Since Junior Seau died, I've been wondering about our part in all of this. The media's part, the hero-creating part, the Seau-as-superhero part. Did we lionize Seau for his toughness to the point where it was impossible for him to even consider asking for help? Superman never asks for help.
I've been replaying a scene from a Sunday in 2000 in my head over and over. It was an October afternoon in Orchard Park, N.Y., in the small trainers' quarters of the visitors' locker room, after the Chargers' 27--24 overtime loss to the Bills. The defeat dropped San Diego to 0--7. Seau was crestfallen, sitting on a trainers' table, his left hamstring getting mummified in ice, taking slugs from a bottle of Gatorade. "My broke hamstring," he said quietly.
He broke it—severely pulled it, actually—chasing the Greatest Show on Turf all over the field two weeks earlier in a humbling 57--31 loss to the Rams in which St. Louis threw on its first 18 plays. "Junior's the best defensive player in the game," Rams coach Mike Martz said that day. "We were going to do everything we could to take him out of the game." All of that intense sideline-to-sideline running popped the hammy, but Seau would not sit. Nor would he sit the following week in Denver or here in Buffalo.
After the game against the Bills, I described this in my piece for SI.
This was an injury that would sideline most players for two weeks, trainer James Collins had thought after examining Seau in St. Louis. But as he left the team plane [upon arrival in San Diego that night], Seau said to Collins, "See you at 5:30." Sure enough, seven hours later Seau was sitting on Collins's table, his legs extended for a resistance exercise. Collins sat in front of Seau, cupping his palms under the linebacker's heels and instructing him to push his feet downward.
"Three sets of 10," Collins said.
"No," Seau said. "Till I get tired."
After Seau had done 20 reps on his first set, Collins said, "Are you sure you're hurt?"
"Let's go!" Seau barked.
They did two more sets of 20, then various other exercises for 70 minutes. Next for Seau came a meeting of the Breakfast Club, the five players who participate in early-morning weightlifting. This was Seau's routine Monday through Friday.
All that matters to Seau is getting the hamstring right for the next game. "I don't know if you can understand, or if I can explain, the sheer will of this man," says Collins. "He has such a love of the game, a love of competition. He's reaching for something out there, something he may never reach, but he will use every fiber trying to get there."
Sitting there on the table, gathering himself for the long flight home, Seau told me why he did it, and I dutifully relayed in print the remarkable dedication of this man.
"The corporate game, the media game, I know that's a game we have to play. But you know what this game's all about? Respect. The respect you can earn only between those white lines."
Seau got so choked up he had to stop. Finally, he sighed and said, "The game is still hitting. It's still blocking. It's still ... it's still about courage."
There was another long pause. "That's why," Seau said, his eyes still fixed on the floor, "I can't wait till next Sunday."
As much as any player I've covered in 28 years of reporting on the NFL, Seau didn't acknowledge pain. It could be handled. It was a nuisance to be wrapped up or shot up ... anything to make it possible to play 16 times every autumn. In the first 14 seasons of his career, from age 21 to 34, this Tasmanian devil of a player missed nine games. Seau insisted that if you could walk, you could play. And we all ate it up. There's much in that to be admired, certainly. But when you don't acknowledge pain in your professional life for years and years, how will you ever acknowledge pain when the cheering stops? By all accounts, Junior Seau never acknowledged his personal pain—whether it was the black veil of depression or the misery of not having a life he wanted to live—to anyone.
I don't know what happened to Junior Seau. No one does, not yet. But I do know it bothers me that I helped create this image of a man incapable of feeling what you and I feel. In the end he must have felt more pain than any of us could imagine. And for that reason I know I'll be a lot more cautious about praising men as heroes for playing with injuries they shouldn't be playing with. If I'm not, please remind me of the day I helped make Seau so much larger than life in the pages of this magazine. That's a tough thing to live up to.
MATT A. BROWN/ICON SMI
A BATTLE Though he suffered countless hits as a middle linebacker and played at full speed at all times, Seau missed just eight games to injury in his first 14 seasons in the NFL.