Death of one of the all-time best NFL linebackers brings back a ton of memories from his high school days and beyond. He was the original Cal-Hi Sports grid-hooper and the prototype for the modern-day SPARQ Rating.
Junior Seau, the former San Diego Chargers’ linebacker who died on Wednesday at age 43 from a gunshot wound that's being investigated as a suicide, can legitimately be called one of the best high school athletes from San Diego ever and one of the best three-sport athletes in California history.
“He’s probably the best multi-sports athlete I’ve seen from San Diego,” said Steve Brand, who has covered high school sports for the San Diego Union-Tribune for four decades. “Everybody around here is just crushed. We’ll never know what he would have done. We’ll all miss out on what wisdom he might have passed along to some of the kids here.”
Seau also has always had a special place in our hearts because he agreed to be photographed for the very first cover of Cal-Hi Sports magazine despite the date being just two days before the 1990 NFL Draft. Cal-Hi Sports magazine later became Student Sports, which in 2008 became part of ESPN’s high school network. Seau also appeared on a cover for California Football Magazine in 1986 with several other top California high school seniors.
At the time of that 1990 cover shoot, Seau had just wrapped up an All-American career at USC. He was additionally photographed that day at Laguna Beach (Calif.) with a top high school senior from 1990, Willie McGinest of Long Beach Poly. McGinest, who now works for the NFL Network, later played for many years with the New England Patriots. They both wore No. 55 at USC.
While shooting the cover on the beach, Seau noticed that some seaweed had washed up on the shore. He picked it up, draped it around his neck and we decided to keep shooting. One of those shots ended up being the one used.
As a prep athlete at Oceanside from 1984 to 1986, Seau participated in football, basketball and track and field for the Pirates.
In football, he helped turn around a program that had been struggling for 10 years and led the Pirates to the 1986 San Diego Section Class 2A title game at Jack Murphy Stadium (now known at Qualcomm Stadium). He didn’t switch to the linebacker/tight end position until his senior season but was still the San Diego County Defensive Player of the Year and was first team all-state.
In basketball, Seau played the forward position and was regarded as one of the best players in the San Diego area. He even had nine dunks in one game. Seau later was on the very first Cal-Hi Sports all-state grid-hoops team, which consisted of just five players.
It might even be more true to say that Seau was the inspiration for all other grid-hoop teams that have followed.
“He was the blueprint for that type of athlete,” said Andy Bark, vice president of ESPNHS and formerly the president and publisher of Student Sports. “There had been some great Samoan players before him, but none with the speed and explosiveness that he had. He set a new standard for linebackers.”
In track, Seau participated in the shot put. He was a two-time league champ, had a best mark of 56 feet, 10 inches and qualified for the CIF state meet as a senior. He didn’t go to the meet, however, due to a football event obligation.
Seau’s combination of athleticism, quickness and power were so striking to Bark and his staff that a new way of testing high school football players came to fruition.
“We started building the combine events that you see today because we were trying to find the next Junior,” Bark said. “He was the inspiration. When Rod Marinelli (former NFL head coach) and I were figuring out what became the SPARQ Rating we used Junior’s workout marks as the prototype.”
Brand recalls going to a swimming meet at USC shortly after Seau graduated and was shocked to see that every weight-lifting record listed inside the weight-training facility had Seau’s name on it.
“I just happened to be at Army-Navy Academy in nearby Carlsbad when the news came on the TV,” Brand said. “Every kid in the room was quiet. The bell rang and even the administrators didn’t want to move.”
Another reason the Seau name is so strongly associated with success in San Diego is that Junior has not been the only Seau to be successful.
Two years ago, his nephew, Micah, helped Bishop’s (La Jolla, Calif.) go 14-0 in football and win the CIF Division IV state title. Micah now plays at San Diego State. Another nephew, Ian, was a standout lineman at La Costa Canyon (Carlsbad, Calif.) and currently plays at Kansas State.
Seau’s own children, although younger than his nephews, are beginning to emerge as well. His oldest, Sydney, a daughter, was an outstanding player last fall at Bishop’s in volleyball and will play in college at USC. His son, Jake, a sophomore at Bishop’s, played on the varsity football team last fall, but is even more promising as a lacrosse player. Jake recently committed to play lacrosse in college at national power Duke. His youngest son, Hunter, was born on Sept. 11, 2000.
As a salute to Junior Seau and with thoughts and prayers going out to his family, here is a list of the 10 greatest male athletes from San Diego (based on high school and post-high school accomplishments):
1. Ted Williams (Hoover, San Diego) Baseball
2. Bill Walton (Helix, La Mesa) Basketball
3. Marcus Allen (Lincoln, San Diego) Football
4. Junior Seau (Oceanside) Football
5. Phil Mickelson (University, San Diego) Golf
6. Greg Louganis (Valhalla, El Cajon) Diving
7. Billy Casper (Bonita Vista, Chula Vista) Golf
8. Willie Banks (Oceanside) Track
9. David Wells (Point Loma, San Diego) Baseball
10. Gene Littler (La Jolla) Golf
To those from Oceanside, Seau’s death is going to feel like a slug in the gut for a long time, especially to those who were fortunate enough to watch him play for the Pirates and later on as a 12-time Pro Bowl player for the Chargers.