Updated: May 3, 2012 1:06PM
The smile. Who ever will forget Junior Seau’s magnetic, coast-to-coast smile?
Or his greatest passions in life: Football, family, the disenfranchised.
Shock, dismay and unremitting grief descended upon family, friends, former colleagues and NFL fans at the notion that Tiaina Baul Seau Jr. suddenly had vanished from their lives, quicker than a lightning bolt.
Police in Oceanside, Calif., confirmed that the former San Diego Chargers superstar linebacker — one of the most highly regarded, beloved players in NFL history — was found dead Wednesday at his home from a gunshot wound, apparently self-inflicted, police say. He was 43.
If it was a suicide, no one seemed to know what might have precipitated such a final act of desperation. Those who spent time with Seau recently said he did not act depressed. If he was deeply troubled, Seau concealed his private misery to most, even to family members who desperately sought answers to confounding questions.
“I don’t understand who (did) this to my son,” said his distraught mother, Luisa, who wept outside his home as she was comforted by well-wishers. “I pray to God — take me, not my son. ... Monday, Tuesday (he was) talking to me, joking. Junior, why you never tell me?”
Many of those close to Seau groped for answers for his sudden, mysterious demise. Seau was discovered wounded and unconscious in his home, just north of San Diego, by his girlfriend, but no suicide note was found, police said.
As word of Seau’s death spread, fans began assembling at Seau’s The Restaurant, an eatery and sports bar in Mission Valley that he founded during his playing days. The restaurant was supposed to open for lunch at 11 a.m. But a computer-generated “Closed” sign was placed on the front door by an employee. Some people left flowers; others stood in disbelief.
“What he meant to me was that if you do something with all your heart, you can be successful,” said Lido Ortuno, 38, wearing a No. 55 Chargers jersey in Seau’s honor. “He played the game the way it was played in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He didn’t care about his body; he just wanted to win.”
---‘He seemed happy’---
Hank Bauer saw it up close. They both were former Chargers. Bauer said he spent time with Seau last month and he seemed fine.
“I am in shock; I’m crushed,” the team’s radio analyst said. “There was zero warning that anything was wrong with him. He seemed happy and at peace. This is when his life should have been great.”
Bauer paused. “I think the message is this: We all forget that people we idolize are just ... people. Do we have unreal expectations of our heroes?”
Tall, handsome and charismatic -- with an uncommon athletic package of size, strength, speed and a high-revving motor -- Seau played 20 NFL seasons for three teams, including the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. He was selected to the Pro Bowl 12 consecutive seasons and only one player in league history, former Cleveland Browns star Clay Matthews, played more games at the position than Seau (268). He played in two Super Bowls -- XXIX for the Chargers and XLII for the Patriots, both losses.
Remarkably, eight Chargers from the 1994 Super Bowl team have died from a variety of causes -- all before age 45.
Two weeks ago, former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, 62, shot himself in Richmond, Va., police said. His wife, Mary Ann Easterling, told FoxSports.com that her husband suffered from depression, insomnia and dementia after his football career. Easterling was part of a lawsuit against the NFL relating to how the league dealt with brain trauma and concussion-related injuries over the years.
Dave Duerson, a former Chicago Bears Pro Bowl safety, committed suicide nearly 15 months ago by shooting himself in the chest. Duerson, 50, thought he suffered from dementia that fueled his depression. His suicide note included the request: “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.”
Post-death exams of his brain showed he suffered moderately advanced evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a progressive degenerative disease related to repeated concussive blows. The disease has been linked to at least 18 deceased NFL players, researchers have reported, but no definitive cause-effect relationship has been established.
---A Hall of Fame lock---
Certainly, Seau experienced hundreds of hard collisions during his playing days. It is not publicly known whether he experienced physical or psychological ailments in retirement relating to possible concussions. Partly because of his hard, relentless style of play, Seau is considered a lock to be posthumously enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Seau, who retired after the 2009 season, will be best remembered as a Charger. A local boy made good, he was an All-America linebacker for the Southern California Trojans.
His status as a San Diego icon was enhanced by his homegrown status. He graduated in 1987 from Oceanside High School in north San Diego County, where he was a star in football and basketball. As a senior, Seau was a Parade All-American in football.
“He was the first player on the Parade team not assigned a position,” said Steve Scholfield, who covered Seau in high school as sports editor of the Oceanside Blade-Tribune. “He’s the best high school athlete ever produced by San Diego County.”
Students at Oceanside High were in the middle of taking state standardized tests Wednesday as news of their famous alumnus reached campus. John Carroll, the football coach at Oceanside, said his players were particularly distraught because Seau had recently befriended them, even giving them a pep talk before a championship game.
Seau often pointed to an incident in high school that helped shape him as a person and an athlete. During a basketball game against crosstown rival El Camino during his junior season, he lost his cool and punched a player.
“His father was a janitor at El Camino and he was livid,” Scholfield said. “The worst thing you can say to someone in a Samoan family is that you disgraced the family.”
Seau’s father, Tiaina Seau Sr., and basketball coach Bill Christopher ordered him to apologize. Seau went to an El Camino practice and swallowed hard.
“I was always a macho man,” Seau said at the time. “I always had a mean face on me. I never really enjoyed sports as much because I always was focused on winning, and that hurt me. Winning is important, but so is having fun and having people respect you.”
---A community man---
Seau earned his respect in San Diego for not only the way he played football but also for his tireless work in the community. The Junior Seau Foundation has donated nearly $4 million to help young adults attend college, and he directed millions to local charities, too.
“His favorite thing in the world every holiday was his ‘Shop With a Jock,’” Christmas program, Bauer said. “He bussed in hundreds of (underprivileged) kids to a local Target store and they were paired with an athlete and given $100 that night to shop for Christmas gifts for family.”
Nevertheless, Scholfield said he sensed that Seau seemed lost at sea.
“He was troubled trying to find his lot in life after football,” he said. “Football was his life. He could absolutely light up a room with his smile, but he had a dark side. He was a conflicted person.”
In 2010, Seau drove his car off a coastal cliff -- hours after he was arrested for suspicion of domestic violence. Seau, a divorced father of three children, was not charged.
Shawn Mitchell, a pastor with the Chargers for 28 years, said he visited with his friend after the episode. Seau told him he had fallen asleep, Mitchell said.
“He broke down and cried because of gratitude, because he knew the Lord had spared his life,” Mitchell said. “I’m used to people who are close to suicide; (the 2010 incident) wasn’t a suicide attempt.”
On a somber day, people chose to recall how Seau lived most of his life -- not how he perished or what demons with which he might have wrestled in retirement.
Willie McGinest, a former NFL and Southern California linebacker, recently spent time with Seau and several other former Trojans at the school’s spring game.
“He was upbeat. I mean, Junior’s always upbeat,” McGinest told NFL Network. “He was crackin’ jokes, making everybody laugh, having a good time. It seemed like he didn’t have a care or problem in the world.”
Donald Takayama, a six-time U.S. surfing champion, spoke with his close friend last week. He told USA TODAY Sports that Seau wanted to go surfing in Hawaii with the legendary surfboard designer. Takayama said he immediately shipped some boards to the big island for him.
“It’s a sad day. I loved the guy,” Takayama said. “Junior is not that type of person who would do something like this. I don’t have a clue why ... what happened. He seemed really happy.”
Somber heads hung in puzzlement everywhere, and not much lower than at Chargers headquarters.
“There’s a deep sadness in the building right now,” Chargers coach Norv Turner said. “All I can say is this one is hard. It’s going to take a long time to get over.”
Curtis Conway, a former Chargers teammate, told NFL Network that Seau’s adjustment to civilian life might have been more difficult than many can imagine, as it is for countless retired NFL players.
“All of a sudden, you are no longer that guy. How do you cope with that? That is why the adjustment to retirement is so hard. ... Now you have to find someone you don’t know,” Conway added. “Now you have to figure out, ‘Who am I?’”