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In 1989, USC Had a Depth Chart of a Dozen Linebackers. Five Have Died, Each Before Age 50

None of them died on the field, but for each former Trojan, football was inextricably tied to mortality. These are their stories.

May 2, 2012

Matt Gee always says that “Junior does what Junior wants,” and what Junior Seau wants on this day is to die. Matt is out for breakfast when he gets the news, in the staccato notes of a breaking national story: Junior Seau . . . dead . . . gunshot wound to the chest . . . possible suicide.

Matt is shocked. At 42, he is not yet used to watching his teammates die.

Junior was a Samoan from San Diego. Matt was a country boy from Kansas. They became friends only because they were both USC linebackers. Matt was the one who gave Junior the nickname June Bug, after the beetles that invade Kansas summers. Junior didn’t even know what a june bug was.

Junior was the best player on their USC teams—such an absurd amalgamation of speed, strength and agility that it really did seem like he could do whatever he wanted. He often ignored his assignment but tackled the ballcarrier anyway. Matt joked that Junior got this otherworldly athleticism from eating so much pineapple. Once, the two went swimming in the Pacific, and Junior swam up to a dolphin and grabbed its fin.

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Matt became a successful businessman, happily married to his college sweetheart, raising three kids, proud of what his USC career begat. Junior became a Pro Football Hall of Famer—such an enormous star over 19 NFL seasons that most of his old teammates rarely saw him. Only later would they see these fleeting interactions as dots marking his descent: Junior squaring off against offensive tackle Matt Willig, a fellow Trojan, in an NFL game in 1994 and failing to recognize him . . . Junior stopping to say hi to another USC teammate, Calvin Holmes, at a restaurant in 2002—but “walking like a zombie,” Holmes would say. “I’m thinking, Wow, football messed you up like that. It was just his soul. His brain.” (Seau would play pro football for seven more years.) . . . Junior, who didn’t drink in college, slurring his way through a speech at a golf tournament he was hosting—“a sad, depressing kind of drunk,” says former USC defensive back Mike Salmon, who was so saddened and depressed by the scene that he walked out.

Junior Seau . . . definite suicide . . . 43 years old.

Matt drives home from Eggs ‘N’ Things in Simi Valley, Calif., with tears in his eyes. They will not be the last.

Seau gets after quarterback Charles Thompson in a USC upset of Oklahoma, in 1988.

Seau gets after quarterback Charles Thompson in a USC upset of Oklahoma, in 1988.

***

Twelve names. Twelve dreams.

Twelve linebackers on the Trojans’ depth chart in the fall of 1989, each with the strength of a man and the exuberance of a boy, swimming in everything USC has to offer: joy and higher education and adulation, endless adrenaline surges, alcohol, cocaine if they want it, steroids if they need them. Anything to feel fearless and reckless, wild and free.

Twelve players, all trying to impress men like linebackers coach Tom (Rogge) Roggeman, who served as a Marine in Korea. In 1989, tacklers are taught to lead with their heads. Drug tests are easy to beat. Pain is for the weak. Complaints are for the weaker. This is how the game is played.

The linebackers form a team within a team, each player with his own role. Seau is the most talented. Alan Wilson is the quietest. Craig Hartsuyker is the heady technician. Scott Ross and Delmar Chesley serve as mentors to Matt, who will become a starter after they leave. David Webb is the team’s resident surfer dude.

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The Trojans go 9-2-1 and then win the Rose Bowl that season, but football fools them. The linebackers think they are paying the game’s price in real time. Michael Williams takes a shot to the head tackling a running back in one game and he is slow to get up, but he stays on the field, even as his brain fogs up for the next few plays. Chesley collides with a teammate and feels the L.A. Coliseum spinning around him; he tries to stay in but falls to a knee and gets pulled. Ross, who says he would run through a brick wall for Rogge, breaks a hand and keeps playing. After several games he meets his parents outside the home locker room and can’t remember whether his team won or lost. Hartsuyker breaks a foot and stays on the field. Another time, he gets concussed on a kickoff, tells trainers he is fine, finishes the game and later shows up on fraternity row with no recollection of playing that day. Somebody sets him on the floor in front of a television, like a toddler.

In one game Brian Tuliau gets a painkiller injection in his ankle, returns for a couple of plays and comes off. He barely thinks, though, about his concussions, which number at least a half-dozen. He is surely concussed before one game even begins; having just lost his starting job, he takes out his anger on everybody in practice, steadily damaging his brain as Saturday approaches. Nothing stings quite like dropping on the depth chart, which looks at the beginning of the 1989 season like this:

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Twelve college students. Five will die by age 50, their lives stamped forever with an early expiration date.

***

May 14, 2002

The quiet one goes first and goes quietly. Alan Wilson is not close to Matt, but he is not that close to anybody. A-Dub did not attend parties or play practical jokes on teammates; he conversed but rarely started conversations. Calvin Holmes, who also played at Carson (Calif.) High with Wilson, says, “He was up underneath a rock. He was a hermit.”

The Trojans saw Alan every day but didn’t really know him well, and so he makes a smooth transition from man to memory. Players remember that he was one of the hardest hitters. That his white undershirts were old and discolored. What those Trojans did not see: Alan’s laughing with his family, or taking his kid brothers to Lakers and Dodgers games, or buying flowers for his mom every year on Mother’s Day. After their playing days ended and they all dispersed, most never saw Alan again.

They do not see him become depressed and balloon to 100 pounds over his playing weight. They do not know he has diabetes and hypertrophic heart disease. Alan’s brother Robert visits his apartment regularly, and he sees A-Dub alone, surrounded by cookies and doughnuts and ice cream.

Wilson (middle row, far left), alongside Gee (top left), coach Roggeman (far right) and Ross (top, center).

Wilson (middle row, far left), alongside Gee (top left), coach Roggeman (far right) and Ross (top, center).

On May 13, 2002, Robert finds his brother in bed, physically able to rise but unwilling to. Alan does something Alan never used to do: He cusses out his kid brother and tells him to go home. Robert calls their mom.

Call an ambulance, she tells Robert.

Don’t call an ambulance, Alan tells Robert.

Alan promises he will get up and take a shower. He turns on the water, and Robert leaves for his janitorial job.

The next day, Mother’s Day, Alan does not call his mom or send her flowers, and so his father goes to check on him. A-Dub is in bed, dead. The shower is still running.

The Trojans never hear that Alan’s mental health had declined. They hear only that he died of diabetes. A decade passes, and then Junior puts that gun to his chest, and among the linebackers, that’s two dead.

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***

September 21, 2014

Even among the boys at USC, Scott Ross was a wild one. He was not nearly as gifted as Junior, but he too was an All-America, a missile seeking contact and reveling in it. It was common to see him get in fights at parties and unusual to see him lose.

Scott scared people, but he did not scare Matt. Matt knew him too well, loved him too much.

They met on their recruiting weekend at USC and became fast friends, later sneaking out of their team hotel on the eve of the 1990 Kickoff Classic so they could see New York City. Rogge swore he saw them returning, but either he couldn’t prove they’d left or he decided to let it slide. Instead, he said, “You guys were lucky.”

A decade later Matt is still lucky. He has figured out how to be both a responsible adult and a goofy kid. He works all day building up his insurance business, but he also loves blowing up Pepsi bottles in his backyard.

Scott is not so lucky. He blows up his life. Scott plays briefly with the Saints, a rookie with a veteran’s battered body, already in steep decline. By his mid-20s he has a degenerative disk in his back, a hip that rubs bone on bone, a thumb that bends backward and a wrist that pops out at an awkward angle—but none of those is the real problem. He started tackling people hard when he was eight. People ask how many concussions he’s had, and he says he remembers 12.

Scott was a good husband, once. A good dad. He bought groceries and grilled dinner and played with his son (Zachary, from one marriage) and daughter (Caroline, from a second). His second wife was named Marla but he called her “Princess,” and he treated her like one. He was a successful salesman, first for Hilti and then for 3M, flashing his charm and his Rose Bowl ring to close deals. He ran the Houston Marathon.

But football catches him from behind. In his 30s, Scott turns tormented, panicky and depressed. He drinks as if he’s defending a two-minute drill—intensely, desperately.

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If alcoholism makes life a blur, this is the blur of Scott’s life: He gets drunk, flips a company van and is reassigned to a desk job. One Halloween he drives drunk again, hits another car, flees and then takes his daughter trick-or-treating. He puts a fist through one of Marla’s favorite paintings, throws a candle across the kitchen and pushes Marla. He says he tried to kill himself in a bathtub. More than once, Marla calls his parents, Janie and Marshall, crying, and they aren’t sure what to believe, but eventually they believe it all. Marla bails when Scott gives her a black eye. From there, Scott declines.

Marla changes the locks, then sells their house in Montgomery, Texas. She and Scott share custody of their daughter, but one time Marla goes to pick up Caroline and nobody answers the door. Finally, Marla hears Caroline calling: “Momma, I can’t wake up Daddy.” Scott is passed out drunk.

Marla takes Caroline home to Louisiana. Back in Texas, Scott rents a little house on a lake, then moves into a friend’s trailer. One day Scott calls Jeff Peace, who played defensive line on that 1989 USC team; Scott is crying, and he says he’s pointing a gun at his mouth.

Peace does what teammates and brothers do. He tells Scott to come to California and live with him, with one condition: no drinking. Scott goes. But he drinks, and Peace kicks him out. If this were an arcade game from his childhood, Scott would be down to his last few quarters.

He uses one to call Matt Gee. Matt sets Scott up with an apartment in Ventura . . . and the cycle repeats. Scott gets nuclear drunk, runs naked in the streets, trashes the place and gets kicked out of there, too.

Sometimes Scott sleeps on a friend’s couch, and sometimes he sleeps on the streets. He discovers how easy it is to buy Oxycontin. Nobody can figure out how to help him. And still, in a life with so few constants he has Matt, there in his past, there in his present, there to answer the phone.

Hey, Matt! Say hi to my girlfriend, Laura!

Laura Lee Fitzgerald will never be able to fully explain why she takes Scott into her home in Paso Robles, Calif. Love is a woefully insufficient answer. Their life together is a slapstick comedy soaked in alcohol and drenched in blood.

Scott makes pictures for Laura with sparkle paint—but he also steals her maroon Jeep Cherokee. He stabs himself in the leg in the bathtub. He gets into a fight with some teenagers at a Taco Bell. He smacks a Lenox candy dish over his head, spurting blood all over the walls like a lawn sprinkler.

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He stops his car, inexplicably, in the middle of an intersection and Laura, in the passenger seat, screams, “Scott, what are you doing?!

“What?” Scott asks.

“You’re going to kill us!”

Ohhh,” he says calmly, in a voice you might use if you forgot to buy orange juice at the grocery store, and he hits the gas again.

He carries around a Saint Christopher pendant and a dirty rabbit’s foot, for “protection.” He breaks double-pane windows in Laura’s house. He speaks proudly of his glory days at USC, about Matt and the boys, but he gives away his Rose Bowl ring to his dentist. After one episode of public drunkenness, he tries to flee police on a tractor, wearing only his boxer shorts.

 When finally Laura kicks him out, he stands outside, screaming, “Laura! I love you! Let me in!” loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear.

He steals Laura’s credit card to buy liquor. He pins her against a wall and starts choking her. Confronted with his drunken sins, he says, “I never did that,” and he seems to believe it.