On Dec. 5, 2010, the Oakland Raiders ended a two-game losing streak by dominating the San Diego Chargers 28-13 on the road. Instead of returning to Oakland with the team, Mark Davis, the freckle-faced, gravel-voiced son of legendary Raiders owner Al Davis, chose to stay in town overnight and drive to Palm Springs the next day. He was hungry and wanted a place to watch that night's football game between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, so he chose to dine at Seau's The Restaurant.
After passing through the towering glass doors at the entrance, Davis was stunned to see the greatest defensive player in Chargers history standing at the front desk. Davis had never formally met Junior Seau, but he was familiar with him, telling the perennial Pro Bowl linebacker after some small talk and handshakes: "I've hated you for all my life. But it's out of respect. It's because you kicked our ass so many times."
Junior flashed the broad, welcoming smile for which he was known. Then he and Davis retreated upstairs to his private office, where they talked for hours about life and loves, but very little about football. By the time Davis left, he felt as if he had met a man who was as special a person as he was a player.
"I learned that he was such a soft, generous, life-loving person," Davis said years later. "You talk about alter ego, Clark Kent. I mean, he's in his flip-flops and shorts, just hanging out. It was a great thing. We [met up] again the following year when we played down there [in San Diego]. We started a little relationship. He was just arms wide open. I valued his friendship because he was very special. When he did what he did, it was a shock and it really hurt me."
On May 2, 2012, Seau took his life by pulling the trigger and sending a bullet through his heart. His death, in a guest room at his oceanfront home in Oceanside, California, sent shockwaves through both his hometown and the National Football League. Few players appeared to outwardly love life as much as Seau. He called everyone "Buddee" and made everyone feel as if they were his best friend even if meeting him for the first time. There wasn't a day that he didn't try to fulfill the marching orders his mother gave him and his siblings each morning when they were children: "Go out and make happy."
On Saturday, Seau will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after a 20-year career in which he played for three teams (the Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots), went to 12 Pro Bowls and earned six first-team All-Pro honors. Yet it speaks volumes that he will be remembered as much for who he was as what he did. He had a unique way of connecting with people. He was kind and giving.
While sitting out his freshman season at USC after failing to achieve the minimum SAT score for eligibility, he arrived for his first English tutoring session with a single plate of salad and ate it without offering any to Barbara Ruth Hopkins, a grad student who was working with him. The next time Seau arrived for tutoring, he brought two plates of salad. One for him and one for Hopkins.
"I just can't eat in front of someone, especially if I know that person is also hungry,'' he told the Portland (Maine) Press Herald nearly two decades later. "Besides, it was one of the things that was bred in me: If you have the opportunity to help someone out, you help them out."
Seau had a unique way of making others feel as large as they viewed him. Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Eric Olsen was a teenager the first time he met Seau. The two were at a youth football camp, and at the end of it Seau challenged any of the participants to go one-on-one. Olsen tweeted the rest of the story the morning after Seau's death.
"Being one of the 'big' kids, I was volunteered by my buddies and went up in front of the whole camp to face this monster of a man," he wrote. "Shaking in my cleats, he gave me a wink before a coach gave the cadence. He let me pancake him. And he sold it too. ... I can't even tell you how good I felt at that moment. It changed me forever. The whole camp cheered for me, a chubby kid that didn't know if he even liked football. From then on I was addicted. All thanks to this 10-time all-pro that felt like making some snot-nosed kid's day. ... Doesn't seem like much but it meant a lot to me. Sorry for the essay just had to share. RIP Junior I'll never forget what you did for me."
Chris Fore tells a similar story. It was 1992, and Fore, an offensive lineman at Fallbrook (Calif.) High, was struggling after sustaining serious injuries to his left leg and foot in a car accident.
Fore was the passenger in a car driven by teammate Justin Patterson, a 16-year-old who had just gotten his driver's license in the mail that day. He was driving Fore and another friend home when he lost control of his SUV and slammed into a telephone pole, killing Patterson.
Fore, who would have seven surgeries over the next two years, was depressed about losing a close friend and not being able to participate on the football team. When Seau heard about the story, he arranged to phone Fore because he didn't want the youngster to drown in a pool of self-pity. He spoke to him energetically, telling him to find a way to be a part of the team. The words resonated, as Fore went on to earn the DeNormandie Award, given annually to the most inspirational member of the team.
"That would've never happened without Junior's encouragement and challenge," Fore said in the forthcoming biography "Junior Seau: The Life and Death of a Football Icon." "Junior inspired me. He told me of an injury he had at USC. ... He missed a considerable part of the season. He said he felt bad for himself at first, which is how I was feeling. Then he went on to tell me how selfish that really was, because the team was moving on with or without him. 'With or without me, there was going to be a Trojan football season. Hate to say it like this, Chris, but with or without you there will be a Warrior football season. You have to find a way to be a part of that.'"
More than two decades later, the words still carry weight with Fore. "Nobody had challenged me that way before," he continued. "Here I was, going to be in a wheelchair and on crutches for the entire football season, and nobody had told me that I could still be involved until Junior did that night. I gained a new perspective. Football meant so much to me, so I started to look at it through a new set of eyes that night. I saw my teammates as people that I could still motivate, encourage and challenge. So I did just that. The next year, as a senior, I coached the freshman team. I've now coached 14 years now, eight as a head football coach. I don't know that I would've ever realized this path my life has been on without that call and a subsequent visit to Chargers practice, where Junior further encouraged me in that regard."
Years after his death, Seau's ability to touch people could still be seen at his gravesite, where parents left pictures that their kids had taken with him. In one, a young boy was wearing a helmet and being held by the star linebacker. It was debatable whose smile was wider. There also was a handwritten note, wrapped in protective clear plastic: "You mean more than you know and are missed but not forgotten."