When the San Diego Chargers famously retired the late Junior Seau’s uniform number last September at Qualcomm Stadium in front of a crowd of nearly 61,000, it was a grand and deserving gesture. The team was honoring Seau’s contributions not just to the Chargers but to the entire community of San Diego.
But there’s a mostly unknown story and a unique twist obscured in Seau’s legacy that stretches all the way back to the 1960s and to the old American Football League.
The great No. 55, the former USC Trojan and San Diego Charger had died suddenly, unexpectedly and much too young. He was a past college All-American, a recurrent All-Pro and the embodiment of a warrior. He left behind a grieving family, memories of a renowned career and unfilled promises.
But here’s the twist: His name was Frank Buncom, not Junior Seau, and this tragedy occurred in 1969.
As I document in the book Finding Frank: Full Circle in a Life Cut Short, Buncom was the original No. 55 for the Chargers, and the similarities he shared with Seau are eerie in many respects.
Media reports at the time of Buncom’s death were brief and void of particular insight. There was no memorial or huge public outpouring of anguish. After just a few days, the news subsided. Very soon, the memory of the man and the death mostly vanished.
Buncom played college and professional football in a long-ago era. He was a stellar three-time American Football League All-Star, but today most people cannot recall his name. For those who knew him though, he far exceeded the customary boundaries of a football star. He personified dignity and how to correctly live a life.
Some of the parallels with Seau may be ordinary, but others are staggering in their depth. Start with Seau’s year of birth in 1969—the same year as Buncom’s death.
Both came from underprivileged backgrounds in southern California and went on to football stardom at the University of Southern California. Both were college All-Americans who were drafted by San Diego.
Both had brilliant careers that culminated in enshrinement in the team’s Hall of Fame. Both played a linebacker position and ended their playing days with different teams. Both wore the same jersey number and large, luminous smiles. Both died suddenly, unexpectedly, tragically.
But there the similarities abruptly end.
Seau was evidently haunted by demons or perhaps more likely, lingering, pronounced head trauma from his football career. An alleged domestic violence episode when also drove his vehicle off a beach cliff on one reckless night and early morning in 2010 was well publicized. His suicide two years later was international, front-page headline news. His community charitable contributions are well documented, and he will continue to be honored.
Conversely Buncom, ever clean, always with a spotless personal record, always unsullied, is all but anonymous. The details of his death are short and long forgotten, but this much we do know:
In 1968, following six seasons with San Diego, Buncom was shipped from the Chargers to the Cincinnati Bengals in the American Football League allocation draft. After one season with the expansion Bengals, he died in a hotel room in Cincinnati in the early morning of September 14, 1969.
The Bengals were scheduled to play the Miami Dolphins that day, and Buncom’s roommate, another former Charger named Ernie Wright, was awakened at 7:00 a.m. by Buncom’s laboring breath. According to reports the next day, Wright did everything possible to help his friend. An Associated Press article included a quote from Wright.
Frank woke me up. He was breathing like he had an asthmatic attack or something. I called to him then went over to his bed and shook him – real good. I got no response. I checked his mouth to make sure he wasn’t having a convulsion and swallowing his tongue. Then I called for help. There was nothing else I could do.
When paramedics and Bengals team trainers arrived that morning, he was dead. Later, it was determined that he died of a pulmonary embolism.
That Seau is remembered, admired and mourned as one of the great linebackers to play the game and Buncom is largely forgotten is an incongruity. His anonymity both as a player and now long after his death is not a fault—his or anyone else’s.
Buncom intentionally didn’t pursue the limelight partly because generating unnecessary attention was not a staple of his personality. Also, he played professionally for a team that had many colossal egos in the 1960s.
The Chargers of that era were the toast of the city and had a roster of outspoken, larger-than-life personalities such as future Hall of Famers Lance Alworth and Ron Mix and coaches Sid Gillman and Chuck Noll. Beat writers covering the team back then never had to look long or hard for a juicy quote—a morsel of glitzy information from a player or coach that would generate mass media attention or at least what amounted to it in a time before the Internet and social media.
Buncom’s era was a world apart from today’s society. He transcended racial boundaries and overcame enormous odds. Yet his lessons taught and learned many years ago by those fortunate to know him are still valuable.
When he died at 29, he left behind many hopes and dreams that were never met, including his future high school coaching career. He looked forward to mentoring young people and giving them the guidance and discipline he believed they all deserved.
He also left his wife Sarah, later an administrator in the San Diego Unified School District, and seven-week-old son, Frank III. Today his grandson, Frank IV, a junior at St. Augustine High School in San Diego, holds strong to a 4.0 GPA and has been on the varsity football team since his freshman year.
And in yet another twist to the Buncom-Seau connection, there is a member of Frank IV’s high school team who wears the celebrated No. 55. His name is Quinn Seau, Junior’s nephew. So it’s full circle, indeed: Buncom and Seau, finally teammates.
As we remember the illustrious San Diego Chargers No. 55, let us also remember Frank Buncom. His legacy should live on.