusual. No red flags. No hint of what was to come.

“There’s no words,” Gina said. “There’s no way to put words to our grief and to our shock.”

Nowhere was that more evident than outside Seau’s home Wednesday, where his grieving mother, Luisa, collapsed into the arms of family members. Around her was a shrine to her son — flowers, notes, candles, balloons, jerseys, a memorial that would eventually grow large enough to nearly block the narrow street.

“I don’t understand who [did] this to my son,” she said, weeping, to the gathered crowd. “I pray to God — take me, not my son. . . . Monday, Tuesday [he was] talking to me, joking.

“Junior, why you never tell me?”