It's right there, on the first page of the book...
"It's not going to end well for this guy." - 1999-2000 Chargers Linebackers Coach Jim Vechiarella.
Junior Seau: The Life an Death of a Football Icon by Jim Trotter. Introduction, Page 1.
So begins Jim Trotter's account of the life and death of Junior Seau.
It's a simple piece of foreshadowing which hovers over the incredible story of the young man who rose from a lower-middle class upbringing in Oceanside, California, to become (arguably) the greatest athlete in San Diego County High School history, an elite talent at University of Southern California, an All-Pro, All Decade Linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, and New England Patriots. His 20 season career culminated in his recent and posthumous induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That foreshadowing also hovers over the personal life of a young man raised in a Samoan household which values integrity and responsibility above all other things. When that responsibility and integrity was honored, we saw the results on the field. When it wasn't honored, it left a broken family and children without their father for extended periods of time.
As the book also makes clear, Seau's greatest gift was also his tragic flaw:
A young man with a gift for making everyone feel like they were the most important person in the world, and yet a young man who didn't understand that working so hard to please those around him would cause him to avoid necessary and unpleasant facts about himself and others, some related to family and friends, others related to a game he worked harder at and loved more than almost anyone who ever played it.
Learning About Junior Seau
The first thing that I enjoyed about Trotter's book was learning about just how incredible Seau was playing football, basketball, and track for Oceanside High School. I didn't really start to get into sports besides Padres baseball until I was about 12-13 years old - when Seau was drafted by the Chargers - so I missed out on the local reporting regarding Seau's extraordinary prep career. This will give you an idea of how incredible he was:
As a senior in football, he had 62 receptions for 891 yards and 11 touchdowns and was the "San Diego Section Defensive Player of the Year" at linebacker. Parade magazine named him an All-America at "athlete," a designation it created especially for him. In basketball he averaged 22.3 points and 9 rebounds per game and was named "Section Player of the Year." In track and field he won the Avocado League championship with a shot put of 53 feet, 5.5 inches and broke an uncle's school record with a mark of 56 feet, 10 inches.
- Page 12.
Sean's early athletic career was marked by explosive playmaking ability and equally explosive losses of mental discipline. On more than a few occasions, he either tried to or successfully get into fights with teammates and opponents whom he felt had insulted him. Following a difficult rookie season in San Diego, he rededicated himself to working hard. His second season resulted in 111 tackles and his first of 12 trips to the Pro Bowl.
Through the Ross / Beathard era, Seau became the unquestioned team leader in the Chargers locker room. He had progressed to a point where his often derided "freelancing" had actually been accepted by the coaches - more often than not, his instincts were correct - and adopted into the defense:
A lot of being involved with him was blitzing and attacking that A gap. it's very intimidating for a quarterback when Junior's in that A gap - one year away - and the ball's going to be snapped and the guard's got to block down on him we knew the offense had to account for him and the protection was going to slide to him, so we used to run stunts off it.
- Former Chargers' Defensive Coordinator Joe Pascale. Page 94.
Of course, Junior's legendary intensity had a darker side. There's one particularly vivid description of a training camp collision between Seau and fullback Fred McCrary in 2001:
The sound of the collisions what got everyone's attention. it was so violent that it could be heard a couple of football fields away, so violent that it left a three-inch crack across the bridge of McCrary's helmet.
- Page 109.
Needless to say, both players suffered concussions from the hit. Neither player (at Seau's urging) informed James Collins - the team's Trainer - of their condition, which resulted in complications for McCrary months later.
Trotter's narrative spends at least as much time detailing Seau's life off the field as it does on the the field. This is really the core of the story, and where there will be more than a few uncomfortable moments of reading.
Seau, even from his college days, had problems with fidelity. He first courted his wife Gina, while he was still involved with his high school sweetheart (and mother of his eldest son, Tyler). Later, when Gina filed for divorce following more bouts of infidelity, his journal entry indicates both a man who knows he's done wrong, but also a boy's inability to truly confront it or understand how to deal with it. Further, as Trotter writes, he was very good at showing people what they wanted to see, while hiding his feelings of anger and pain:
He masked his pain with more women, more liquor, and trips to the casinos... He excelled at showing people what he wanted them to see, and he skillfully separated personal from professional. On the field he remained a dominant player, possessing a unique ability to troll the clubs until dawn, go straight to the training facility and sweat out the alcohol before anyone arrived, then outwork everyone on the practice field.
- Pages 108-109.
Further, former Chargers and Patriots teammate Rodney Harrison pulls zero punches saying Seau had people in his life who didn't have his best interests at heart:
There were a lot of people around Junior that knew Junior was going through certain things, but they didn't care. They cared about Junior because he gave them something. He gave them a sense of importance, a good time: I'm hanging out with Junior Seau. The people close to him who say they didn't see the signs - you've got to be kidding me. I didn't even hang out with Junior and I could see the signs. I could see the depression. I tried to reach out to Junior, and that's the problem; he surrounded himself with people that...
- Rodney Harrison discussing Seau's late-life problems. Page 190.
it goes without saying that when Trotter writes about Seau's final days, there's a mixture of dread and devastation when the moment finally comes. Reading about Seau's mother's reaction - a terrible and indelible moment for every San Diegan who saw it on television - brought a rush of sadness; it was so strong I instantly recalled the day hearing the news and updates while I was at work, and sharing stories and tears with my co-workers.
About the Book Itself
Jim Trotter writes with clean, brisk efficiency as he covers Seau's life, and it plays well into the narrative. Trotter's focus is on the tragedy no one seemed to see coming (though some clearly should have), and his no-frills style gives the story a quick pace in which Seau's late years and avalanching problems really seem to sneak up on the reader - in much the same way Seau's late-life mishaps and eventual death snuck up on both his family and the larger community as a whole.
Furthermore, Trotter shows tremendous tact and resists the urge to write in lurid detail about the more salacious elements of Seau's life - such as the extramarital affairs, heavy drinking, and excessive gambling. However, he's not afraid to point out these things happened, and he's also very interested in showing the impact Seau's poorer choices had on the people closest to him. This is a fair, and compassionate choice on Trotter's part.
Ultimately, Trotter aims to bring his readers a level-headed portrait of an incredible athlete and deeply flawed human. The result is neither a hagiography nor a salacious expose. The balance is delicate, and Trotter walks the tightrope expertly.
There are only a couple of criticisms. First (and least) among them are some chronology errors in the book, but nothing really worth worrying about.
My only wish - admittedly not the focus of the book - is that Trotter's could've spent more time analyzing the ways in which Seau exploded the conventional notions of what a middle linebacker could and could not do. I personally enjoy X's and O's talk a lot, and would've loved reading more about how coaches (including all-time greats like Bill Arnsparger and Bill Belichick) were able to use Seau to attack opposing offenses. Truthfully, it's a minor gripe, as too much football talk would have diluted the emotional thrust of the book. I understand why it would have been left out.
If you are a San Diego sports fan, a Charger' fan, or even just interested in pulling back the curtain on the life of one of football's all-time greats, this book is a must read. Trotter writes about San Diego in a way that anyone who lives here will instantly recognize, and many of the moments he describes will bring memories, mostly good and some very bad, rushing back.
The world was better for Junior Seau being in it. He is missed by family, both his immediate family, and the wider community of San Diegans, athletes, and fans he left behind.
For several hours this past weekend, Jim Trotter brought him back to life.