SAN DIEGO (AP) — Junior Seau was many things to many people.
He was one of the most ferocious linebackers of all time, the fist-pumping, emotional leader of his hometown San Diego Chargers for 13 seasons. He was a beach rat, living the Southern California lifestyle to the fullest. He always had a big smile and called everybody “Buddy.”
Seau will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, three years after he took his life in his oceanfront home at age 43.
“I played around a lot of great players but none like Junior Seau,” said former safety Rodney Harrison, who was teammates with Seau with San Diego and New England. “It was not only his accomplishments from an individual standpoint, but how he influenced everyone else and how he impacted my career. His numbers and his play really speak for themselves, but at the same time you can’t measure how many lives he’s impacted.”
Seau’s death, three years after he retired, shocked the football world as well as his hometown. He was diagnosed posthumously with the brain decay known as CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Sadly, Seau’s death hangs over the memories of the many big moments he had in his 20-year career with San Diego, Miami and New England.
“I’ve got a picture of him in my office,” said Harrison, now a studio analyst with NBC. “He was a guy that loved life so much and he wanted to make everyone happy. He always had a smile and I never heard him complain. But that was probably a sore spot. He never felt like he could fully disclose that he was unhappy or going through different things. He always wore a smile on his face. Something’s wrong with that. We all get happy and sad and show emotion. Junior didn’t show that. It came to a head and ended badly. That’s so sad. He loved life so much. To give so much and take your own life is so sad.”
Harrison played in two Super Bowls with Seau, with the Chargers after the 1994 season, and the Patriots after the 2007 season.
Harrison, former coach Bobby Ross and former general manager Bobby Beathard agree that Seau was the biggest reason the Chargers reached their only Super Bowl, which ended with a nightmarish 49-26 loss to San Francisco.
“Not even close,” Harrison said. “He was the guy that kept that team together, made us believe we could win. He was the catalyst, the emotional leader, the spiritual leader, the best player. He was the best defensive player in the league. His teammates respected him. He made them believe and did something a lot of people didn’t think we could do, and that was win a lot of games and beat Pittsburgh at Pittsburgh.”
Seau — playing with an injured shoulder — had 16 tackles in one of his most memorable performances as San Diego stunned the Steelers in the AFC championship game.
Thirteen years later, Seau and Harrison were two minutes from sharing a Super Bowl title and a place in history with the Patriots. But then David Tyree of the New York Giants made a sensational catch over Harrison, pressing the ball to his helmet to set up the winning touchdown.
“I was so bummed out,” Harrison said. “Not that I didn’t make the play, but I didn’t make the play for my good buddy Junior.”
Beathard’s top memory of Seau?
“Oh gosh, that he was still there when we had our pick,” said Beathard, who in his first draft as Chargers GM selected Seau fifth overall in 1990.
“Of all the people we had anything to do with and all the teams I was with, he’s certainly right up there. He was an amazing guy, an amazing player. I had a lot of fun with Junior.”
Beathard loved to compete in body surfing contests in the offseason, and Seau would often swim out with him.
“A lot of times he’d be walking his kids on the beach. Other times you’d go up there and he’d have that whole parade of little kids who wanted to be football players, he’d be leading them out onto the beach for a workout. There were like 25 kids following him. It reminded me of a pied piper.”
Beathard said Seau’s size, athletic ability and constantly running motor made him stand out.
“He didn’t have down days. At least not on the field. Guys would get mad at him in practice and go, ‘C’mon Junior, you don’t have to hit me. It’s not a game.’ His idea was we’ve got to get ready for a game and this is what it’s like in a game. He’d knock people around in practice.”
The Chargers unceremoniously dumped Seau in the spring of 2003, trading him to Miami for a fifth-round pick.
Ross said Seau was as complete a player as he’d ever seen.
“Junior was the type of player, literally, he could have played any position in the NFL, with the possible exception of quarterback. He was that talented of an athlete. He was a very, very special player. He loved the game,” Ross said.
“Junior was rare,” Harrison added. “I’ve never seen a guy walk into a locker room and command as much respect.
“There will never be another Junior Seau.”