On most days Junior Seau would roll out of bed at 5 a.m., pad down a flight of stairs to the garage of his beachfront house in Oceanside, Calif., and change into a bodysuit. He'd grab one of his kayak-sized longboards and walk barefoot across the narrow street to the 12 concrete stairs above the shore. Sometimes as he made his way down to the sand, Seau would pause and stare into the dark distance. The brick-front two-story house along The Strand, 40 miles up the coast from San Diego, was where he lived, but the ocean was where he felt at home.
"He would tell me the only time he truly felt at peace was when he was with his children or in the surf," says Rodney Harrison, Seau's former teammate with the Chargers and Patriots. "He would say, 'When I'm on those waves, it's the greatest feeling. I have no worries, no stress, no problems. I just forget about everything.' Junior was always searching for peace."
When he wasn't in the water, Seau might be on the patio above his garage, plopped into one of the half-dozen chairs in his board shorts and flip-flops, strumming lazy tunes on his ukulele and looking out over the Pacific. From his perch he could taste the salt on his lips, feel the mist on his face, hear the comforting sound of the surf.
On May 2, in the morning the roar of the ocean mixed with the sound of hearts breaking across San Diego County. Seau, the iconic, homegrown star linebacker who was three years into retirement, lay dead in a bedroom of his house, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. As the news circulated throughout the area, shock and sadness gave way to confusion. Why would someone so full of life at age 43, so universally admired and with so much to live for, put a revolver to his chest and pull the trigger?
In San Diego, where Tony Gwynn and Dan Fouts became icons and where Ted Williams, Bill Walton, Marcus Allen and Ricky Williams grew up, Seau was by far the most popular athlete. And the affection stemmed not just from the transcendent play that earned him 12 Pro Bowl selections in 13 seasons with the Chargers before finishing his career with Miami and New England. Seau was a local guy who overcame difficult circumstances as a youngster and never forgot his roots. As kids, Junior and his brothers Savai'i and David slept on mattresses in the garage at the family's small bungalow on Zeiss Street in Oceanside, while their parents, Tiaina and Luisa, and sisters Mary and Annette took up the two bedrooms. On nights when it was cold enough to see their breath, the boys would keep warm by using a space heater. From such early experiences Seau learned the value of positivity and perspective—when his sisters would tease that their room had carpeting, he'd say his had the bigger door. If outsiders later tried to dwell on the pathos of his story, Seau would stop them and smile, because he knew those circumstances helped him become one the game's most decorated and highly paid players.
Seau was at ease in his hometown. His beachfront house sits less than two miles from Oceanside High, his alma mater, and on fall Fridays he would sometimes walk the sideline during Pirates football games. Everyone knew where he lived. There were no gates or barriers to keep people away. Locals would walk by his house on The Strand and, almost in passing, say, "Oh, that's June's place."
If it is possible to live in two worlds—that of the average Joe and that of the athletic demigod—Seau did. He could go effortlessly from the surf or the sideline to a board meeting for his foundation, which since 1992 has dispensed nearly $4 million to aid disadvantaged kids and young adults in San Diego County, through programs such as Gangbusters.
"That saved my life," says former Rams and Bears linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, who as a prep senior at Vista (Calif.) High was facing a second felony battery charge in three years before mentors from Gangbusters stepped in on his behalf. "It had people surround me and help set me straight. I was basically on house arrest, so they would pick me up from school and take me to an after-school program. June was behind that.
"I saw him on my birthday last July, and he came in playing his ukulele and singing Happy Birthday. I didn't get to tell him personally what he meant to me, but he knew. He saw the success I had, and he was proud of me. Whenever I saw him, he would talk about how good I was. He was always positive. That's why everyone loved him. They felt they were friends with June. He had that status about him, but to us he was just a man of the people.
"When I got drafted by St. Louis, I wasn't sure about coming back [to the San Diego area] in the off-season. There's just so many pressures with that. I used to wonder how June handled it. He was the first Samoan to have that much success, and you know what money can do. Everyone felt like Junior was his cousin and Junior owed them something. But he took it in stride. He wasn't afraid to show his face. I always admired him for that."