I moved to San Diego and became a Chargers fan in 1998. I only saw Junior Seau's last fives seasons in blue and gold, and instead of marveling at his physical presence I spent most of my time figuring out how he seemed to be getting better as his body was aging.
Junior jumped snaps better than any ILB I've ever seen. He was always watching the ball, even when the play was nowhere near him. He never gave up on a play and took seemingly perfect angles to every tackle. Then, when he got to the the ball-carrier, he made sure they knew who hit them. After big plays at home, he'd fire up the crowd. He knew they could be used as an advantage. His body was aging, but he was getting wiser as a player. He was becoming a tactician. Watching that transition is what turned me into the type of football fan that I am today.
I have two Junior Seau stories.
The first, I was down in Little Italy helping a friend close up his restaurant for the night. Junior showed up with a group of friends around midnight and was obviously intoxicated. Him and his friends were looking for a place to continue drinking and get some food but, with the kitchen closed for the night, all we could offer was booze.
He and his friends stuck around for a drink. Junior told me that it was his birthday and that it was one of the few days during the year that he let himself go crazy. He had just finished his first season with the Miami Dolphins and he repeatedly told me that he missed being in San Diego and that it didn't feel right playing for another team. I told him that my birthday had been the day before, and we joked about Capricorns like we were a club that all others wanted to be a part of.
After that drink, Junior and his friends jumped into a taxi cab and took off downtown somewhere. I remember thinking that he'd be retired and back in San Diego soon enough. He played in parts of six more seasons after that.
The second story I have about Junior is a little sillier. A few years back, my father was selling a vintage ukulele. He got a call from a man who said that he was representing a professional athlete that was interested in buying it, but couldn't say who.
After haggling over the price for a while, the guy asked who my dad's favorite football team was. My dad said "The San Diego Chargers," and the man on the other end of the phone laughed. The phone changed hands and suddenly, Junior Seau was on the line with my dad. "Hey John, this is Junior Seau. Are we really going to keep splitting hairs over a few dollars like this?" My dad laughed, told Junior that he was a fan, and agreed to sell him the ukulele at the price that Seau was asking for. To this day, my dad feels like he got suckered by Junior Seau, but he at least laughs about it.
UPDATE: Here's video of Junior playing the ukulele he bought from my dad, taken just two weeks ago.
I didn't get to experience the day Junior Seau was drafted by the Chargers, or the 1994 run to the Super Bowl. I didn't go to a ton of games, so I missed part of the connection Junior had with the fans. Yet, still, Junior Seau always has been the first San Diego Charger to come to mind when I'm thinking of the greatest ever, or even the most well-respected. I've never met a person that would say a bad thing about him, and I know plenty of people that would say bad things about anyone.
Obviously, Junior had his demons. Many, myself included, think that the self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest is a symbol that Junior wants his brain examined to trauma caused by his 20 years of playing in the NFL. This whole day, and these last few years, have been a very sad end to a beautiful story with deep roots in the San Diego community and the Chargers family. Don't let it taint the beautiful story.
Use the comments to post your favorite Junior Seau memories, on or off the field, and to wish his family and friends the best as they recover from losing a loved one.