The NFL loses an all-time great way too damn soon.
I just got out of a meeting and heard this news, and right now I'm kind of at a loss for words.
Junior was one of my top five favorite NFL players of all time, and the only non-Cowboy to crack that list. I first became aware of him when he was the cover athlete for SI's NFL Preview Issue in the fall of 1993. I had just started my freshman year at Texas, and my NFL fandom was at a fever pitch as I was still flush with the glory of the Cowboys' first Super Bowl win in fifteen seasons. I remember feeling a degree of outrage that Troy, Michael or Emmitt wasn't on the cover before deigning to read a story about some guy (I was much more of a Cowboys fan than an NFL fan in those days) from the AFC of all places. It was a good one, highlighting not only the accomplishments in Seau's young career but also his faith and perseverence in the face of a disadvantaged upbringing and an array of challenges that almost derailed his USC career before it began. In my recollection, a lot of that article had merged with the one just preceding it in the magazine. In those days, SI highlighted a particular position in each year's preview issue, and in '93 it was linebackers. While quarterbacks are the face of the game, linebackers are its beating heart. Through paragraphs and pictorials highlighting the athleticism, toughness and competitive fire of legends like Nitschke, Butkus, Lambert, Taylor and Singletary, the greatest sports media outlet of its day offered up a paen to the ferocious essence of the position.
Junior Seau then spent the next sixteen years embodying every ideal in flesh and bone.
He was speed, passion, power, grace and rage, with a combination of size and speed that would stagger scouts if he was coming out in the 2013 draft. His parents tried to preserve every scrap of the family's Samoan heritage when emigrated to America, and his fury for the game made it seem as though they'd imbued him with the oceanside bonfire that had lit the night in their ancestral home. As besotted as I was with all things silver and blue in those days, Seau's highlights caused a dirty little secret to take root in my heart - none of the Cowboys do their thing as well as HE does HIS.
I quickly claimed the Chargers in my school buddies' Tecmo Super Bowl tournament, and to my delight the digital #55 may have been the only athlete capable of contesting the legendary Video Bo from the game's original edition - I infuriated opponents with impossible sideline-to-sideline sprints and madcap blitzes that sacked their QBs before they'd finished their drops. I drew confused stares on escalators at the Business School while wearing a dark blue Chargers jersey in a sea of orange and white (well, this was pre-Mack so it was more like a sea of whatever the hell people felt like wearing - but it was still the only Chargers jersey). I followed his career with all the fervor possible in the days before satellite TV and YouTube highlights - some weeks it was a lengthy NFL Primetime recap, other weeks it was just marveling at an 11-tackle, 1 sack and 1 interception box score. And I never had any doubt that I was watching the best linebacker of his generation.
He wore three jerseys, played in two Super Bowls but never won a ring - for a guy who held himself to an impossibly high standard and blamed himself for losses when he was clearly the best player on the field, that must have added some sting to what I hope was otherwise a tremendously rewarding career. He was passionate about charity and giving back to the community throughout his 19-year career, and seemed to conduct himself in every way as the model of what an athlete should aspire to.
The latest word as of this writing is that his death was by gunshot wound that appeared self-inflicted. At this moment the circumstances appear similar to the passing of the Bears' Dave Duerson, but for now I don't want to speculate on what might have led to this moment or how it might tie in to any larger issues. I just wanted to share some thoughts about a player who really inspired me.
I don't know if any passions really burn as brightly as the ones you have when you're young, and I don't know that I'll ever have the same sense of wide-eyed wonder and excitement as a fan as I did in those early college years. I just know that when football burned brightest for me, he was as bright a star as I'd ever seen play.
And I miss him.