Junior Seau is the reason the Pro Football Hall of Fame exists.
He didn't build it with his own two hands or donate money to keep the Hall stocked with yellow blazer fabric and molten bronze. The Hall is not named after him, and he won't be a charter inductee. In fact, the eight-man class of 2015 will bring the number of enshrinees up to a whopping 295.
But Seau is the embodiment of everything a Hall of Famer should be: A player of unparalleled dominance and unprecedented longevity, a beloved member of his community and culture, the standard by which all others after him will be judged.
Even if his life had not ended in tragedy, even if his fate hadn't been intertwined with the disease casting a shadow over the entire history of the game, Seau's career would be one we couldn't let future generations forget.
After all, that's the reason we build Halls of Fame and fight over who gets inducted: We're gifting immortality upon certain players and skipping over thousands of others. We're telling future generations these players were important, defined football for us and should be remembered.
Before Seau's bronze bust is placed in Canton, Ohio, leaving the plaque beneath to give visitors a too-brief glimpse into his Hall of Fame career, take a few moments and remember the player, and man, Seau was.
The Hometown Hero
Seau, in a script that plays out so rarely in the modern NFL, was drafted by his hometown team. Having been born in San Diego, raised both there and in his family's ancestral home of American Samoa, attended high school about 40 miles north in Oceanside, Seau had deep roots in the area.
He went to college at USC, just a further 90 or so miles up the road. After a rough early transition, he established himself as a starter. In 1989, he racked up 19 sacks en route to being named a unanimous All-American.
At 6'3", 250 pounds, the young Seau ran a 4.61-second 40-yard dash and had a 38" vertical leap. Recorded five years before Mike Mamula inspired the combine-prep cottage industry, Seau's measurables still compare favorably to the top prospects today.
So many young people are driven by ambition, pride, vanity, greed or necessity. Seau was driven by love, humility, family and fear—fear, he told Sports Illustrated's Jill Lieber, of being an average player. The honor of his family name, his ancestry and his community of Oceanside all rested on his shoulder pads; he went all out every second he had them on.
When the Chargers drafted him No. 5 overall in 1990, Seau's joy was obvious. For many would-be hometown heroes, draft day is the mountaintop: It never gets any better than the day your childhood team drafts you in the first round.
Instead, Seau embarked on a 20-year NFL journey that spanned both coasts. He led the Chargers to the Super Bowl almost single-handedly and was a captain of the most dominant team ever assembled. After he had accomplished nearly everything any NFL player could ever hope to, Seau settled back down in Oceanside.
He never left home again.
Seau quickly made an impact on the Chargers—and the rest of the NFL. Credited with 85 tackles and a sack in part-time rookie duty, Seau really broke out in 1991. His 129 tackles and seven sacks earned him his first Pro Bowl nod—starting a streak of Pro Bowl appearances that wouldn't end until 2003.
In 1992, he earned his first of six first-team All-Pro nominations. The club of linebackers throughout NFL history with at least six All-Pro nods has only nine members; among them, only Seau and Ray Lewis are not already enshrined in Canton.
Seau was a force of nature—a phenomenon. In an early '90s NFL full of bruising defenders and low-scoring games, Seau jumped off the screen. That charisma translated off the field too.
Energetic but easygoing, high tempo but low stress, he quickly became one of the NFL's most marketable stars. He aced interviews and commercials, launched a beach-bum clothing line and even went on The Tonight Show in flip-flops:
For all his off-field personality, though, Seau will be remembered best for his on-field production.
He was not only an exceptional blitzer, he was also an aggressive run-stuffer. Only 18 linebackers in NFL history have recorded a season with at least 110 tackles and 5.5 sacks, per Pro-Football-Reference. Seau did it three times. Only Seth Joyner accomplished that feat as often; only Karl Mecklenburg did it more.
It's telling Seau's 1996 season was the second-to-last time anyone put those beastly numbers up, and no one's done it since Chad Brown 1998. The NFL is not only a more pass-happy league, it's a specialist's league. In today's game, outside linebackers tend to be pass-rush specialists, such as Justin Houston, or athletic playmakers who excel in coverage, such as DeAndre Levy.
Seau had to do everything for the Chargers, and he did.
During Seau's 13 seasons in San Diego, six other Chargers defenders made the Pro Bowl—but only three went more than once. Gill Byrd, father of New Orleans Saints safety Jairus, went during his final two years in the league—Seau's first two as a starter. Rodney Harrison got the call twice, once in 1998 and again in 2001. The three one-offs were all in 2001 and 2002.
During the Bobby Ross years, when Seau was at his electrifying best, defensive end Leslie O'Neal was the only other perennial Pro Bowler on the field. The Chargers still went 47-33, made three postseasons and were a top-12 scoring defense in four of those five years
In 1994, the Chargers went to the only Super Bowl in team history. However, they ran into a juggernaut San Francisco 49ers squad. That team had four Pro Bowlers on its defense—not to mention six on offense. As the Chargers were 19-point underdogs, Pro Football Reference's Win Probability tool calculated they pretty much never had a chance to win that game.
Despite the evident hopelessness of trying to win a title against Steve Young, Jerry Rice and friends, Seau still put in a strong effort, racking up 11 tackles and a sack.
Across Seau's 13 seasons in San Diego, he was responsible for a huge chunk of his team's defensive production. Using Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value stat, only three linebackers in NFL history were more valuable over their first 13 years:
|Pro Football Reference|
Note what kind of linebackers populate that list: Demon pass-rushers Lawrence Taylor and Julius Peppers and sideline-to-sideline middle linebackers such as Ray Lewis, Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher. Seau, playing as a 4-3 outside linebacker under the great Bill Arnsparger, is truly only second to Derrick Brooks.
Had Seau retired at this point in his career, at age 34 and still recognized as one of the game's best, he would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer anyway.
But in 2007, Seau was nowhere near Canton. He was too busy captaining the New England Patriots to an undefeated regular season—and the Super Bowl.
The 4th Act
Seau was born before man landed on the moon, was playable in Tecmo Super Bowl for the original NES, and he completed his last regular-season tackle on Arian Foster. When Seau died, I wrote his unique talent and special position in football history meant his all-around dominance would never be seen again.
Seau was traded to the Dolphins in 2003 at an age when most linebackers' bodies are breaking down. After starting 15 games that season, age eventually caught up to Seau too. A torn pectoral muscle limited him in 2004, and an Achilles tendon injury ended his 2005 season prematurely. In 2006, Seau announced his retirement.
"It's pretty easy," Seau told a reported crowd of 300 at the Chargers' facility, per an AP report (h/t ESPN) at the time. "When a team doesn't want you or need you, retire buddy."
Seau spoke of his intent to graduate from playing into a new phase of life—yet seemed to leave the door open to joining a championship-caliber roster.
"I'm healthy, I can play and there are teams out there that had interest, but they just didn't need [me]," Seau said. "They wanted me, but they didn't need me. I'm not a player than can play by just wanting to play the game. I'm a guy that needs to win, and they go hand in hand."
Just days later, Bill Belichick called. The Patriots were winners, and with Tedy Bruschi injured, they needed Seau.
"I'm going to get my master's now," Seau told the AP. He started 10 games for the Patriots in 2006 before his body betrayed him again, this time with a broken arm.
In 2007, the Patriots' dream year, Seau had his best season since leaving the Chargers. Not only was he a key contributor, he was named a team captain. Active for every game and starting four of them, Seau had 58 tackles, 16 assists, 3.5 sacks, four passes defensed and three interceptions.
When the 18-0 Patriots blew their bid to complete the first undefeated run through a modern schedule with less than a minute left, Seau lost his best and final chance to win a Super Bowl ring.
Seau retired after that—though in both 2008 and 2009, the Patriots called him late in the season to help them try to get back to the mountaintop. Both times, he took his cleats down off the shelf. Both times, the Patriots fell short: In 2008, they became only the squad in the 32-team era to win 11 games but miss the playoffs, and they were bounced out of the first round in 2009.
Nine days before his 41st birthday, Junior Seau's NFL career was finally over.
The End and the Never-Ending
Two years and not quite four months later, Seau was dead.
Though not part of his career, it is necessary to remember his posthumous chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) diagnosis and the possible role the disease played in his suicide. Someday, we may look back on the tragic loss of an all-time great player—and by many accounts, all-time great person—and mark it as the beginning of the end of the NFL as we knew it.
Yet that's not why Seau is going in the Hall of Fame. He's being enshrined because he played his position as well as anyone's ever played it. He meant as much to his team as any linebacker ever has. He was one of the last, and one of the best, to play the game the way he did—yet he was one of the first, and one of the best, to be so endearing and accessible off the field, so natural a multimedia star.
Any NFL fan would be lucky to see a man like Seau suit up for their team in their lifetime. He was the embodiment of everything a football player should aspire to be and an inspiration to everyone who watched him play.
That's why he should never be forgotten—and why we have a Pro Football Hall of Fame to put him in.