Thursday January 10th, 2008

It doesn't seem quite possible, but the record is the record, and it's right there in black and white. Junior Seau is in a position this week that he hasn't been in for 12 long years: Preparing to take part in an NFL playoff game.

He hasn't suited up in the postseason since the 1995 Chargers, at the time the defending AFC champions, were upset at home by the Indianapolis Colts in a first-round game played on New Year's Eve. How long ago was that? For a little perspective, it was the last month of Bill Belichick's head coaching tenure in Cleveland, more than two years before the Ryan Leaf era even began in San Diego, and five-plus years before the Chargers drafted a talented running back out of TCU named LaDainian Tomlinson.

In terms of a football career, it was a lifetime ago. Now in his 18th NFL season, less than 10 days shy of his 39th birthday, Seau has spent the last two-thirds of his likely Hall of Fame playing career trying to get back into a game that had single-elimination consequences. His countdown has shrunk to T-minus, two days before New England's AFC divisional round showdown with Jacksonville on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium.

"I've always dreamt to have another opportunity and another chance, and that's why I'm here,'' Seau said Wednesday. "When I signed here, I knew it was one more chance to win. But that's all it gave me, another chance. Right now we get another opportunity, and hopefully this will be the end of the journey.''

Playoff experience is stacked three deep in the New England locker room, but Seau represents a bit of a paradox. He's the team's elder statesman, and yet all six of his career playoff games came in the four-year span of 1992-95 in San Diego, in the first half of his 13 seasons as a Chargers linebacker. His one and only shot at the Super Bowl came in the 1994 season, when upstart San Diego got crushed by Steve Young and the 49ers, 49-26.

To this day, Seau recoils at the memory of that game, and of sitting in the airport the next day awaiting the flight home, long since branded a Super Bowl loser.

"It was embarrassing,'' Seau said. "As an athlete, as a professional athlete, to go in there and compete at the high level that you had hoped to and to go out there and have it handed to you on national TV as the world was watching. They took it to us. It was embarrassing.''

Last season brought a different kind of pain for Seau. Lured out of a four-day stint in retirement in the preseason by a chance to play for the Patriots, Seau started 10 of the 11 games he appeared in before breaking his arm against the Bears on Thanksgiving weekend. After being placed on IR and shelved for the season, he couldn't bear to watch the Patriots' three-game playoff run, and went surfing off the coast of San Diego on the day New England played and lost the AFC Championship Game at Indianapolis.

"Whenever you get into the playoffs and when you gain success early, as a human being, you think it's easy and it's going to come back again,'' Seau said. "But it doesn't always work that way. Would I have thought that I would be here after 18 years? No. I would never have thought that. It just worked out the way it did and here we are.''

Here he is, still chasing the ring that has eluded him through his 17 previous NFL seasons, through 12 consecutive Pro Bowl trips (1991-2002), three teams and a collage of coaches and teammates. Through it all, the ring has remained the thing.

"I'm not here for anything else,'' he said. "I'm not here to practice. I'm not here to go to meetings. It's a great game, and I do love the game, but you would love to finish it the way you dreamt of finishing it when you were a kid.''

Seau, of course, isn't the dominating player he was in his San Diego tenure, when he was considered the game's preeminent linebacker. But his contributions to the Patriots' No. 4-ranked defense this season have not been inconsequential. He was part of the team's five-man linebacker rotation in the season's first 12 games, and has started the past four games at inside linebacker after Rosevelt Colvin was lost due to a season-ending injury.

It's always all about on-field production in New England, but Seau's example of how to play the game is lauded by a Patriots head coach who's not known for doing a lot of lauding.

"Every time we go in the huddle he has an energy and a presence about him that's pretty much non-stop,'' Belichick said. "He's obviously one of the most respected players in the league, certainly on this team. He has a good message and people listen to him, as they should. He has a lot experience and comes from the heart.''

No one on the Patriots roster has more experience with Seau's story than safety Rodney Harrison, his San Diego teammate of nine years (1994-2002). They left the Chargers the same offseason, with Harrison signing with New England and winning a pair of Super Bowl rings, and Seau joining AFC East rival Miami, which was on the way down.

The idea of seeing Seau -- who he calls the most influential person in his career -- earn his long-awaited ring just adds to Harrison's motivation in the perfect season that has unfolded in Foxboro.

"It would be tremendous,'' Harrison said. "That would definitely mean a great deal. He just appreciates the opportunity. You can just tell by his work ethic that he's never taken a single day for granted. He's always the first one here, one of the last guys to leave. I walked in [Tuesday], I couldn't sleep and was up around 5 a.m., and was here around 5:45 or 6 o'clock, and Junior was already here.

"He knows this is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He walked away from the game and he came back. He had the opportunity, got hurt last year, and now he's taking advantage of it and making the most of it.''

To make the most of it, Seau quickly reminds anyone who will listen, the Patriots have to do their job this week against the Jaguars, again in next week's AFC title game, and finally in Super Bowl XLII next month. Then his quest for the Holy Grail will be complete after 18 years, and he'd have the perfect exit strategy. A ring and then retirement.

"I don't think there's a better story than that,'' Seau said. "But at the same time, all we have right now is a chance. This isn't what I came back to help this team accomplish, just getting to the playoffs. We're not even there yet. This would only be special if we take care of business and reach our ultimate goal.''

If they do, he will too. Nobody in New England has waited longer for this week to arrive than Junior Seau.

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