Farewell Junebug

by on May 2, 2012 · 5 comments

in Culture, San Diego, Sports

Legendary Chargers linebacker Junior Seau’s life ends tragically in an apparent suicide.

Details are sketchy as I write this.  What we do know is that Junior Seau, the future Hall of Fame linebacker and San Diego icon; the local kid who made good for the local team; the guy who led the Chargers to their only Super Bowl appearance; the man who for many is still the face of the franchise, ended his own life today.  He was 43 years old.  He leaves behind three kids and countless relatives in the San Diego area who adored him.

I knew Junior.  I was hired by the Chargers in 1995—just one season removed from their lone AFC Championship.  In 11 years with the team, I got to know every single player that passed through that locker room, including Junior Seau, the man who along with Tony Gwynn practically defined the entire San Diego region.

As a player there was no one like him.  He was a whirling dervish.  A Tasmanian Devil.  He was everywhere on the field all at once.  He was instinctive and aggressive.  He was a physical freak of nature.  But for all of his pure physical talent, it was the mental part of his game that usually went unappreciated.  The man had a knack for knowing exactly what was coming and when.  He knew what the offense was going to do before anyone else did, and because of it and because of his pure talent, he was able to make plays that really no football player had any business making.

He was often rousted by his critics for freelancing too much.  Some analysts criticized that he too often refused to play within the framework of the scheme, often leaving his assignments to chase down the ballcarrier from odd places on the field.  He would often improvise blitzes, ditching his coverage responsibilities to try and make a play.  It was part of what made Junior the player that he was.  In 1997 Defensive Coordinator Joe Pascale figured out a way to harness that uncanny ability, allowing Junior to do his thing, to do what he was so damn good at, and yet still maintain the integrity and structure of his defensive system.

Despite a 4-12 record on the season, the Chargers finished with the #1 defense in the NFL.  And that had everything to do with Junior Seau.  On the field he was larger than life.  Off the field and in the locker room he loomed just as large.  He was a gregarious personality, and there was no question who that team’s leader was.

Junior was instrumental in forming the “Breakfast Club,” the group of mostly Chargers veterans that would show up at the Chargers training facility shortly after the crack of dawn for a workout in the weight room.  Every morning when the staff arrived at the Murphy Canyon training complex they would find the entire building rattling to the same Shaggy tune, over and over and over again, every morning.  All we could do was just laugh and shake our heads, thinking in unison “Dammit Junior……”  It’s like the scene in “Top Gun” where Maverick describes how he used to play the same song over and over and over for his mother after his father died.  “I got so sick of it,” he said.  And yet you couldn’t help but smile every time you heard it.  Anytime another player would get sick of it and go to change the music, they would meet with the wrath of Junior Seau.  No one touched that sound system when Junior was around.

Really, Junior was just a kid at heart.  One Friday before we were to play the hated Raiders—and no one hated the Raiders more than Junior Seau, except maybe LaDainian Tomlinson—the local Fox station’s C.S. Keys was doing his part of the morning show broadcast live from Chargers Park.  C.S. was the sports guy at the time.  He was a loud, personable, very self assured presence.  Not a bad guy at all, but there was just one problem with him:  He was a diehard Raider fan.  He had a cousin who had played for the Raiders, and just the night before he was seen conducting a celebratory broadcast from a designated Raider bar in El Cajon.  Keys was happily amongst friends.

The fact that he was at a Raider bar just hours before did not sit well with some of us.  So at 7:30 that Friday morning, just as Keys was preparing to go on the air with his sports segment, some of us recruited none other than Junior Seau to play a little prank and teach the guy a lesson:  Raider fans were not welcome at Charger Park, especially on the Friday of Raider week.  It didn’t take much to convince Junior to grab a Gatorade cooler filled with ice water and dump it on Keys as he was beginning his live segment.  And we figured that Junior was probably the only guy who could actually get away with it.

Sadly the prank never happened, as Bill Johnston, the team’s longtime PR Director, caught wind of it and put the kibosh on it.  Bill was right, of course, as the stunt was incredibly childish and stupid.  That fact failed to mitigate our disappointment.

The day the Junior Seau era ended with the San Diego Chargers was rather surreal.  It was tough to imagine at the time the Chargers without #55 anchoring the defense.  I was directly across the hall watching college game tapes when John Butler and Marty Schottenheimer gathered in Ed McGuire’s office to make the final decision on whether to part ways with the legend, the face, the identity of the franchise.  There was no one else left in the building, and I don’t think they knew I was there.  I heard every word of their conversation.

Once the decision to part was made, they had to decide how to handle it.  After all, this was no ordinary player.  This was a local hero; the Oceanside High product who became a superstar with the local team.  A sure future Hall of Famer.  A phone call was placed, on speakerphone, to Marv Demoff, Junior’s agent.  It was an awkward conversation between the four men, but not totally unexpected on Demoff’s end.

A short time later Junior was traded to the Miami Dolphins.  During the 2003 season, his triumphant return to his hometown for a Monday Night contest with the team that he had personified for so long got derailed by the wildfires that swept through the city.  The game was moved to Tempe, Arizona, and Junior never got his highly anticipated homecoming.

Junior was not without his demons.  There was the bitter divorce from his wife, Gina, who maintained custody of their children.  There were rumored affairs.  In the years since his retirement from the NFL there were various accusations of domestic violence against his girlfriend.  There was the single car accident in 2010 where he drove his car off of a cliff near his beachside home; some close to him felt that it was a suicide attempt and not an accident.  At the very least it was a cry for help.

Junior Seau was a larger than life figure.  That was how he was portrayed in the media, and that’s just how he came across in person.  He loved the limelight.  Loved being the center of attention.  We can only speculate that the dimming of those bright lights helped to bring on the despair that would eventually cause him to take his own life.

The Chargers are a bit of a cursed franchise.  In 1995, the team lost linebacker David Griggs to a single car accident in Florida.  In 1996, running back Rodney Culver was killed along with his wife when ValueJet Flight 592 crashed in the Florida Everglades.  In 1998 linebacker Doug Miller was killed by a lightning strike.  In 2003, General Manager John Butler succumbed to cancer.  In 2008 former safety Terrence Kiel was killed in a car accident, former defensive lineman Chris Mims died of a heart attack, and former offensive lineman Curtis Whitley died of a drug overdose.  2011 saw the passing of Shawn Lee, half of the “Two Tons of Fun” duo on the defensive line, and linebacker Lew Bush to a heart attack.  And now the suicide death of perhaps the most recognizable figure ever to wear the lightning bolts.

Griggs, Culver, Miller, Whitley, Mims, Lee, and Seau were all part of that 1994 Super Bowl team.

Farewell Junebug.  We can only hope that you find the peace that eluded you here in life.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar judi Curry May 2, 2012 at 3:45 pm

So eloquently said, Andy. I met Junior at an Arts and Crafts show we were doing in Oceanside the year before he went to Miami. He was such an affable man; when he shook my hand it just disappeared into his. He was inquisitive about the process we used to make our musical seashells, and actually bought several for gifts. It was amusing to us to see this huge man holding the little music boxes.

He will be sorely missed, not just by football fans, but by all the others whose lives he touched. Thank you for your tribute to him.

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avatar doug porter May 2, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Wow, just wow. Great tribute to a great man. Thanks Andy.

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avatar dave rice May 2, 2012 at 10:54 pm

Great piece. Thanks for your insight, Andy.

I remember being a high school freshman in the mid-90s playing center with a Samoan guy named Simon who was one of only a few kids on the team bigger than me. He played guard and we had a handful of classes together. A handful of times he came to school with football mementos from events he’d gotten to attend with Seau, and every time he had another story to tell about how he’d gotten the latest ball, cap, jersey, whatever…although the cool schwag from a genuine NFL superstar made the other kids drool, Simon always seemed to value telling the stories behind them even more – how this larger than life celebrity was constantly making himself available to the community, especially his Pacific Islander brethren.

There are a couple sports headlines from the fishwrap that I’ve got saved in a box, accompanying news stories of momentous events like Obama’s election, the end of the first Iraq war, the start of the second, and so on. They’re from two days in the same year that the Chargers cut loose what I considered the heart and soul of a defense that my biased heart considered the class of the league when I was growing up – Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau, the man that defined San Diego sports as much as anyone else ever has or will.

Farewell Junebug, indeed.

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avatar Shane Finneran May 3, 2012 at 9:28 am

Terrific tribute, Andy — thank you.

It’s still speculation for sure, but I’m riveted by the potential that Junior chose a suicide method that preserved his brain for study, as did Dave Duerson, who was found to have “chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a trauma-induced disease the researchers had found in the brains of 20 other dead players.”

If there is a silver lining to the terrible Seau news, perhaps it will bring even more attention to the scourge of head trauma in football. Here’s a new Forbes article on that http://www.forbes.com/sites/prishe/2012/05/03/junior-seaus-suicide-nfls-death-knell-regarding-head-trauma-liability/

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avatar Anna Daniels May 3, 2012 at 10:44 am

A moving article Andy, and a testimony to your writing abilities. I am not a football aficionado, nor particularly familiar with Junior Seau. Your post drew me in completely. I share your feeling of loss.

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