Ex-Charger Humphries surprised, saddened by '94 team's tragic turn
The 1994 Chargers were the only team in franchise history to go to a Super Bowl -- they lost, 49-26, to Steve Young and the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX -- but over the years a sobering series of tragedies has cast a pall over that achievement.
Eight of the 53 players on that San Diego championship game roster -- an incredible 15 percent -- have died since the Jan. 29, 1995 game in Miami. The latest is Junior Seau, a premier linebacker for 20 NFL seasons, who was found shot in the chest in his Oceanside, Calif., home on Wednesday. Police are investigating the incident as a possible suicide.
These deaths are as bewildering as they are disturbing because they have no pattern or commonality. One player, starting linebacker David Griggs, 28, was killed in a car accident five months after the Super Bowl. Another player, backup running back Rodney Culver, 26, perished in a plane crash. Lightning struck backup linebacker Doug Miller, 29. Twice.
There's no explanation for these fatalities.
"No, there's not," said Stan Humphries, who played six seasons (1992-97) for the Chargers and was their quarterback in that Super Bowl. "Each one that comes along, it's kind of scary thinking about yourself.
Humphries, 47, was reminded of his own mortality again Wednesday when an old buddy from San Diego called and told him about Seau. Humphries, who lives in Monroe, La., hadn't heard the news. He turned on his television, and 15 minutes later an ESPN report confirmed Seau's death.
It was a shocking end to a life that had taken an unexpected twist for Seau since he retired from the NFL after the 2009 season. In October 2010, Seau was arrested on a domestic violence allegation. Not long after that he was hospitalized after driving his car off a cliff in California. Hindsight suggests those were signs of a troubled man.
"It's a shame. I feel sorry for his kids and family," Humphries said late Wednesday afternoon, still trying to make sense of it all. "I hadn't talked to Junior in a couple of years, so I don't know what's been going on in his life. It's one of those situations where you wish at some point along the way you could have been able to talk to him, or he would have called, asked for help, whatever, [and maybe] it wouldn't have got to this point."
Griggs, Culver and Miller were the first three players on the '94 Chargers to die. They have been followed by: Curtis Whitley, 39, a backup center, who died of a drug overdose in May 2008; Chris Mims, 38, a starting defensive end, who had heart failure in October 2008; Shawn Lee, 44, a starting defensive end, who suffered cardiac arrest brought on by double pneumonia in February 2011; and Lew Bush, 42, a backup linebacker, who had a heart attack last Dec. 8.
Now there is Seau, a 10-time All-Pro selection who was the backbone of San Diego's defense for 13 seasons before he moved on to play with the Dolphins and, later, the Patriots.
"I don't know what to say about it," said Humphries, who was drafted in the sixth round by the Redskins in 1988 and played two seasons in Washington before being traded to San Diego, where he became a starting quarterback. "It's scary, it's saddening, if it does come out that this is a suicide. It's sad for the whole football community, the Chargers, the San Diego area, and everybody who knew Junior."
The fifth overall pick in the 1990 draft out of USC, Seau will be eligible for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015. He was a playmaker who could derail an offense by sacking the quarterback, intercepting a pass or making a menacing tackle.
Humphries recalled Seau's passion for football.
"The energy, the excitement, the smile that he brought with him every day, whether it was meetings, weight lifting, practice, games," Humphries said. "He loved it so much. I think that energy was infectious, contagious. It carried over to other players, whether they had been in the league for 15 years or two years. And just getting to know him outside of football -- on the plane ride home after a game or whatever -- was kind of neat. He'd do anything for you."
Seau had a habit of calling everyone "Buddy."
"It was just kind of his way, I guess, of breaking the ice when he walked up to someone maybe he didn't know," Humphries said. "Even after he knew you for 10 years, it was still 'Hey, Buddy-Buddy.' "
Those '94 Chargers, who went 11-5 during the regular season and beat the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game, had a special bond, according to Humphries.
"I just think the closeness the team had," he said. "It was just a way that we did things outside of football. It wasn't just inside the walls from 8 to 5 every day. It was going to dinner a couple of nights a week with different sets: maybe the receivers, or running backs, or linebackers, or offensive linemen. You got to know them outside. It was more than just playing football. It was a whole family all together, and I think that was attributed to what [coach] Bobby Ross tried to bring there."
Those Chargers had few players whose names were recognizable outside of Southern California. Humphries thought that was the identity of the team initially until it started having success.
"Probably a lot of players that nobody heard a lot about except for Junior or [pass-rushing end] Leslie O'Neal," he said. "And over a period of time, [because of] the way we played as a team, other people's names started to creep out, like [running back] Natrone Means and other players. It was because of us playing as a team that each individual maybe got more credit or recognition than normal."
Unfortunately, death keeps elbowing its way into the picture and darkening the memories of the '94 Chargers. Although each one has taken its toll, Seau's passing struck Humphries a little bit harder because he was closer to Seau.
"I think I was probably around Junior maybe more than most of the others," Humphries said. "That makes it a little tougher, a little harder."
Humphries wondered if someone could have stepped in and done something to prevent Seau's death.
"I don't know if I could have told him anything," Humphries said. "But you hope, you wish, that you could have said something, done something, had people talk to him, or help in any way. Whether that would have helped, you never know. But you wished you would have had the opportunity to try."
A native of Shreveport, La., who played college football at Northeast Louisiana University (now Louisiana-Monroe) -- he led the team to the I-AA national championship in 1987 -- Humphries made coaching his post-playing career. He coached girls high school basketball for 14 years, most recently at St. Mary's in Natchitoches, where he also was the athletic director.
Now that his two daughters are grown and in college, Humphries has cut back on coaching. Currently, he is helping out on the girls' basketball team and the football team at West Monroe High on a part-time basis.
Although he's two time zones and 18 years removed from the Chargers' only AFC championship team, Humphries still thinks about it often. Now, unfortunately, the good memories have been clouded by the dark ones.
"I sit around here every day," he said, "and it's amazing how many people have died off of that team."
Eight players, all before they reached the age of 45. Humphries can't explain it. Nobody can.