Seau hoping his 18th season yields the promised ring

Junior Seau has come a long way since his rookie season in San Diego. (left). After a stellar career there and a stint in Miami, Seau called it a career in 2006 (center). But with a comeback as a Patriot (right), he's near his first Super Bowl ring. Getty Images

PHOENIX -- He bounced into the locker room under Gillette Stadium on Friday wearing a fedora made of straw, sandals and a smile that wouldn't -- couldn't -- subside.

Tiaina Baul Seau, Jr., is 39 years old, but for the last seven weeks the New England Patriots linebacker has been behaving like a man half his age. This is what happens when you've been riding the NFL carousel for 18 years, reaching for the great brass ring of your profession and suddenly, there it is, glittering, within your grasp.

"The journey of getting to the Super Bowl is just that, a journey," Seau explained, as the Patriots' preparations in Massachusetts were winding down. "A journey to win, consistently. A chance to win is all I needed, because then I will be able to receive what I am looking for."

He is one of the finest linebackers to ever play the game, a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer. Seau was named to play in 12 consecutive Pro Bowls when he played for the San Diego Chargers, he's made a ton of money and he has a restaurant with his name on it. The one thing he doesn't have, the thing he's desperately seeking, is a Super Bowl ring. In his only appearance in the ultimate game, the Chargers lost to the San Francisco 49ers 49-26 in the 1995 Super Bowl. It wasn't Seau's fault; he had 11 tackles and a sack.

"That's 181 games ago," he said Monday, as he nursed a cold in a nondescript ballroom at the Phoenix Convention Center. "I can't even remember that. I want to look forward."

There have been a number of Hall of Fame players who have failed to bring home a ring -- most notably, perhaps, Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino -- and when questioned, they will assure you that it is disappointing, but not devastating. You get the sense that Seau would be crushed if the Patriots don't find a way to beat the Giants here in Super Bowl XLII.

"I can't price-tag it," Seau said earnestly. "I can't give it any kind of substance because I've never done it. I am just working with my players to position ourselves to make sure we do the best thing that we can on Sunday. This place here, this culture here, breeds a chance to win, and win consistently."

At 6 feet, 3 inches and 250 pounds, uncommonly agile and strong, Seau played in San Diego for 13 seasons. After averaging nearly 100 tackles per season and seven per game, he was traded to the Miami Dolphins. He ended the last two of three seasons on injured reserve and, at a ceremony back home in San Diego, he retired before the 2006 season. At the time, he called it a graduation but, in retrospect, he was about to pursue his master's degree.

But three days later, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick called with a proposition.

"There were teams that wanted me, maybe at leadership for the locker room, or a plug-in linebacker, sparingly, but there wasn't a team that needed me," Seau said.

"A call came, and it was Bill Belichick, and the words he used on the phone were the reason why I'm here. He said to me, 'I have a position for you. This year.' Those were his words.

"That's a team, a coach, that's a locker room that needed my service. And I was willing to do it."

Seau started 10 of the first 11 games, but broke his arm against the Chicago Bears. The Patriots lost to the Colts in the AFC Championship game and Seau worked diligently to prepare for 2007. The acquisition of free agent Adalius Thomas knocked him out of the starting lineup, but Seau still was voted a defensive captain.

He made himself useful in passing situations and recorded a single-season career high of three interceptions.

When Rosevelt Colvin was lost for the season, Seau became a starter for the last four regular-season games and played in all 16 regular-season games for the first time in six seasons. In his six games as a starter, he has produced 42 tackles and 3.5 sacks -- in other words, vintage Seau five years removed from his last Pro Bowl.

And so, here he is in Phoenix, along with a handful of consistently superb players aching to win their first league championship. There is New England wide receiver Randy Moss, who set a single-season record with 23 touchdown passes and has been voted to eight Pro Bowls. New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan (141 ½ career sacks) and wide receiver Amani Toomer (the team's all-time leader with 620 receptions, 50 for touchdowns) are the only holdovers from Super Bowl XXXV. Punter Jeff Feagles, 41, has played in a league-record 320 consecutive games.

None of these players, however, has more support from his teammates than Seau.

"Why? Because he's Buddy-Buddy," said Thomas. "He calls everybody Buddy-Buddy. A guy that's been in the league that long, dedicated, works hard, practices hard, motivational -- you want to see him go out on top."

Perhaps more than anyone, Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi appreciates this grand stage. This is his fifth Super Bowl, going back to the Patriots' loss to Green Bay at the end of the 1996 season.

"Because all of us have experienced winning world championships before, we know the experience he's about to go through," Bruschi said. "We know how long he's worked to get to this moment. We're happy for him because it's an experience you should cherish. He's back here, and to put this on top of his already impressive résumé
is something we want to do for him."

Safety Rodney Harrison, who played with Seau for nine seasons in San Diego and already has won two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots, said he is "elated" for his good friend.

"I've seen him work through so much pain," Harrison said. "Hard work, dedication, commitment, the sacrifices he's made with his family, away from his kids. Just to get an opportunity -- that's all Junior ever wanted. Coming back 18 years later, it's incredible."

On Monday, Seau was asked where all his energy came from.

"I love football," he said softly. "I love football."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.