Early this morning I received a message from an NFL player whose family lives in Oceanside, Calif.
"Have you heard anything about Junior 55???" it said of Junior Seau, the iconic Oceanside native who retired from the league several years ago. "How's he doing?"
"Saw him a month ago," I responded. "He was doing fine. Have you heard otherwise."
"My bro just said he shot himself. Hope it's not true. I'm crushed right now."
Within an hour TMZ reported that Seau, 43, had committed suicide. None of us knows why he put a gun to his chest and pulled the trigger -- and we may never know -- but the news struck me with the vengeance of a blind-side hit.
Full disclosure: Seau and I were friends, at least I like to think we were. I know reporters aren't supposed to admit such things, but people who tell you they haven't gotten close to a player they've covered are lying to you.
The first professional beat I covered on a daily basis was the Chargers, in 1995. Seau was the first player I ran into when I reported for work. It was the offseason, and when I turned the corner into a nearly empty locker room at Qualcomm Stadium, Seau was heading for the training room. He looked back and saw me, then stopped and called me over.
"So, you're the new guy?" he said. "Well, if you need anything call me. Here, take my number."
I didn't know what to make of it because Seau and I had no previous relationship. Right away my antennae went up. I had heard Seau could be difficult with the media, and I couldn't help but wonder if I was being played.
Over the years I learned that the offer was sincere. Not in the sense that Seau provided me with inside information -- to the contrary he was fiercely loyal when it came to his teammates and the organization, and he regularly stiff-armed me when I tried to get behind the curtain. What he was offering was help understanding the culture of the NFL and the unique dynamics of the locker room.
Those talks were invaluable. It's not a stretch to say I wouldn't be working for Sports Illustrated without those lessons. Seau's willingness to give of himself didn't end with me; he gave to the entire San Diego community.
You have to understand: Junior Seau didn't live in San Diego. He was San Diego. Largely because he never forgot where he came from.
He grew up hard in Oceanside, fighting for food and sometimes sleeping on mattresses in the garage. It's one reason he focused on young people and struggling families when he established his foundation in the early 1990s. For instance, each Thanksgiving he would shut down the Mission Valley restaurant bearing his name and feed families affected by domestic violence and military personnel away from home. During Christmas, the foundation partners with a local store to allow underprivileged kids an opportunity to "purchase" gifts for family members. In total the Junior Seau Foundation, which also helps young people attend college, has distributed nearly $4 million since its inception.
When Seau retired for the first time, we sat in the cool air outside his restaurant and reflected on his career. When I told him that his legacy off the field would ultimately dwarf what he did on it, he stared at me and said nothing. I walked away wondering if he truly understood how many lives he had touched with his generosity. He still seemed to measure his happiness (self worth?) by how people viewed him as a player.
And now I wonder if that career didn't contribute to his passing.
Seau, one of the game's fiercest strikers during a career that included 12 Pro Bowls, is the third retired player in the last 15 months to shoot himself to death. Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling preceded him, and both suffered from depressions and complications from concussions sustained during their careers.
Seau was the type who refused to leave the field, regardless of his physical condition. He played in an AFC Championship Game with a stinger that prevented him from raising his arm above his shoulder. He partially tore his hamstring one Sunday, but stayed in the game despite being noticeably hindered. Another time he shot up an ankle at least 18 times so he wouldn't miss a game. To think he didn't play through multiple concussions would be naive at best.
In March, we spoke about the perception that commissioner Roger Goodell was making the game too soft with his enhanced enforcement of player safety rules. "It has to happen," he said. "Those who are saying the game is changing for the worse, well, they don't have a father who can't remember his name because of the game. I'm pretty sure if everybody had to wake with their dad not knowing his name, not knowing his kids' name, not being able to function at a normal rate after football, they would understand that the game needs to change. If it doesn't there are going to be more players, more great players, being affected by the things that we know of and aren't changing. That's not right."
I fully believe a man's worth is measured by what he does for others, not what he does for himself. Seau gave so much that I will remember him as a great man. Did he have demons? Who doesn't? Selfishly, my hope is that Seau gives one more time. My hope is that his family donates his brain to research, just as Duerson did after killing himself. It was later learned he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease tied to repeated brain trauma.
It would be one final gift from a man who gave so much.