I've heard the news, read about it, had it confirmed over and over again, but I simply can't wrap my head around the fact that we now live in a world without Junior Seau's smile.
San Diego's favorite son left us far too soon on Wednesday, dead from what police believe was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Seau was just 43 years old.
To San Diego natives he was more than a football player, he was a member of our family. We all knew and loved him and he never gave us any reason to be anything but incredibly proud of him. Even after he left town to ply his trade for another franchise in 2003, Seau was still part of the family. We cheered for him no matter what helmet he wore.
If you want to know just who Seau was as a person, listen to the dozens of tributes from former teammates, who unanimously claim he was one of the most incredible people they have ever met.
Seau was gregarious, charming, fun-loving, dedicated and, above all, kind. He was the perfect example of all that could be good in the American experience. Someone who reached the ultimate heights of the American dream, then shared the fruits of his labor with others and tried to improve their lives.
I can't imagine this world without Junior Seau. And truthfully, I don't want to.
The first encounter
The 18-year-old intern stood there, waiting to ask his hero a question that he had been formulating in his mind for the better part of an hour. It was a gorgeous summer day in southern California, as the sun beat down on the grassy football fields at the University of California, San Diego.
However, as his turn approached, the ludicrously skinny kid felt a trickle of sweat roll down his back as he grew more concerned with whether the turkey sandwich he had for lunch would end up on the ground in front of his idol or on his own, newly purchased shoes. The question wasn't whether he was going to throw up from nerves, it was when, and where.
That intern was me, and the idol was Tiaina Baul Seau, Jr., known to the world as "Junior." I was approaching San Diego's most beloved citizen for the first time, breaking down the wall between hero worship and reality, whilst trying to remain professional.
It was my first time being sent out to interview members of the Chargers way back in 1999 as an intern for a local television station. As my turn to ask a question approached the microphone I was holding felt like a 40-pound weight, but in spite of its heft, it was shaking like a leaf in the wind as my rapidly moistening palms attempted to secure a tighter grip.
In an instant I was up, I gulped and spat out my question so quickly I completely stumbled over my words and a groan went up from the other assembled members of the media. As they eyed my jeans and wrinkled collar they had to be thinking, "Why is this kid wasting everyone's time?"
Seau beamed a big smile back at me, ignoring the fact that I had to have looked unhealthy, unkempt and unprofessional and said, "Slow down. Take your time. I'm not going anywhere, bud." Then he held off another member of the media with his left hand while I asked my question again. He made sure to give a lengthy answer I could use, and as I walked off the field a little later he was heading in the same direction and gave me a head nod, thumbs up and said, "Good job, buddy!"
Then, of course, he flashed that smile we all knew so well.
That, in a nutshell was Junior Seau. He was always smiling, always having fun, always trying to enjoy himself, and always looking out for others. He didn't have to sit through my stupid, cliche question about how the team was coming together in training camp, but he did.
On the field
I grew up in San Diego, and so did Seau. He was a native, he was one of us and he always will be. I idolized him from the first time he stepped on the field for my beloved Chargers in 1990 to the day he retired from the NFL in 2009.
Seau was, quite simply, the best of the best. At one point he went to 12 straight Pro Bowls (from 1991 to 2002) and was selected to 10 straight All-Pro teams (from 1991 to 2000). When he's eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2015, he will certainly be elected on his first ballot.
But Seau always seemed to be San Diego's secret. Sure, football experts and guys around the NFL knew how good he was, but he didn't play in a big market and rarely had a chance to showcase his ability on the national stage.
For a good chunk of Seau's career the Chargers were one of the NFL's worst teams, but he always came to play. Where other stars took plays off, whined or bolted town at the first chance for a big payday or a championship, Junior stuck around. When we had nothing else, San Diego fans had Seau. Each Sunday we might have to endure a loss, but we always knew that we would have the best player on the field.
What made Seau different was how he played the game. He had the eyes all great linebackers do: those big, bulging high-beams staring at the opposition behind a full-cage face mask. However, after every big hit, every jaw-dropping feat of athleticism to subdue the opposition, Seau would pop up, give the victim a hand and pat him on the helmet. Even behind that face mask and below those menacing eyes he was smiling, just happy to be there.
On the rare occurrences when he was the recipient of a vicious block or a great hit, he would still pop up, with that electric smile beaming as bright as ever and give a nod to whoever put him on his back. He just loved playing the game.
Throughout his playing days Seau was one of the most feared, respected and loved players in the NFL. Even with age that didn't change. Teammates, and even former opponents, were lining up to sing his praises after news of his passing broke. Marcellus Wiley's interview on ESPN was particularly heart-wrenching.
People say football is a business, and in this cynical world, maybe they're right. However, at its heart, football is a game, played by grown men. Seau was the ultimate example of one of those men who played with the exuberance and sheer joy of a child. Every time he stepped on the field he looked like he knew how lucky he was to get paid to do what he loved.
San Diego's first citizen
While Seau's on-field exploits made him famous, his personality and the way he handled himself off the field made him loved. He was an incredible player, but a better person.
Junior Seau was San Diego. He was the rare athlete that transcended sports and had an actual positive impact on the real world. In 1992 he created the Junior Seau Foundation with the mission "to educate and empower young people through the support of child abuse prevention, drug and alcohol awareness, recreational opportunities, anti-juvenile delinquency efforts and complimentary educational programs." The foundation has distributed more than $4 million to various organizations that provide services to children and young adults.
He gave back to the community that always supported him and never forgot where he came from. Millions of dollars never changed our Junior—he remained the same guy who just seemed happy to be living his dream.
I ran into Seau around town numerous times over the years. He was always smiling, always cordial, always willing to sign autographs or pose for pictures. He loved his fans and his hometown. He fully recognized the importance of community, something that was instilled in him as a young man after his family moved to American Samoa for several years following his birth.
Many don't know the story of Seau's struggle, but growing up he and his three brothers had to sleep in his family's one-car garage. He attended Oceanside High School where he starred in football and became a Parade All-American before playing college ball up the road at USC. He had a storied career there, becoming a unanimous All-American in 1989 before his hometown Chargers made him the No. 5 pick in the 1990 NFL draft.
From that day on he was San Diego's first citizen, surpassing even San Diego Padres greats Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman in popularity. Sure, Gwynn and Hoffman were beloved, but Seau was the hometown boy who made it big. We all felt like we had been a part of his rise.
Seau made something of himself and wanted to make sure those who didn't have all of life's advantages had the chance to make something of themselves as well.
The best among us
Don't bother trying to find someone who will say something negative about Junior Seau. It would be an utter waste of time because Seau was a bright light that shined on everyone he encountered. His exuberance and passion both on and off the football field permeated everything he did. There will certainly never be anyone like him again.
I have heard people already questioning and hypothesizing why Seau would commit suicide. Some have suggested he had demons or have tried to blame this on the larger issue of the NFL's handling of head injuries. The truth is, we may never know.
Outwardly, no one would have believed that the permanently smiling, loving, caring, deeply religious Seau thought there was no way out. He was the last person those close to him believed would ever do such a thing.
Clearly behind Seau's infectious smile there was pain, something none of us will ever understand no matter how hard we try.
When I think of Junior Seau, I will remember how he lit up a room and how everyone loved him for who he was, not what he did on the football field. He was larger than life and made everyone who encountered him happier and challenged us all to be better.
Most of all, though, I will remember him for what he gave back to the city that loved him so much. He was the best among us, America's Finest City's best product. If nothing positive ever again comes out of San Diego, at least we can say we gave the world Junior Seau. If only for a short time.
Rest in peace, Junior. Thank you for the memories that will never fade in my mind.
More importantly, however, thank you for all you did to make the world a better place. We will never forget you.