Junior Seau was San Diego. The Hall of Fame linebacker was nothing less than the beating heart of America’s Finest City. Five years ago my hometown’s soul was shattered and its collective heart broken by the death of its favorite son. Seau’s devastating suicide has left a deep wound on San Diego’s collective psyche, one that may never heal. His absence is felt every day. To this moment I still can’t believe he’s gone.
Tiaina Baul Seau Jr. — known to the world as “Junior” — is the finest athlete my city has ever produced. A Hall of Fame linebacker who dominated the NFL for nearly two decades, he was a menace on the football field. But Seau’s impact on my city had little to do with a game. Junior was our shining example to the world. A local boy done good who, despite his immense stardom, just always seemed happy to be there. He played the game like an excited child, and lived his life like a man who felt he’d won the lottery. He seemed truly thankful for all he had been given.
San Diego factors deeply into Seau’s story. He grew up in Oceanside, where he and his three brothers had to sleep in his family’s one-car garage. He became an All-American at Oceanside High School, despite a difficult upbringing, he was also selected to California’s all-academic team as a senior with a 3.6 GPA. He worked, scratched and fought for everything he had. Despite that GPA, his SAT score of 690 fell 10 points short of qualifying him at USC. Still, Seau stuck with his choice. He spent a year as a student at USC, away from the game. He then came back and set the football world on fire.
You all know the storybook tale after that. He was an All-American at USC, drafted 5th overall by his hometown team the Chargers, then he made 12 consecutive Pro Bowls, was a 10-time All-Pro, etc. I’m not here to rehash that. His impact on my hometown is far more important to me and proves just what kind of person he was.
Almost everyone in San Diego has a Seau story. Whether discussing a time he signed every autograph in a crowded room or when he would regularly glad-hand and visit with every table at his old restaurant, Seau’s, nearly all of my city’s citizens have some personal connection to the town’s favorite son. I was lucky enough to meet Seau dozens of times over the years. I never saw him without a smile on his face. He was always armed with a funny quip, an encouraging word or a laugh. The man was always happy. Or at least we thought he was.
Behind the 10,000-watt smile, and those kind, welcoming eyes there was pain. Pain none of us could have known about. When Seau committed suicide we all knew what had happened. Tests on his brain later confirmed he was suffering from CTE. Twenty years of devastating hits and countless concussions had left him empty, depressed and struggling. But because he was Junior Seau and always had to be “on” in his home city, he never showed it in public. He was always our Junior, the same guy we had always known and loved. He was always there for fellow San Diegans, always willing to lend a hand or pick us up when we were down.
The saddest part of Seau’s passing is that such a wonderful man suffered needlessly for so long. So many people in this town would have given anything to help him. He gave us all so much joy over the years, we all would have been willing to return the favor. But that’s not how these things work. San Diego’s finest citizen suffered untold pain, and finally had enough. The man beloved by an entire city ended things alone, with a gunshot to the chest.
Junior Seau isn’t here anymore. That’s a sentence I still can’t wrap my head around. My city would have celebrated his 48th birthday on January 19, instead we continue to mourn a loss that hit us all so hard. San Diego will never be the same without our Junior. Five years from that fateful, terrible day, I still can’t believe one of my heroes is gone.