Was a ferocious football player ever as likeable as Junior Seau, the hard-hitting ex-NFL linebacker who died, at 43, of an apparent suicide on Wednesday? Seau, who made first-team All-Pro six times in his 20-year, Hall-of-Fame-caliber career, was named the NFL’s Man of the Year in 1994 — the same season he led the San Diego Chargers, his hometown team, to their only Super Bowl appearance. He is in the National Boys and Girls Club Hall of Fame, and has received recognition for his community service work. Most notably, President Bush gave Seau a Volunteer Service Award in 2005.
“We all lost a friend today,” said San Diego Chargers president Dean Spanos. “Junior was an icon in our community. He transcended the game.”
Because of Seau’s spirit, his death is even harder to fathom. He was the face of the San Diego Chargers, a franchise that, before his arrival in 1990, had fallen on hard times. San Diego was a playoff regular in the late 1970s and early 1980s, thanks to an exciting passing attack choreographed by Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts and his coach, Don Coryell. After Fouts retired in 1987, and a string of mediocre-to-bad quarterbacks (Mark Malone, Jim McMahon, Billy Joe Tolliver) failed to sustain his success, the Chargers became an NFL afterthought.
But Seau gave the defense, which had been the weakness of the Fouts-led teams, new life: he made his first Pro Bowl in 1992, after his second season in the NFL. Anchored by their defense and a grind-it-out running game, the Bolts won the AFC West in 1994, and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, on the road, in the AFC championship game. Seau had 16 tackles in that game. (The Chargers went on to get trounced by the San Francisco 49ers, 49-26, in Super Bowl XXIX).
Seau, whose parents were born in American Samoa, was born, and died, in Oceanside, Calif., just north of San Diego. He starred at USC. In interviews, he was thoughtful and articulate. After leaving San Diego and playing in Miami from 2003-2005, Seau came out of retirement to join the New England Patriots for the 2006 season. He was a defensive captain on the ’07 Patriots team that became the first in NFL history to finish the regular season 16-0: his cerebral approach to the game, and solid character, perfectly fit the Bill Belichick blueprint.
After retiring from football in 2009, Seau starred in a short-lived television show on the former Versus network, Sports Jobs With Junior Seau. In the show, which ran in late 2009 through early 2010, Seau tried his hand as a batboy, horse trainer, pit crew member, and even as a Sports Illustrated reporter (he covered a college football game). After ten episodes, the program was not renewed.
Signs of trouble emerged in 2010. Hours after being arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, Seau drove his car of a cliff in Carlsbad, Calif. He insisted he was not trying to kill himself, but rather that he dozed off at the wheel. On Wednesday, Seau’s mother said he showed no signs of depression.
Now, eight members of the ’94 AFC champion Chargers have lost their lives: Seau, Chris Mims, David Griggs, Rodney Culver, Lewis Bush, Curtis Whitley, Shawn Lee, and Doug Miller. And Seau appears to have joined a growing roster football players who have committed suicide in recent years. Ex-NFL players Andre Waters, Terry Long, and Dave Duerson were all suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease associated with head trauma, at the time of their suicides. In a note at the time of his death, Duerson asked that his brain be donated to research: CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem. Duerson shot himself in the chest, thus preserving his brain.
Seau also died of a wound to a the chest, though as of now, there are no reports of a note, or any instructions. Seau also did not have a known history of concussions.
Seau, who is divorced, leaves behind three children, friends, family, countless heartbroken fans—and countless questions that may never be answered.