SI Vault: Young star Junior Seau is bringing honor to his family name
In 1993, already a star after only three seasons in the league, 24-year-old Junior Seau said, “I have a real fear of being just another linebacker.” On Aug. 8, his bronze bust will be unveiled in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Suffice to say, the late Seau was not just another linebacker. This article originally appeared in the September 06, 1993 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to SI magazine here.
The bungalow on Zeiss Street in the east-side neighborhood of Oceanside, Calif., was an oasis for Junior Seau and his family. There the Seaus disappeared into their own world to escape the violence that surrounded them. They spoke no English while at home, and they strictly adhered to their Samoan customs. Tiaina Seau dressed his three sons in wraparound skirts called lavalavas, and his wife, Luisa, sewed beautiful floor-length dresses, called muumuus, for the couple's two girls. The boys learned the Samoan slap dance, and the girls were taught the hula. Twice each day, before breakfast and after dinner, Tiaina gathered his brood to pray on straw floor mats in the living room. A deacon at the First Samoan Congregational Church in Vista, Tiaina read to his children from the Bible and led the singing of Samoan hymns while banging on an old piano.
“Dad taught us about morals, values and goals,” Junior recalls. “Having a tight-knit family was important to him. The one question he always asked us was, ‘How do we protect the Seau name?’”
Today, Seau, the Pro Bowl linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, brings much honor to the family name. “I'm afraid of being average,” Seau says. “I have a real fear of being just another linebacker.”
There is little chance of that. After only three seasons in the NFL, he is already considered the game's best inside linebacker, and before he is done he could become one of the best ever at his position. Last season San Diego, under new coach Bobby Ross, started out 0–4 but finished 11–5, the biggest in-season turnaround in NFL history. The Chargers finished first in the AFC West and made the playoffs for the first time since 1982. The defense was the fourth-best in the league, and Seau was the soul of that unit. At his urging, players linked hands in the defensive huddle. When the Charger offense scored, Seau would bolt into the end zone to offer congratulations. At 6'3" and 250 lbs, Seau is an awesome specimen. He runs a 4.61 40, bench-presses 500 lbs, squats 670 and has a 38-inch vertical leap. In his off-season workouts Seau can easily outsprint his two dogs—Trojan, a golden retriever, and Heisman, a rottweiler—while running sets of 100-yard dashes. During games it is not unusual for him to rush a quarterback and suddenly reverse direction to chase a receiver and tackle him as far as 45 yards downfield. Against the Los Angeles Raiders in 1991, Seau came from behind to catch wide receiver Sam Graddy, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the 4X100-meter relay and a silver medalist in the 100 meters.
And his competitive fire burns white-hot even during practice. At minicamp in May, in a drill pitting running backs against linebackers, Seau jammed Eric Bieniemy hard at the line and pushed him outside the cones. That disqualified Bieniemy, according to the rules of the drill, but the running back kept his balance and raced downfield to make the catch anyway. Seau was enraged at Bieniemy for not following the rules and at himself for giving up on the play before it was over. “Come on back for more, Eric!” Seau yelled, butting in front of linebacker Gary Plummer, who was next in line for the drill. “Get over here!” Bieniemy shook his head. “No, Eric! Do it right!” Seau screamed. “Do it fair! We're going to do it again!” Several Chargers finally pulled Seau to the sideline to calm him down.
“The guy's a buzz saw,” says Raider defensive end Howie Long, a teammate of Seau's at the 1993 Pro Bowl. “His rpm's are on redline all the time, but mentally he's under control, and that's unusual for a young player.”
His wealth—Seau will earn $650,000 this year—and success have changed the 24-year-old very little. While he bought his family a house and a car and he lives comfortably in Mount Helix with his wife, Gina, and newborn daughter, he still prefers to dress in T-shirt, shorts, sandals and a baseball cap with the bill turned up. “Just give me a shack on the beach and a couple of tuna fish sandwiches, and I'm happy,” he says. On the way home from an autograph session a few months ago, the hired limousine in which he was riding had a flat tire. Seau nonchalantly knelt on the shoulder of the freeway and changed it. “The driver started taking off his jacket, but Junior said, ‘That's O.K., I've got it,’” recalls Bobby Grillo, Seau's business partner in their new apparel company, Say Ow Gear. “I was afraid the jack would fall on him or some hoods would see a limo in distress, pull over and stick us up. But Junior slides out, and boom, it's done.”
Seau is also the first to acknowledge a helping hand from others. On Super Bowl Sunday, three weeks after the Chargers' 31–0 second-round playoff loss to the Miami Dolphins, Seau purchased a full-page ad for $14,000 in the San Diego Union-Tribune to thank the team's fans. Seau ordered up a collage of photos of Charger fans, accompanied by these words: TO THE FANS OF SAN DIEGO. I THANK YOU FOR A WONDERFUL YEAR. JUNIOR SEAU AND FAMILY.
Two years ago he started the Junior Seau Foundation, he says, “to promote the protection of children by supporting child-abuse prevention efforts, drug and alcohol awareness and anti-juvenile delinquency programs.” The foundation's major fund-raiser, a celebrity golf tournament in May, brought in $60,000. Seau was involved in every aspect of the event, from designing, writing and proofreading the brochure to holding more than 40 meetings with local business leaders to make sponsorship pitches to lining up 21 Pro Bowlers to participate. In March, within days after a gang member was gunned down in a shopping mall in Chula Vista, a community south of San Diego, Seau visited the mall. Standing in front of hundreds of teenagers and their families, he tried to impress upon the parents that love begins in the home, and he warned the kids that gangs are a dead end. Look forward in life, he told them, because “I'm living proof that you can make it out of the ghetto.” Says Seau, “Too many athletes are living in a tiny window. They have no vision for themselves—what they can be outside of football and what they can mean to a community. They just don't know any better. My hopes and dreams are unlimited.”
Yet there are times when Seau puts so much pressure on himself that it becomes overwhelming. In a game against the Kansas City Chiefs in November, with the Chargers ahead 14–13 and about two minutes remaining, Chief quarterback Dave Krieg hit wide receiver Willie Davis on a short dump pass over the outstretched arms of Seau, which Davis broke for a 25-yard gain. Four plays later Nick Lowery kicked a 36-yard field goal to win the game. When Gina greeted Seau at the San Diego airport, she says, “he was really quiet and close to tears. He blamed himself for the loss.” Up all night, Seau replayed the game in his head. “He kept saying, ‘I should have done this.’ ‘If only I had done that,’” Gina says. “I couldn't get him to snap out of it.” The next afternoon Seau asked Ross for permission to address the team, and just as he started to apologize for letting everybody down, he was overcome with emotion and began sobbing. “It'll never happen again,” he said through his tears. Ross and Plummer had to put their arms around Seau to console him. “People don't hold themselves accountable for what they do,” Seau says. “I wanted to stand up and say, ‘It's my fault. Let's not play guessing games. Don't talk behind my back. I'll take the blame. O.K., now, let's go on.’” Says Plummer, “He's the last person anybody would blame for a loss. Junior expects perfection out of everybody, but especially himself.”
Seau learned that from his parents, who were born on the island of Aunuu in American Samoa. In 1964, when their oldest child, David, was four, he developed a lung disease, and the family decided to move to San Diego, where Luisa's sister and brother-in-law were stationed in the Navy, to seek expert medical treatment. As a gesture of love to the family they were leaving behind in Samoa, Tiaina took his paternal grandmother's last name, Seau. Though neither Tiaina nor Luisa knew much English, Tiaina took a job on the assembly line at a rubber company (he is now a school custodian), and Luisa found work in the Camp Pendleton Marine commissary and in a laundromat. They earned enough to pay for lung surgery for David, but money was always tight, especially in '69, when their fifth child, Tiaina Jr., who would be called Junior, was born.
The bedroom for Junior and his three brothers was the family's one-car garage, with its concrete floor, leaky roof and lack of insulation. The beds were wedged between a dishwasher, cleaning supplies and piles of Polynesian floor mats. Portable heaters kept them warm on chilly nights, and Motown oldies—“garage tunes,” Junior calls them—kept them happy. “My two sisters, who lived inside the house, always bragged that they had a carpet in their bedroom,” recalls Junior. “But we'd say, ‘So what? We have the biggest door in the whole place.’”
On many mornings, before his brothers were awake, Junior would climb out of bed and quietly lift dumbbells in front of a mirror in the garage. At day's end he would flop on the floor for hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups, and for good measure he would trek out to the backyard for a dozen chin-ups, dangling from the limb of a big maple tree. While Junior worked to shape his body, Tiaina, whose grandfather had been the chief of a village in Pago Pago, educated his son in other ways. Tiaina was not averse to raising a hand to his sons. “There were a lot of spankings—with sticks, shoes, whatever was laying around,” says Junior's older brother Savaii. “If we even thought about going to the right after he told us to go to the left, we got our whippings.” Says Junior of his father, “He has killer eyes—one goes one way, the other the other way. You don't know if he's looking at you when he's speaking to you, and when he's sitting to your side, one eye follows you. It's intimidating. My friends used to be so afraid of him that they'd stand in the middle of Zeiss Street and call for me to come out and play.”
Trying to maintain a traditional Samoan life-style in the middle of a gang-ridden neighborhood was laudable, but it didn't always work to the Seau children's advantage. For one thing, they lacked language skills; Junior didn't speak English well until the end of elementary school. “I can't blame them for pushing their language over English,” Junior says. “They didn't understand that you can't bring the Samoan culture here and live it. If you want to be something in America, you have to convert to American ways.” All of the Seau youngsters were expected to get after-school jobs to help support the family. Except Junior. All the Seau boys played sports, but Tiaina recognized that his namesake had special skills, and as a reward for victories, Tiaina would slip Junior an extra few dollars with his weekly lunch money. Losses, however, meant the silent treatment from Dad, or worse. “If we lost, Dad acted like we were failures,” Savaii says. “He'd say, ‘You're lazy.’”
Pleasing his father motivated Junior. As a senior tight end and linebacker at Oceanside High, he led the Pirates to the city 2A championship on a team with only 18 players. He was named the defensive MVP of San Diego County and the offensive MVP of the Avocado League. Acknowledging Seau's extraordinary versatility, Parade magazine named him to its high school All-America team simply as an athlete, refusing to specify a particular position. Recruiters from every major college football program flocked to the Seaus' front door. “This was my paycheck to my parents,” Junior says. “It was my way of saying, ‘You did all this for me, now I'll make you proud.’” However, after Junior was offered a football scholarship to USC, the family was dealt a humiliating blow. He scored only 690 on his SATs, below the NCAA's mandatory 700 score for freshman eligibility. Junior would have to sit out his first season. “Everything I'd worked for, everything my family had stood for was gone,” Seau says. “I was labeled a dumb jock. I went from being a four-sport star to an ordinary student at USC. I found out who my true friends were. Nobody stuck up for me—not our relatives, best friends or neighbors. There's a lot of jealousy among Samoans, not wanting others to get ahead in life, and my parents got an earful at church: ‘We told you he was never going to make it.’”
Seau embarked on a mission to restore honor to the family name. He made a special trip to Oceanside High during his freshman year to apologize to his coaches, teachers and principal for letting them down. He withstood the resentment of some of his USC teammates, but he wound up earning their respect in the weight room. By the spring of his freshman year Seau blew away the entire team in the Trojans' annual Superman Contest, an eight-event test of strength and speed. And he even pulled above-average grades in the classroom. Sprained ligaments in his right ankle, suffered during preseason practice, hampered him for much of his sophomore year, and the skeptics resurfaced, but when two Trojan starters were injured in summer camp a few weeks before his junior season, he was named the starting outside linebacker. By the end of the season he was a consensus All-America and the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. After convincing his parents to allow him to leave school a year early, Seau was selected by the Chargers as the fifth pick overall in the 1990 draft. Now, before Charger home games, it's easy to spot Seau's large cheering section in the parking lot at Jack Murphy Stadium. “It's a little Samoan village,” Gina says. Over her muumuu Luisa wears a Charger jersey with Junior's number 55 as she serves a feast of barbecued chicken, sweet and sour chicken, roast pork, rice, taro and bananas. “The Seau tailgates are like luaus,” says Junior's cousin, Frankie Wolfgram, who's of Tongan, German and Swedish ancestry. “The only thing we don't have is the hula dancers.”
On game day Junior will share prayers on the phone with his parents, his wife and Savaii. With Gina and Savaii he will give thanks for his talent, ask for safety and pray that he will play to God's glory. But praying with his father, only one person does the talking. Junior just listens. “Dad gives thanks for what the family has,” Junior says. “He talks about how proud he is of the situation the family is in, and he says how we know that we aren't worthy.” Those prayers are the most meaningful to Junior because they are the only times his stoic father ever expresses the happiness that his son's football career has brought him. Those calls remind Junior that he has accomplished what he set out to do—to bring honor to the Seau name, to make his family comfortable and to give meaning to his own life. He can keep his feet on the ground because he hasn't lost track of the spirited kid who grew up in that east Oceanside garage.