The first time I met Junior Seau was in 1990. He was about to leave USC for the NFL, while I was an incoming USC freshman. He was a big reason I chose USC — how good he was and how well they used him. Junior was a different kind of player than the linebackers you saw back then. He was the kind of linebacker I wanted to be. We were doing a photo shoot, and he told me he was going to give me his number, No. 55.
He didn’t need to explain what that meant. He was one of the best players in college football, and I understood immediately what a big responsibility it was. Junior wanted to start a new tradition — the tradition of the best linebacker in the country going to USC and wearing that No. 55 jersey. I had big shoes to fill, and I like to think that I carried on the tradition as Junior had hoped — and that guys like Chris Claiborne and Keith Rivers, who came after me, carried it even further.
That was the first thing I learned about Junior Seau: He was fiercely proud and unconditionally loyal. That No. 55 was his way of leaving his lasting mark on the USC football program, but also of giving back to the program by giving the best linebackers in the country another reason to choose USC.
The No. 55 is a great USC tradition, and it all started with Junior.
If you knew Junior off the field but never saw him play, you’d wonder how such a kind, caring person could be capable of the mayhem he caused on the football field. He was truly a gentle giant, and he was the perfect linebacker. He played the game and the position the way it was meant to be played — smart, fierce and nasty, but always clean — and he lived how you should live off the field, always smiling, always laughing.
I don’t know that there has ever been a player — or human being — more worthy of enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which we’ll see happen this weekend. And without him there to accept the honor, it will be as bittersweet a ceremony as we’ve ever seen.
When I learned about Junior’s death, I was just sad. I was shocked, like everybody else, and I had so many questions, but more than anything, I was just sad. I would think about him and my mind and my heart would fill with the joy I remembered from the times we spent together, and it would instantly turn to sadness that I’ll never get to experience those times again. For those of us who knew him and got to see him play, those memories are what we hold onto.
Junior Seau was a lot of things. He was proud and loyal, like he was at USC. He was always upbeat, always happy to see you. He was always cracking jokes, making people laugh and having a great time. He called everyone “Buddy,” probably because he saw everybody as a friend.
And when I say he called everyone “Buddy,” I mean everyone.
When he first got to New England, he and the rest of the team were in a meeting watching film when Bill Belichick started to get on him about something he saw on tape — in front of the whole team. Now, Junior was coming from 13 years and 12 straight Pro Bowls in San Diego, and he wasn’t used to what we’ll call Coach Belichick’s “unique” coaching style. Some coaches give the leaders and the superstars on the team a little different treatment. Maybe they don’t get yelled at as much or they get a little more leeway than the rest. Not with Coach Belichick. He’ll get on everybody the same, whether you’re Tom Brady or the backup long-snapper.
Junior wasn’t used to that. So after the meeting, he went up to Coach Belichick and said, “Hey, Buddy… Buddy… you can’t get on me like that in front of everybody.” He obviously learned pretty quickly that things were different in New England, and that was probably one of Coach Belichick’s introductions as to how friendly and non-confrontational Junior was. It was also Junior’s first glimpse of what makes Coach Belichick the best in the business.
Hey Buddy… Buddy… The guys in the locker room had a good laugh at that one.
I remember when he first came to New England. I was leaving the Patriots just as Junior got there, so we just missed playing together. I wore No. 55 — naturally — in New England and he wore No. 55 in San Diego. As I was leaving New England to join the Browns that offseason, my phone rang, and it was Junior and Coach Belichick. Junior wanted to ask me personally for my blessing for him to wear the No. 55 jersey as a Patriot.
This, the same guy who gave me the number so many years before to start that USC tradition, was asking me for permission to wear the number in New England.
That was Junior. All class, all the time.
Of course, I gave him my blessing. He was the reason I wore it and the reason it stands for what it still represents today. If I had stayed in New England, we would’ve both had to wear No. 5, because there’s no way I’d take that number from him and no way he’d let me give it up. That’s just the kind of guy he was.
Junior is remembered for so much more than the player he was on the field. He’s remembered for the gentle giant he was off it and the joy he brought to every person he came in contact with. He affected so many people’s lives in a positive way with his energy, his personality and his giving spirit.
Yeah, it’s going to be a bittersweet weekend in Canton. They’ll unveil Junior’s Hall of Fame bust and he’ll go where he belongs, among the greatest to ever play this game. They’ll show his highlights of the plays he made on the field — plays no other linebacker could make. The speed, the ferocity, the intelligence. The film will always be there to remind us of who he was on the field, but for those of us who were lucky enough to know him, the memories we have of the man he was off it will always be the first thing we think about when we hear the name Junior Seau. He was the perfect linebacker, but first and foremost, he was a great human being.
Congratulations, Junior. There’s nobody more deserving.