This summer, the legendary linebacker will be posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Ex-teammate Rodney Harrison helps explain why Seau’s life, and his death, contain lessons that every professional athlete, across sports, must understand
Editor’s note: This is part of our summer series, The MMQB 100, counting down the most influential people for the 2015 season.
It’s a strange task, picking the 100 most influential people in the NFL for 2015. Highly subjective, of course. You can make a logical argument for 200 people, and you can logically argue that someone’s 92 is another’s 19. But here’s one we puzzled over: Junior Seau.
He enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year, but what business does he have on a list of most influential people in pro football in 2015? A little more than three years ago Seau, 43 years old, killed himself with a gunshot to the chest. He died alone in a house by the Pacific Ocean. After a starry NFL career with San Diego, Miami and New England, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility five months ago. He’ll be enshrined on Aug. 8 in Canton.
We at The MMQB considered him important this year for a few reasons. His story will be told often in the run-up to the Hall of Fame induction, and it’s an important story for players of today to hear—because of his intense passion to be great, because of a ruinous personal streak that prevented him from having a balanced life, because personal and family pressures forced him to have an insatiable desire for money that was impossible to satisfy (a problem any NFL player with a cadre of hangers-on faces), and because he was discovered to have CTE after his death. That’s the brain disease that, posthumously, an increasing number of football players have been found to suffer from.
He’s a beacon. He’s a model, for good (mostly) and for bad. His story is vital.
* * *
Among his teammates, Rodney Harrison probably knew Seau best. The two were teammates for nine years in San Diego, and for three more in New England as both of their careers wound down. I’ve known Harrison—both as a player and now as we share work on NBC’s Football Night in America—for almost 20 years. I would bet that, unprompted, he has brought up Seau’s name 50 times over the years, for so many reasons.
Why, I asked Harrison recently, should players and fans, and the architects of the game, think Seau’s legacy is influential in 2015?
“Because,” Harrison began, “he is the benchmark for what every player should aspire to be. And because his life, and the problems he had, is a lesson that every player should learn.”
Here are Harrison’s thoughts on his former teammate…
Seau the player: “Best teammate I ever had, and that’s saying something, because I played with Tom Brady and so many unselfish guys on the Patriots. But ex-players who played with Junior, when we talk about him, we talk about how he impacted all of our lives so much. There is no question that in all my years of football he was the biggest influence on me, on and off the field.
“He instilled work ethic, real work ethic, in me. Junior would party till 2 a.m., then be the first one at the facility at 5 a.m. Never failed. As hard as Tom Brady prepares, he couldn’t touch Junior. No one I have seen could. He was the hardest practice player I’ve ever seen. He’d be diving around, sprinting every play in practice. I’d say to him, ‘Man, save some of that for Sunday. What are you doing?’ He’d just say, ‘I get paid to practice. I play the games for free.’ He just thought practice was so important to how you played every week, and so that’s what I did. One of the greatest things anyone has ever said about me is when I left the Patriots and Bill Belichick was quoted as saying, ‘He’s the hardest practice player I’ve had in all my years of coaching.’ That’s from Junior.”
Seau the warning sign: “Read Ecclesiastes in your Bible. Read how Solomon, a rich man, felt like he was always chasing the wind. He could never be happy. Junior talked about that. No matter what he achieved, no matter how great he played, he always felt empty. He needed to find that balance in his life, and he never did. And he had hangers-on who always wanted things from him. They were always pulling at him. Pull, pull, pull.”
Seau and his legacy: “I heard after he died that he owed Vegas all this money. He had problems with his investments, especially his restaurant in San Diego. What Junior needed to know, and what players today need to know, is it’s gonna end one day. No matter what you achieve, no matter how much fame you achieve and greatness you achieve, those owners aren’t gonna come to you after you’ve retired and are in trouble … those owners aren’t gonna come to you and write you a $10 million check. Junior never could be normal and live a normal life, because he was Junior Seau.
“But with Junior, you have to remember it all. I have to tell you what he told me one time, something that’s been really important to me. He told me, ‘Rodney, it doesn’t matter what you do as a football player. It’s how you impact somebody else’s life.’ And that’s been important to me both before and after I retired.
“How can I not be indebted to Junior Seau, as a football player and as a man? His biggest trait was unselfishness, and how he impacted so many lives.”
* * *
What I’ll never forget about the hours and days after Seau’s death is the tears. How many people in San Diego wept openly? Grown men. His mom just falling to pieces in front of the cameras. A community, grieving for someone who was more than just a great football player, after a shocking suicide.
Did the money do it? In part.
Did the inability to find happiness in all parts of life do it? In part.
Did the massive debt do it? In part.
Did CTE do it? In part.
Did football, and all its great and powerful and starry elements, do it? In part.
Junior Seau, football hero. In death, he is an inspiration and a cautionary tale, and his story needs to be heard by every rising-star athlete in every sport. His meaning, on an off the field, should never go away.
70. Ken Whisenhunt, Head Coach, Tennessee Titans
Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota has every physical tool needed to thrive in the NFL; he just needs refinement. Enter Ken Whisenhunt, the veteran coach charged with mentoring the reserved but talented rookie. Whisenhunt must accelerate a steep learning curve (among other issues: at Oregon, Mariota did not call plays) and also demonstrate flexibility to match the quarterback’s strengths (Whisenhunt traditionally prefers his quarterbacks to be strong pocket passers, whereas mobility is one of Mariota’s greatest assets). The coach has reportedly already begun amending his playbook. This season may ultimately be something of a mulligan for the quarterback and the coach. But Mariota must at least show glimpses that he can make it work with Whisenhunt, and vice versa. That will determine the franchise’s long-term fate.
—Emily Kaplan (@EmilyMKaplan)
* * *
69. Johnny Manziel, Quarterback, Cleveland Browns
Remember Johnny Manziel? He was supposed to be the story of the 2014 season. He was the exciting, unpredictable playground-style quarterback who was not only going to get the Browns back to respectability, but do it Johnny Football style. He’d pile up points and do the finger thing (the finger thing means money), winning over the hearts and minds of America. As for all those concerns from the doubters—that he couldn’t function within the structure of an NFL playbook, that his softening but still hard-for-a-franchise-QB-partying ways would be an issue—they… well, they turned out to be right. Manziel’s first career start, a 30-0 rout at the hands of the Bengals, was positively Yepremianian. Off the field it wasn’t much better. Last November a fan alleged he was attacked by “Johnny Football and his entourage.” (Which raises the question: Can a backup quarterback call himself “Johnny Football” and have an entourage?) Manziel went to rehab in the offseason, a step in the right direction. And perhaps there is coaching staff out there who can maximize his greatest strength: those out-of-structure improvisational masterpieces he pulled off at Texas A&M. But most staffs don’t like unpredictability, and it looks like Mike Pettine’s is one of them. Last year Manziel couldn’t unseat Brian Hoyer. This summer it’s not shaping up to be much of a competition at all; Josh McCown, who went 1-10 as Tampa’s starter last year, seems to have a clear path to the Week 1 start. One season is not enough to write anyone off, but Cleveland’s reported interest in Sam Bradford and Marcus Mariota this winter isn’t exactly a vote of confidence. McCown isn’t the long-term answer. And the fan base, which has endured Brandon Weeden, Brady Quinn and Tim Couch, needs to see something, anything from Manziel in 2015.
—Gary Gramling (@GGramling_SI)
* * *
68. Marc Ganis, Consultant, SportsCorp Ltd.
At NFL owners meetings, when sessions break there is often a husky, middle-aged man walking slowly and in quiet conversation with Stan Kroenke or Jerry Jones or Bob McNair. Among the neophyte media members covering meetings, one of the most common questions is “Who is that guy?” That guy is Marc Ganis, the founder and president of a sports business consulting firm called SportsCorp, based in Chicago. It’s fair to say that, in a season when three franchises have moving vans warming up by their front doors, the smartest independent businessman is going to be a powerful character. That is Ganis. He was a key facilitator in financing and development for the new Yankee Stadium—among more than 20 stadium and arena projects in recent years—and an important cog in the NFL right now because every owner knows him, and every owner knows he’s willing to trade information without betraying anyone. That information, in the case of the current jockeying for Los Angeles by the Chargers, Raiders and Rams, can be crucial to which team (or teams) will end up relocating. “Ganis is influential because he knows a little bit about everything,’’ said one longtime league official who has seen Ganis at work in the hallways and meeting rooms around the NFL over the last quarter-century. “But where most people might say they know a little about everything, I can tell you he really does. He uses his information as currency, and he’s well-trusted.” What’s valuable about Ganis is that, though he’ll mostly tread carefully in highly emotional debates—such as the L.A. discussion at the league meetings last spring—he openly talked about how St. Louis blew it when negotiating the current lease of the Edward Jones Dome, specifically with a clause saying the stadium had to be in the top quartile of teams in terms of stadium amenities and conditions. Civic leaders could have agreed to put single-digit millions away per year as a sort of rainy-day fund for stadium modernizations, but they refused. And when it came time this year to make the dome a premier place, the tab would have cost more than $500 million. So the Rams became free agents. Ganis said St. Louis had no one to blame but civic leaders, and he was right. The truth hurt, but at crucial times for these franchises, the truth must be told. And Ganis, the information-broker, knows it better than anyone.
—Peter King (@SI_PeterKing)
* * *
67. Matt Ryan, Quarterback, Atlanta Falcons
New boss, new coordinator, same old Matt Ryan. The 29-year-old has been the model of consistency over seven seasons: four consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons and no missed starts since 2009. Despite the consistency on offense, two straight losing seasons spelled the end for head coach Mike Smith and Dirk Koetter’s uptempo offense. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, veteran of Houston, Washington and Cleveland, brings a dedication to the running game, an array of play-action concepts and an appreciation for the deep middle of the field, which just so happens to be Julio Jones’s bread and butter. Former Colts and Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme, a free-agent pickup and longtime Peyton Manning favorite, addressed the inevitable Manning comparison questions with high praise and high expectations for his new QB: “Hard for me to go anywhere and not feel like I was falling off a cliff, having been around Peyton my whole career so far. So this is one of the four or five, six places where [I] could come and not feel like that.”
—Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko)
* * *
66. John Harbaugh, Head Coach, Baltimore Ravens
We’ll start with a trivia question: Since 2008, what coach leads the NFL in postseason wins? If you guessed John Harbaugh—and you should have, since that’s his face over on the left—you are correct. (Harbaugh has 10 postseason victories since he took over the Ravens; Bill Belichick is second with seven during that span.) Harbaugh has led the Ravens to at least one playoff victory in six of his seven seasons, and he has never finished with a losing record. He has won with and without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, with a revolving door at left tackle, with a patchwork secondary. This season Marc Trestman is on board as Harbaugh’s fourth offensive coordinator. He has also had four different defensive bosses. He has won with all of them. Last January, New England’s creative (and since outlawed) use of eligible-player rules might have been the only thing that kept Baltimore from an AFC title game date in Indianapolis. Gary Kubiak (the fourth Harbaugh assistant to be hired away as a head coach), Haloti Ngata, Torrey Smith, Pernell McPhee, Jacoby Jones, Owen Daniels… they’re all gone. It doesn’t matter. Harbaugh will have the Ravens back in the playoffs again.
—Gary Gramling (@GGramling_SI)
* * *
65. Darrell Bevell, Offensive Coordinator, Seattle Seahawks
Even before his controversial play-call at the end of Super Bowl 49, Seahawks fans were frustrated with their offensive coordinator. It’s hard to understand why. Bevell has been dealt a unique hand: a quarterback who can’t do much from the pocket but can be magical outside of it; an offensive line that is mediocre and a group of receivers that—sorry, Doug Baldwin—is also very so-so. Do you have any idea how complicated Bevell’s play-designing process must be? Contrary to popular opinion in the Pacific Northwest, the 45-year-old play-caller has made the best of it. Or close to it, anyway. Sure, it helps having Marshawn Lynch. But Bevell hasn’t just ridden Beast Mode and an unbelievable defense. He has built a passing attack around Wilson’s unique skills. It’s an attack that appears random but is subtly structured. Without it, Seattle would not even have been in position to make Bevell the most second-guessed man in America on the morning of February 2. With tight end Jimmy Graham now in the mix, Seahawks fans will believe there should be “no more excuses” for Bevell. This mob mentality, and Bevell’s personality (which, by some around the league is considered too low-key) may diminish his chances of becoming an NFL head coach anytime soon. Now, fair or unfair (it’s unfair), the pressure could be on to simply keep his coordinator job.
—Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit)
* * *
64. Junior Seau, 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductee
This summer, the legendary linebacker will be posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Ex-teammate Rodney Harrison helps explain why Seau’s life, and his death, contain lessons that every professional athlete, across sports, must understand. FULL STORY
* * *
63. Jason Garrett, Head Coach, Dallas Cowboys
Jason Garrett broke the run of three straight 8-8 seasons in a big way last year, and he was compensated accordingly. After leading the Cowboys to a 12-4 record and coming one Dez Bryant would-be-catch from a potential NFC Championship Game appearance, Garrett was rewarded with a five-year, $30 million contract extension. But after getting the playoff monkey off Big D’s back and building a successful, balanced offense last season, more challenges await in 2015. Running back DeMarco Murray, a linchpin of that well-rounded attack, is now in Philadelphia, and Bryant is threatening to hold out if he doesn’t get a long-term deal to replace the franchise tag. Desperate to upgrade the pass rush on the other side of the ball, Dallas gambled on ex-Panther Greg Hardy, who missed 15 games last season because of a domestic violence conviction that was later overturned, and rookie Randy Gregory, who slipped to the second round of the draft due to concerns over a failed drug test at the combine and whether he could handle the rigors of the NFL. Garrett created a new culture around the team last season, and it’s his job to carry that over to 2015. The stakes are always high in Dallas—especially when the team believes it has the pieces for a Super Bowl run.
—Jenny Vrentas (@JennyVrentas)
* * *
62. Jeff Pash, Executive Vice President & General Counsel, NFL
It has to be difficult competing for the job of your dreams, losing it and then being retained to work under the new guy. Pash, the NFL’s executive vice president and chief legal counsel, had to do that nine years ago. He lost the commissioner race to Roger Goodell, then took a job as the second-most powerful person in the league—didn’t you know lawyers have all the power in sports today?—when Goodell offered it. Pash was bitterly disappointed to lose, though he was pragmatic enough to understand why Goodell won. (Perhaps Pash was as bitter that another league attorney, Gregg Levy, was as serious a contender as he was.) But when Goodell got the job, he understood how important Pash was to the NFL cause. A Harvard-educated lawyer, he is usually the smartest guy in the room—but never acts like it. And to Goodell’s satisfaction, Pash has become a trusted adviser on most of the tough issues of the day. It takes a thick skin to be the NFL’s lawyer. You’re getting criticism from all sides, and no one ever says, “Hey, that was one great brief you wrote today.” But Pash has two crucial things going for him: (1) Goodell trusts him implicitly, and (2) he can take the heat. During the 2011 collective bargaining negotiations with the players, Pash became a hated rival of the Players Association. He knew that was part of the deal; the tough negotiator is going to be hated. There are those inside the NFL office who feel it was Pash’s firm stance on factors such as commissioner discipline—Goodell and Pash wouldn’t compromise on Goodell's having final say on player sanctioning—that made the NFLPA give up the effort to win neutral arbitration in discipline cases and move onto other issues. No games were lost, the league got a 10-year labor agreement, and Pash’s position as the No. 2 in the league office was cemented. Nothing has changed entering the 2015 season.
—Peter King (@SI_PeterKing)
* * *
61. Cris Collinsworth, Analyst, Sunday Night Football
By virtue of his analyst position on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, the NFL’s de facto signature game each week, Cris Collinsworth has a significant amount of influence on the public perception of players, teams, trends and league-wide issues. One major difference between Collinsworth and other top analysts: Collinsworth will editorialize in the booth far more than most. “I offend people,” Collinsworth once told me. “I know that. There are a lot of people who don’t like a football analyst on the games doing that. They just want a straight calling of the game, and there are a lot of places that they can hear that. But that's not what I do.” Outside of a few hiccups—including when he and partner Al Michaels carried the water for the league on the Mueller Report last January—Collinsworth has been the definition of a broadcaster who once played football rather than an ex-player-turned broadcaster. There is a difference. The former always has the viewer in mind first; the latter still has ties to his old life. As he heads into his 26th year as an NFL voice, Collinsworth is impacting the game in other ways, too. Last year he purchased Pro Football Focus, the popular analytics site that studies and grades the performance of every player on every play of every game. (The service is used by 15 NFL teams.) Collinsworth hopes to make PFF’s next-level analytics accessible for casual NFL viewers. That will be easier said than done given the 20 seconds, on average, between plays, but this is a forward-thinking approach, and a big reason why Collinsworth belongs on this list.
—Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch)