Middle linebackers are typically the leaders of any defense and, therefore, require a specific set of skills.
Especially in today’s NFL, the middle linebacker has to diagnose an offense, cover a tight end or slot receiver, and hit like a heat-seeking missile.
Failure to do any of these well means a team will likely find someone else who can.
Junior Seau was that someone for three different teams.
Chargers great Junior Seau would have turned 47 today. #RIPJuniorSeau pic.twitter.com/7a2f9tqLAh
— NFL (@NFL) January 19, 2016
After a memorable college career at USC, Seau went to the NFL and played for the San Diego Chargers before moving on to Miami and New England.
He played in a Super Bowl, was voted to the Pro Bowl a dozen times, and was an All-Pro nine times.
As a player, Seau was responsible for over 1,800 bone-rattling tackles.
Unfortunately, his devotion to the game and kamikaze playing style may have led to his untimely death by suicide at the age of 43.
This is the story of Junior Seau.
Tiaina Baul “Junior” Seau was born on January 19, 1969, in Oceanside, California, and was the youngest of five children.
HOF LB Junior Seau was born on this day in 1969:
12X Pro Bowl
10 Tackles + Sack in Super Bowl XXIX
Face on Chargers Mount Rushmore
Inducted into HOF in 2015
— Jim Miloch (@podoffame) January 19, 2022
Seau has a unique family history as his grandfather was a chief in the Pago Pago region of American Samoa.
The Seau family moved to the States before Junior was born to find better medical facilities for his older brother, David, who suffered from a lung disease.
While living in San Diego, the Seau family spoke little English and took jobs where they could find them.
Junior didn’t learn the language very well until he was in elementary school.
Although the Seau family lived stateside, they stuck to their Samoan roots, and Seau’s father, Tiaina Sr., made sure his offspring knew their heritage and knew the Lord as well.
“Dad taught us about morals, values, and goals,” Junior recalled. “Having a tight-knit family was important to him. The one question he always asked us was, ‘How do we protect the Seau name?’”
The Seau’s lived a humble lifestyle with Junior and his three brothers living in the family’s garage that served as their bedroom.
“My two sisters, who lived inside the house, always bragged that they had a carpet in their bedroom,” recalled Junior. “But we’d say, ‘So what? We have the biggest door in the whole place.’”
Strong Work Ethic Pays Off
Due to his father’s strict values and ground rules, Junior had a strong work ethic when he was young.
Most mornings he would wake up before his brothers and start lifting weights and doing chin-ups from the limb of a tree in the Seau’s backyard.
In the evenings, Seau would hammer out situps and pushups by the hundreds.
As the Seau children got older, the boys played sports and Junior gravitated toward football.
Happy Birthday to the late Tiaina “Junior “ Seau, out of Oceanside, California & @USC_FB 20 year @NFL career, 12X Pro Bowl, 6X 1st Team All Pro, @NFL Defensive Player Of Year 1992, @chargers #55 Retired, 1,849 career tackles; Member @ProFootballHOF 1-19-1969 to 5-2-2012…. pic.twitter.com/P5LSwb4WJT
— Larry in Missouri (@LarryInMissouri) January 19, 2022
They were always motivated to win to not upset their father.
“If we lost, Dad acted like we were failures,” Savaii Seau said. “He’d say, ‘You’re lazy.’”
By the time he reached Oceanside High School, Junior Seau was a man among boys.
He played football and basketball and ran track for the Pirates and was a star in each sport.
Initially, Seau wanted to be a quarterback, but he eventually became a tight end and linebacker and was difficult to stop.
As a senior, the Oceanside team only had 18 players, but Seau helped lead the Pirates to a state championship and he was named the Avocado League MVP.
Junior Seau, was a 3 year starter, avg 23 pts his Senior year and was SDCIF Player of the Year in 1987. pic.twitter.com/4EQqqpMbFN
— Oceanside Hoops (@Oceanside_Hoops) August 29, 2016
During basketball season, Seau was named the CIF San Diego Section Player of the Year.
If that wasn’t enough, Seau was the league champion in the shot put during track season and he also made an All-Academic team with a 3.6-grade point average.
His accolades were so well known that Parade Magazine named Seau to its high school All-American team as an athlete.
College recruiters began showing up at the Seau’s home by the dozens, hoping to woo Junior to their program.
“This was my paycheck to my parents,” Junior said. “It was my way of saying, ‘You did all this for me, now I’ll make you proud.’”
One of the schools interested in Seau was USC, and when the program offered him a scholarship, he accepted.
A Setback Doesn’t Deter Seau
Just when Seau’s future looked bright, he took the SATs and ended up scoring ten points under the NCAA’s minimum mandatory score.
That meant Seau couldn’t play ball during his freshman year.
He was humiliated and found no sympathy from friends, family, or fellow church members.
“Everything I’d worked for, everything my family had stood for was gone,” Seau said. “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.’”
While some people would have crumbled under the shame, Seau fought to restore his name.
As a freshman, he won the USC football program’s Superman Contest which tested each player’s strength and speed.
Junior Seau at USC: pic.twitter.com/JUqakqhG
— SI Vault (@si_vault) May 2, 2012
Seau did well in the classroom and even went back to Oceanside High School and apologized to his former teachers for not fulfilling his promise.
Then, just when he was ready to make his mark as a sophomore, an ankle injury took away much of his 1987 season.
Seau Makes Good
Largely written off by the end of his sophomore year, Seau played well enough in 1988 to post 35 tackles and four sacks.
Then, he finally made a name for himself as a junior in 1989 when he cracked the starting lineup and soon made mincemeat out of the competition.
#USC picture of the day: All-American linebacker Junior Seau against Notre Dame in 1989 pic.twitter.com/LZhKW74ua2
— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) July 25, 2015
Seau was used in a number of different spots at linebacker and showed what he was capable of when he tallied three sacks against Stanford.
“I don’t think anyone in the country can block Junior Seau one up,” said teammate Tim Ryan to reporters after the game.
In a contest against Arizona weeks later, Seau had a sack and five tackles that caused negative yardage for the Wildcats.
“He’s the best player I’ve ever been on the field against as a coach,” said Arizona’s Dick Tomey.
The Trojans’ 8-2-1 record bought them a date to play third-ranked Michigan in the 1990 Rose Bowl.
During the contest, the USC defense, with Seau as its leader, limited the Wolverines to just 11 first downs, and the Trojans prevailed, 17-10.
Happy Birthday Junior Seau! 🐐 The man that made me a USC fan as a child ✌️⚡️ pic.twitter.com/K41AKOpWIr
— Trojan Outsider ✌️ (@TrojanOutsider) January 19, 2022
As a junior, Seau had an astounding 19 sacks, 12 passes defended, and 27 tackles for a loss.
He was named an All-American, a first-team All-Pac-10, and a Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.
Although Seau could have returned to school for his senior year, he announced his intention to leave a year early and enter the 1990 NFL Draft.
Hometown Chargers Take Seau
As luck would have it, the San Diego Chargers were in the market for a linebacker in 1990 and took Seau with the fifth overall selection of the 1990 NFL Draft.
⚡And with the #5 overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft the San Diego Chargers select Junior Seau LB out of USC! (Cheers and applause) 👏🏻👏🏻⚡ HAPPY BIRTHDAY to a class act, a hometown hero, a shining star, a son, a father, a brother, a friend. We are forever greatful for you.🙏🏻🌺🏵 pic.twitter.com/D0Lt9zWJOw
— HERBIE'S MOMMA! ⚡️💙🙏 Don't disrespect my child! (@RiversGirl17_) January 20, 2022
Seau got to move back home near his family and the Chargers were eagerly awaiting his contribution to the team.
After all, when Seau arrived that year, it had been almost a decade since the franchise had last appeared in the playoffs.
The days of Sid Gillman and Don Coryell were well in the past and the Chargers had not won more than eight games in a season since 1981.
Seau joined a San Diego defense that had good players.
They included fellow linebackers Leslie O’Neal, Gary Plummer, and Billy Ray Smith, defensive lineman Burt Grossman, and defensive backs Martin Bayless, Gill Byrd, and Vencie Glenn.
Seau was inserted into the lineup right away at middle linebacker and he responded with 85 combined tackles and a sack.
What was your favorite memory of Junior Seau’s career? #Chargers #NFLPALeader #PFHOF15 pic.twitter.com/YXEBPfefD4
— NFLPA (@NFLPA) August 7, 2015
Then, in 1991, he had 129 total tackles and seven sacks and was voted to the first of 12 Pro Bowls.
Despite Seau’s play, the Chargers under coach Dan Henning won only 10 games total in 1990 and 1991 combined.
Henning was fired after the ‘91 season and former Georgia Tech head coach Bobby Ross became San Diego’s new coach.
San Diego Starts Winning
Ross’s arrival didn’t look promising initially for the Chargers. The team began 0-4 and things looked grim.
Then, beginning with a Week 5 win against Seattle, San Diego only lost one more game for the rest of the season.
The Chargers’ defense went on a tear and ended the year ranked fourth overall in the NFL.
That was a huge step forward considering the Chargers’ defense had been ranked 21st overall the year before.
There had also been some re-configuration in the defense that aided in the improvement.
O’Neal had been moved to defensive end and played alongside Shawn Lee and Chris Mims.
The secondary also added a new sheriff in 1992 in the form of Stanley “the Sheriff” Richard.
Seau led the defense in tackles with 102 and also had 4.5 sacks and two interceptions.
The only San Diego NFL news that matters today: Happy Birthday, Junior Seau. pic.twitter.com/7U5UmXuZkp
— Mark Wilkens (@MarkFWilkens) January 19, 2020
Seau’s play that season brought him more accolades including another Pro Bowl, a first-team All-Pro designation, and a number of media organizations voted Seau as their Defensive Player of the Year.
Even better, the 11-5 Chargers found themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 1982.
They beat Kansas City 17-0 in the Wild Card round before getting beaten by Miami in the Divisional round, 31-0.
In 1993, Seau had 129 tackles and two more picks, along with a Pro Bowl selection and first-team All-Pro selection, while San Diego slid backward and fell to 8-8.
Although the Chargers as a whole struggled with consistency, Seau was the very model of consistency every season.
His last name, pronounced “say ow,” was fitting because more than a few opponents said “ow” whenever they were met with a crushing Seau blow.
“The guy’s a buzz saw,” said Raiders defensive end Howie Long. “His rpm’s are on redline all the time, but mentally he’s under control, and that’s unusual for a young player.”
The reason for Seau’s desire to be the best linebacker possible was simple.
“I’m afraid of being average,” Seau said. “I have a real fear of being just another linebacker.”
There was no denying that Seau was far from average, especially in 1994.
That season, the Chargers put all the pieces together for a fantastic year.
San Diego began the year 6-0 and finished with an 11-5 overall record.
Seahawks DT Cortez Kennedy leaves the field after a greeting with Chargers LB Junior Seau in 1994 in San Diego. #Seahawks #Chargers pic.twitter.com/x001CC8wvT
— Michael Slack (@MichaelSlack801) August 23, 2022
Meanwhile, Seau was busy crushing the spirits of those who dared enter his zip code.
In ‘94, he had a career-high 155 tackles including an NFL-best 124 solo tackles and 5.5 sacks.
“The best defensive player in the league,” Bill Belichick called him in 1994.
Seau received the usual All-Pro and Pro Bowl awards but he was also named the NFL’s Man of the Year for his Junior Seau Foundation.
His foundation was established to help inner-city children and families get assistance with abusive situations, drug and alcohol prevention, and get involved with anti-delinquency programs.
“I’m living proof that you can make it out of the ghetto,” said Seau.
During the 1994 playoffs, the Chargers slid past Miami by a point before meeting the Pittsburgh Steelers.
1994 AFC Championship: Junior Seau & Chargers take on Mighty Steelers (FULL GAME) | NFL #NFL https://t.co/mhAAcUpl91 pic.twitter.com/XcMxMdA3r2
— Hashtagy (@usa_hashtagy) December 21, 2016
That day, Seau played the game with a pinched nerve in his neck and still found it in him to rack up 16 tackles.
One of his stops was a huge open-field takedown of Steelers running back John L. Williams near the end of the game that all but sealed the outcome for San Diego.
The result was a 17-13 victory that put the Chargers in its first-ever Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XXIX
Super Bowl XXIX was special because it was played by two California teams: the San Diego Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers.
San Diego entered the contest as huge underdogs, and unfortunately, the narrative that they were overmatched came true.
Niners quarterback Steve Young and the Niners thoroughly trounced San Diego that day, 49-26.
On this date in 1995…Steve Young threw 6 TD passes in Super Bowl XXIX, which is still a Super Bowl record.
He completed 24 of 36 passes for 325 yards, and broke the record of 5 touchdown passes set by former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana in Super Bowl XXIV. pic.twitter.com/IIRxrjScSZ
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 29, 2020
Seau did his best to stop the bleeding by tallying 11 tackles and a sack, but it was not nearly enough.
His value to the Chargers that year, however, has never been overlooked.
“He was the guy that kept that team together, made us believe we could win. He was the catalyst, the emotional leader, the spiritual leader, the best player,” said former teammate Rodney Harrison.
Seau Excels While San Diego Struggles
The 1995 Chargers returned to the postseason with a 9-7 record but lost to Indianapolis in the Wild Card round.
Seau had another memorable season with 130 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, and his only career touchdown on a fumble recovery.
#PFHOF20 member @IsaacBruce80 recalled some of his earliest career moments against Hall of Famer and @Chargers legend, Junior Seau. #HOFValues | @extremenetworks pic.twitter.com/toADn4OX0H
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) October 26, 2020
Sadly, as talented as Seau was, he couldn’t help the Chargers add to their win column after the ‘95 season.
From 1996 through 2002, the team could do no better than eight wins per season.
Seau continued to pile up tackles, sacks, interceptions, and recognition, but he was one of the few bright spots on the team.
After the 2002 season, San Diego traded Seau to the Miami Dolphins.
Different City, Same Seau
Seau arrived in Southern Florida in 2003 and played the same way he had in Southern California.
While Miami just missed the postseason with a 10-6 record, Seau had 96 tackles, three sacks, and three passes defended.
Happy birthday Junior Seau! #Dolphins #Chargers #Pats #nfl #goat #hof #55 pic.twitter.com/sxSt0wgdhC
— The Phinstones (@The_Phinstones) January 19, 2022
The following year, he tore a muscle in his chest and was limited to eight games, 57 tackles, and a sack.
Then, after getting 36 tackles and a sack through the first seven games of 2005, Seau missed the remainder of the year with a torn Achilles tendon.
When the ‘05 season concluded, Miami released Seau, whose future was uncertain.
“It’s pretty easy. When a team doesn’t want you or need you, retire buddy,” Seau said in early 2006.
Just when it looked like the end for Seau, Bill Belichick reached out.
Seau had announced his retirement in August of 2006, but the Patriots wanted him to help them make a push to the Super Bowl.
The franchise had appeared in three Super Bowls in the early 2000s but had not been in a title game since 2004.
OTD 2006: #Patriots signed LB Junior Seau to the first of his four one year deals. pic.twitter.com/L860RjSiJq
— Bauston Sports 🏈 ⚾🏀🏒⚽ (@BaustonSports) August 18, 2017
Belichick and the Kraft family (owners of the Patriots) lured Seau out of retirement only a few days after his announcement and the prospect of playing in another Super Bowl had him giddy.
“This is such a great situation overall. It just fits,” said Seau. “To have Bill give me a call and say, ‘I want you to be part of this formula,’ was special. That’s the reason why I’m here: to help the Patriots win another championship. And it would be my first, so it would be exciting if it happened.”
Shortly after signing, Belichick arrived at the New England facility at 6 A.M. and found his new linebacker already in the film room.
“That’s just what I’m supposed to do,” said Seau. “I don’t call that hard work; it’s just normal work. You either do it or you don’t. What I do to prepare is what I believe needs to be done. That’s just me. I love the game of football and I love to win.”
During the ‘06 season, Seau had 69 tackles and a sack in 10 starts as New England went 12-4 and advanced through the playoffs until losing to Peyton Manning and the Colts in the AFC Championship game.
Then, in 2007, Seau experienced playing for one of the best teams in NFL history.
That year, the Patriots went 16-0 while Seau started only four games, but accumulated 73 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
BB on Junior Seau: "Of all the players I’ve coached, his passion for the game in every sense of it was exceptional." pic.twitter.com/N2zndGMxGy
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) August 8, 2015
New England then eliminated Jacksonville and Seau’s original team, the Chargers, in the playoffs before meeting Eli Manning and the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
The only thing that prevented the Pats from becoming just the second undefeated team in NFL history was a miraculous David Tyree catch from Manning that led to an improbable 17-14 Giants win.
Seau Retires Again
Seau returned to New England for parts of the next two seasons but never did get a Super Bowl ring.
After the 2009 season, he retired for good.
During his career, Seau had 1,847 total tackles, 56.5 sacks, 18 fumble recoveries including one for a score, 11 forced fumbles, 43 passes defended, and 18 interceptions for 238 return yards.
He was a 12-time Pro Bowler, a nine-time All-Pro, the NFL Man of the Year, and played in two Super Bowls.
Seau was named to the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team and the league’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Junior Seau is one of the 12 LBs selected to the #NFL100 All-Time Team!
⚡️ 12x Pro Bowl (1991–2002)
⚡️ 6x First-team All-Pro
⚡️ NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1992)
⚡️ NFL Man of the Year (1994) pic.twitter.com/m5v6zsaBNS
— NFL (@NFL) November 30, 2019
Additionally, he is a member of the Chargers Hall of Fame and his number 55 has been retired by the franchise.
Seau Takes His Own Life
In the next few years after his retirement, Seau stayed busy operating his foundation as well as his restaurant in California.
He also had a successful clothing line called “Say Ow Gear.”
Seau had a scare in 2010 when he drove his vehicle down a 100-foot cliff in Carlsbad, California after he claimed he fell asleep while driving.
He sustained only minor injuries.
Then, on May 2, 2012, Seau was found in his Oceanside, California home dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his chest at the age of 43.
United States News: NFL star Junior Seau death ruled suicide pic.twitter.com/NtFgJ6Rx
— United States (@theintlwireus) May 4, 2012
His death was ruled a suicide, and it shocked his family, friends, former teammates, and football fans throughout the world.
“I’m sorry to say, Superman is dead,” said Shawn Mitchell, a chaplain for the San Diego Chargers. “All of us can appear to be super, but all of us need to reach out and find support when we’re hurting.”
Not long after Seau’s death, speculation circulated that his suicide was the result of his style of play and repeated head trauma over two decades.
Although there were never any official reports that Seau had sustained concussions during his career, his ex-wife, Gina Seau, mentioned that he had suffered concussions and simply played through them.
“He always bounced back and kept on playing,” Gina Seau said. “He’s a warrior. That didn’t stop him.”
In order to better understand why Seau took his life, the Seau family donated his brain to the National Institutes of Health.
Months later, the NIH returned its findings to the family that showed Seau had been suffering from CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
January 30 is CTE Awareness Day. We pause to honor Junior Seau. Please share his story to help us raise awareness about the dangers of repetitive hits and early in life #CTE. pic.twitter.com/nY2OC8KpJO
— FacesofCTE (@FacesofCTE) January 30, 2023
The condition has been found in athletes such as football players who have sustained repeated head trauma.
“I was not surprised after learning a little about CTE that he had it,” Seau’s 23-year-old son Tyler said in 2013. “He did play so many years at that level. I was more just kind of angry I didn’t do something more and have the awareness to help him more, and now it is too late. I don’t think any of us were aware of the side effects that could be going on with head trauma until he passed away. We didn’t know his behavior was from head trauma.”
After learning of his CTE results, the Seau family sued the NFL and reached a settlement with the league in 2018.
In 2015, Seau was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Today, the Hall of Fame remembers the late Junior Seau, who we lost #OTD 10 years ago today.
Junior's impact on football and legacy will live on forever. #HOFForever pic.twitter.com/ON86tibo3r
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) May 2, 2022
He is survived by his ex-wife and four children.
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