Junior Seau was my first favorite player. Sure, i’ve been a Chargers fan from day one and got the chance to enjoy the Air Coryell era, the Super Bowl squad and all the horrible seasons inbetween but I never singled out a single player until Junior.
The first thing I remember is the name. When the Chargers drafted him I noticed the name and the spelling, wondering how to pronounce it. The next days’ newspaper had the phonetic pronunciation in parenthesis next to it (say-OW). Nice. No way to get that wrong. I heard the acclaim he’d garnered coming out of USC and it didn’t take long for him to show it in the pros. I remember him flying from sideline to sideline, blowing up defenders and the ball carrier. I loved the fist pump and the shimmy he gave after making a big play. Juniors energy coursed through the defense and the Chargers hung around in or won games they weren’t predicted to win.
As a young athlete, Junior became my role model. Junior’s jersey became the first football jersey I ever bought and it hangs in my closet to this day. I wore it to football and basketball practice ritually. When we got to the point where fatigue was setting in and it felt like I couldn’t walk, much less run another step i’d take a look down at that number 55 and think ‘Junior would be disappointed if he saw me playing like this.’ That would be the bolt of energy I needed to survive practice with a full second or third wind. To this day, anytime i’m playing with that number 55 on, I think the same thing. Junior played with passion, played with fire, played like every play was his last and you never saw him tired. I remember Seau’s eyes (eerily reminiscent of the great Bears linebacker Mike Singletary) following every move the quarterback made, watching him make defensive adjustments in the moments before the ball was snapped as if he could read the quarterbacks’ every thought. That’s the way sports should be played, not for money but for the love of the game. Junior had that and he passed that on to his teammates, to his peers and all those who loved watching him.
Like all of us.
I loved every game Junior played in San Diego but none more than the 1994 AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh against the heavily favored Steelers. That game was gut wrenching in the days leading up to it because of the reports of an injury to Junior. As it stood, a pinched nerve in his neck left him with a dead left arm with the biggest game in Chargers history in front him. Junior was a man possessed that day, flying all over the field and amassing 16 tackles, enabling the Chargers to come back from a 13-3 second half deficit to win 17-13 and gain admittance to their first Super Bowl in team history. That day, Junior outsmashmouthed the mighty Steelers, with one good arm. Best. Game. Ever.
It is sad that Junior’s story has ended this way. We will remember him for the man he was, a local boy who made good. A humanitarian and philanthropist. The most dedicated player on the field. An inspiration to all who met or watched him. My wish to meet him one day at his restaurant, at an autograph signing or other special event will not come to pass now. I wanted to thank him for being such an inspiration and giving me lessons I carry through life, not just on the playing fields. Here is as good a place as any. Watching you made me a better player and a better person. Thank you Junior for giving a boy who was 16 at the time you were drafted another positive male role model to look up to. Thank you.