OCEANSIDE, Calif. -- Junior Seau, a homegrown superstar who was the fist-pumping, emotional leader of the San Diego Chargers for 13 years, was found shot to death at his home Wednesday morning. He was 43.
Police Chief Frank McCoy said Seau's girlfriend reported finding him unconscious with a gunshot wound to the chest and lifesaving efforts were unsuccessful. A gun was found near him, McCoy said, and police were investigating the possibility that Seau's death was a suicide. Police said no suicide note was found and they didn't immediately know to whom the gun was registered.
Seau's death in Oceanside, in northern San Diego County, stunned the region he represented with almost reckless abandon. The same intensity that got the star linebacker ejected for fighting in his first exhibition game helped carry the Chargers to their only Super Bowl, following the 1994 season. A ferocious tackler, he'd leap up, pump a fist and kick out a leg after dropping a ball carrier or quarterback.
"It's a sad thing. It's hard to understand," said Bobby Beathard, who as Chargers general manager took Seau out of Southern California with the fifth pick overall in the 1990 draft. "He was really just a great guy. If you drew up a player you'd love to have the opportunity to draft and have on the team and as a teammate, Junior and Rodney (Harrison), they'd be the kind of guys you'd like to have."
Quarterback Stan Humphries recalled that Seau did everything at the same speed, whether it was practicing, lifting weights or harassing John Elway.
"The intensity, the smile, the infectious attitude, it carried over to all the other guys," said Humphries, who was shocked that Seau is now the eighth player from the '94 Super Bowl team to die.
Seau's mother appeared before reporters outside the former player's house, weeping uncontrollably.
"I don't understand ... I'm shocked," Luisa Seau cried out.
Her son gave no indication of a problem when she spoke to him by phone earlier this week, she said.
"He's joking to me, he called me a 'homegirl,' " she said.
Seau's death follows the suicide last year of former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson, who also shot himself in the chest.
In October 2010, Seau survived a 100-foot plunge down a seaside cliff in his SUV, hours after he was arrested for investigation of domestic violence at the Oceanside home he shared with his girlfriend. The woman had told authorities that Seau assaulted her during an argument.
There was no evidence of drugs or alcohol involved in the crash and Seau told authorities he fell asleep while driving. He suffered minor injuries.
"I just can't imagine this, because I've never seen Junior in a down frame of mind," Beathard said. "He was always so upbeat and he would keep people up. He practiced the way he played. He made practice fun. He was a coach's dream. He was an amazing guy as well as a player and a person. This is hard to believe."
Seau's ex-wife, Gina, told the Union-Tribune San Diego that he texted her and each of their three children separate messages: "I love you." She later confirmed to The Associated Press that Seau texted the family.
Seau, who played in the NFL for parts of 20 seasons, is the eighth member of San Diego's lone Super Bowl team who has died, all before the age of 45. Lew Bush, Shawn Lee, David Griggs, Rodney Culver, Doug Miller, Curtis Whitley and Chris Mims are the others. Causes of death ranged from heart attacks to a plane crash to a lightning strike.
Gina Seau said her ex-husband sustained concussions during his career.
"Of course he had. He always bounced back and kept on playing," she said in a phone interview. "He's a warrior. That didn't stop him. I don't know what football player hasn't. It's not ballet. It's part of the game."
Gina Seau said she didn't know if the effects of concussions contributed to Seau's death.
"We have no clues whatsoever. We're as stunned and shocked as anyone else. We're horribly saddened. We miss him and we'll always love him," she said.
When Humphries joined the Chargers in a 1992 trade, he said it was obvious Seau was "the person who had the most energy, the most excited, the guy who tried to rally everybody." Humphries said Seau "brought out a lot of youngness" in older players.
He also helped younger players.
"So sad to hear about Jr Seau," tweeted New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who was with San Diego from 2001-05. "Junebug. Buddy. The greatest teammate a young guy could ask for. This is a sad day. He will be missed greatly."
Chargers president Dean Spanos called Seau an icon and a friend.
"I can't put into words how I'm feeling right now. I'm shocked and devastated," Spanos said in a statement. "Junior was my friend. We all lost a friend today. Junior was an icon in our community. He transcended the game. He wasn't just a football player; he was so much more. He was loved by everyone in our family, our organization and throughout the NFL.
"This is just such a tragic loss. One of the worst things I could ever imagine. My prayers go out to Junior's family. It's heartbreaking."
Seau called many of those around him "Buddy" and often referred to teammates as "my players."
"As a young linebacker, Junior was my hero growing up and once I had the opportunity to meet him I saw that he was everything I hoped he would be and more," former Dolphin Zach Thomas said in a statement. "Getting the chance to play alongside of Junior Seau, the greatest linebacker to ever play the game, made my dreams come true. I am absolutely devastated to hear this news. Today I lost my hero, my friend, my buddy."
Jason Taylor, who also played with Thomas and Seau on the Dolphins, said he was "devastated."
"It would be easy for me to say he was a great friend and teammate, and a tremendous competitor, but that would be selling Junior short," Taylor said in a statement. "Junior Seau was an individual of great honor and integrity, a leader of men and someone with a deep-rooted passion for giving of himself to make the people, the community and especially the children around him better. This is an immeasurable loss for so many. My heart and prayers go out to Junior's family, Gina and their children. I'm going to miss you buddy."
Commissioner Roger Goodell sent his condolences to the Seau family on Twitter and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said, "The NFLPA player family today joins with the Seau family to mourn a brother lost too soon."
USC athletic director Pat Haden called Seau "one of the greatest legends" in school history.
"He will always be remembered by USC as the original No. 55," Haden said in a statement.
Seau's greatest game may have been in the 17-13 victory at Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game in January 1995 that sent the Chargers to the Super Bowl. Playing through the pain of a pinched nerve in his neck, he spread out his 16 tackles from the first play to the second-to-last. San Diego lost 49-26 in the Super Bowl to San Francisco.
Humphries also recalled Seau recovering Elway's fumble to seal a come-from-behind victory in the 1994 opener at Denver.
Seau left the Chargers after the 2002 season when the team unceremoniously told him he was free to pursue a trade. He held a farewell news conference at the restaurant he owned in Mission Valley, and later was traded to Miami.
"Junior was a fierce competitor whose passion and work ethic lifted his teammates to greater heights. His enthusiasm for the game was infectious and he passed that on to everyone who was around him. He loved the game so much, and no one played with more sheer joy," Dolphins CEO Mike Dee said in a statement.
"Junior was one-of-a-kind. The league will never see anyone like him again," Dee said.
Seau retired a few times, the first in August 2006, when he said, "I'm not retiring. I am graduating."
Four days later, he signed with the New England Patriots. He was with the Patriots when they lost to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl following the 2007 season, which ended New England's quest for a perfect season.
"For four seasons, after every game he played, he would always find me in the locker room just to give me a big hug and squeeze tighter than anyone I remember. It was one of the many things I enjoyed about him," Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft said in a statement. "He was passionate about football and always spoke with great conviction. He may have been one of the most charismatic Patriots players in franchise history. I loved listening to him when he addressed an audience. I will never forget presenting him with his AFC Championship ring at Seau's Restaurant in San Diego before our game against the Chargers in 2008. It was a memorable moment shared by both Patriots and Chargers fans, who that day celebrated pregame together as Junior Seau fans. He was beloved in his hometown of San Diego and quickly became a fan favorite in New England.
"Today, the fans of the teams for which Junior played -- San Diego, Miami and New England -- lost more than a legendary football player. We lost our 'Buddy.' "
Seau's last season was 2009 and last fall, finally retired for good, he was inducted into the Chargers Hall of Fame.
"Twenty years, to be part of this kind of fraternity, to be able to go out and play the game that you love, and all the lessons and the friends and acquaintances which you meet along the way, you can't be in a better arena," Seau said in August.
More than 100 people gathered outside of Seau's home, only hours after he was found dead. Families showed up with flowers and fans wearing Chargers jerseys waited to get news.
Several hours after Seau was found, his body was loaded onto a medical examiner's van and taken away as fans snapped pictures and raised their hands in the air as if in prayer.
Family friend Priscilla Sanga said about 50 friends and family members gathered in the garage where Seau's body lay on a gurney and they had the opportunity to say goodbye.
"Everybody got to see Junior before they took him away," Sanga said. "He looked so peaceful and cold. It was disbelief. We all touched him and kissed him."