Junior Seau had just turned 21 when the San Diego Chargers selected him with the fifth overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft, but he was already fully formed as everything a linebacker should be. Seau, who had led USC to back-to-back Rose Bowls and owned a Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year trophy, tackled with such ferocity that it was a little disarming to hear his gentle voice, see his easy smile and discover what an intelligent and thoughtful man he was.
Seau, who died of an apparent suicide Wednesday morning at the age of 43, would spend nearly his entire adult life as an NFL player. He announced one retirement in 2006, saying he was “graduating” to the next phase in his life, but for Junior Seau there was no phase in life other than football: He still had that fiery passion for the game, and when Bill Belichick picked up the phone and told Seau he could still help the Patriots win, Seau leapt at the opportunity and was in training camp in New England just four days after that retirement announcement.
When a man commits suicide it’s almost impossible not to view his life through the lens of his death, but Seau was a man who deserves to be remembered for what he did best and loved most: Football, played hard and played well. Former teammate Donte Stallworth said on ESPN shortly after police confirmed Seau’s death that everyone who was lucky enough to share a locker room with Seau will think of him as a congenial, energetic person — because that’s what he was, at least when he was playing football.
“You always looked at Junior as a very happy person,” Stallworth said. “He was always making people laugh. All the time. That’s what Junior will always be remembered for.”
Seau wasn’t just a good player, he was a great player. Few if any in NFL history can match both the peak that Seau reached at his best, and the longevity that Seau achieved. He was named to 12 Pro Bowl teams and 10 All-Pro teams, was on the All-Decade team for the 1990s, is in the Chargers’ Hall of Fame and was in the NFL, in total, for 20 seasons.
The 1990 Chargers felt Seau’s impact as a rookie immediately, and by the mid-1990s, and especially when he led the Chargers to Super Bowl XXIX, he was universally recognized as one of the best defensive players in football. He began to slow down in his 30s, and after a 2002 season in which a nagging ankle injury limited his effectiveness, the Chargers decided it was time to move on. But Seau was a long way from ready to retire.
Seau was traded to Miami in 2003, and he looked rejuvenated for the Dolphins that year. More injuries slowed him down in 2004 and 2005, however, and when the Dolphins released him in 2006, even Seau himself thought he was done with football.
Amazingly, Seau was not only not done, but actually an important player for the Patriots. He was much more than just a veteran leader and role player in his late 30s and was, in fact, a significant on-field contributor. He played in every game for the 16-0 Patriots of 2007 and recorded 75 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions, and he started the team’s victories in both the divisional round of the playoffs and the AFC Championship Game after that season. Seau was still going strong at age 38.
Eventually Seau did age, as everyone does, and he was only a bit player in his final NFL season with the 2009 Patriots. But after he walked off the field for the last time, Seau talked about how excited he was to spend more time in retirement with his family, work on his charitable endeavors and do more television work.
Unfortunately, Seau simply couldn’t find anything to replace the passion he had for competing on the football field. The stories that came out about Seau — an arrest for domestic violence, a car crash that was viewed by some as a suicide attempt — seemed completely out of character and nothing like the man we had watched play football for two decades. Seau, sadly, appears to be one of those players who could never replace football.
In 2015, the first year he’s eligible, Seau will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Despite his sad death at too young an age, his bust in Canton should carry that warm smile he always wore when he played the game he loved.