SAN DIEGO -- As a rookie running back for the San Diego Chargers in 2001, LaDainian Tomlinson got a firsthand look not only at how hard Junior Seau worked on the field but also at how graciously he handled himself off it.
Those first two years with Seau set the tone for how Tomlinson conducted his business during and after his football career.
“When you talk about an icon, I think Junior is the definition of that,” Tomlinson said. “To me, an icon goes beyond the playing field. It goes to what you mean to your community and to your own people as a culture, and for Junior, that’s who he was.
“He’s an icon to so many people. And I was so fortunate because I got to watch him up close and personal in some of my most critical years of my playing career, the first two.”
Seau, who died in 2012, is a first-ballot Hall of Famer who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend in Canton, Ohio. Along with Seau, the 2015 Hall of Fame class consists of running back Jerome Bettis, guard Will Shields, wide receiver Tim Brown, defensive end Charles Haley, center Mick Tingelhoff and former general managers Bill Polian and Ron Wolf.
Seau played 20 seasons for three teams, was voted to the Pro Bowl 12 times and was named first-team All-Pro eight times. He played in 268 games, the second most of any linebacker in NFL history, finishing with 1,522 tackles, 56.5 sacks and 18 interceptions.
But along with those eye-popping numbers, Seau leaves a legacy of community service in his hometown of San Diego.
Seau created the Junior Seau Foundation in 1992 to help serve the children of San Diego. He donated millions to this community over the years and helped to establish a sports complex east of the city, along with a boys club and senior center in the area where he grew up in Oceanside, California.
“He just had a way with people that was really unique,” said Lofa Tatupu, a linebacker who played six NFL seasons with the Seattle Seahawks and grew up admiring the talented linebacker. “He was such a lovable guy. He really cared about each and every person, on and off of the field.”
Tatupu recalled the first time he met Seau, after a New England Patriots game in 1994. Tatupu’s father, Mosi Tatupu, played for the Patriots and introduced his 12-year-old son to Seau after a game in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
“He’s what every kid wanted to be,” Tatupu said. “Before Ray Lewis came along and Brian Urlacher, Junior was that dude that we all looked up to, especially myself, being of Samoan heritage and playing linebacker as well.
“I watched everything he did. And everything I heard about him was he was an unbelievable guy.”
Tatupu followed Seau’s footsteps and played linebacker at the University of Southern California, where the Hall of Famer made No. 55 famous. After Seau established himself as an elite linebacker in college, only top linebacker prospects were allowed to wear that number for the Trojans, including Willie McGinest, Chris Claiborne and Keith Rivers.
“That number was special, and it still is,” Tatupu said. “It’s sacred because all of those guys [who] wore it, especially Junior, what he did during his time at SC to separate himself from the rest of the linebackers in the country.
“His intensity and his passion really stood out every time he took the field. His signature after a big play, interception or sack -- that hop and then a punch -- everybody knew that he meant serious business when he took that field. I think that’s what really separated him, on top of all the strength and amazing athletic ability he had. That true passion for the game really shined through every Sunday when he took the field.”
Like Tatupu, San Diego linebacker Manti Te’o said that Seau remains an example for all Polynesian players aspiring to play in the NFL.
“He was big," Te'o said. "He’s one of those trailblazers for all of us Polynesian kids. Him, Troy Polamalu, Jesse Sapolu -- guys like that. As young Polynesian players, we all looked up to these people, and saw them. And just like college, how you see everybody and our parents going to college, we think we can do the same thing with these guys.”
For Tomlinson, what he remembers most about his former teammate was his willingness to help people.
“I sat there and watched somebody do it the right way -- how to work and how to be a professional -- and yet, when you step away from the field, how to act in the community,” Tomlinson said. “Junior was one-of-a-kind. He made everybody feel like they were his best friend. It’s going to be special to see him go in.”