San Diego said goodbye to Junior Seau on Friday evening as best it could. Chargers fans cheered highlights of his greatest plays, laughed at stories of his charm and humor and cried at their shared loss.
The Chargers honored Seau by officially retiring his uniform number, 55. Team president Dean Spanos made the announcement toward the end of the "celebration of life" ceremony at Qualcomm Stadium.
San Diego said goodbye to its favorite son. But did it ever really get a proper introduction?
Junior Seau was San Diego through and through. He lived and celebrated the beach culture, but as any poor sap who had the misfortune of trying to stop him from charging the gap can tell you, he was anything but laid back.
And San Diegans loved him for it. Even as they soak in the sun and dip their toes in the Pacific waters, San Diegans bristle at the stereotype. They’re so much more than that, they believe. Just look at Junior Seau.
"In this town, the word ‘Seau’ is royalty," said former Chargers defensive back Miles McPherson, now a pastor who spoke at the public memorial at the site of Seau’s greatest athletic triumphs.
San Diegans loved him for being a local, raised in the northern suburb of Oceanside. They loved him for proudly representing his home, be it Oceanside or San Diego at large. They loved him for being a local and playing football the way he did — with an all-out ferocity for 60 minutes, with a passion that commanded his teammates to follow suit and with an obvious affection for the game he played.
San Diegans loved him for being one of them. He didn’t disappear behind gates and walls when he found fame and riches. He was a regular at his Seau’s restaurant in Mission Valley, a couple of miles down the road from Qualcomm Stadium, and put his mom’s Samoan home recipes on the menu. He didn’t just lend a name to the Junior Seau Foundation; he went to the events and got to know the kids he was helping.
Stories abound about Seau’s generosity with his time, whether it was through the foundation or his willingness to sit down and share a beer with a fan after a chance encounter or break out his ukulele and entertain a room or strangers. He was as accessible as any superstar.
Which makes the circumstances of his death all the more heartbreaking. Seau committed suicide at his oceanfront home in Oceanside on May 2, a gunshot wound to the chest ending his life at age 43 and leaving Chargers fans knowing their relationship with Seau was all too limited, their cheers a fading echo.
For all the access fans had to Seau, ultimately, it was fleeting. Unknown is what put Seau on the path to end his life, whether the game he played so well contributed to his death, whether he could have been saved.
The cheers rang through Mission Valley again Friday evening, but Seau was no longer there to hear them.
"Junior, Junior, Junior," the fans chanted as the memorial got under way.
It was left to a former teammate to answer on Seau’s behalf. "Junior loved you guys," Billy Ray Smith Jr. said. "He loved you all."
Friday was about that love, not about the loss felt for the past nine days. The stories shared about Seau, at his funeral in Oceanside in the morning and at the gathering for fans in the evening, fed that love.
Bobby Ross, who coached the Chargers to the Super Bowl in 1994, revealed Seau was guilty of offering a bounty one day at the Oakland Coliseum.
"They always had the fans very close to the field," Ross explained to the crowd at Qualcomm Stadium. "One guy always put on shoulder pads, helmet, that sort of thing. Well, we get into pregame warm-ups, and Stan Humphries is throwing nothing but long balls, ball after ball.
"I went over there and asked him, ‘Stan, what the heck is going on?’ He said, ‘Got to tell you, Coach, Junior told me that if I could hit that guy in the stands, he’d give me $1,000.’ "
About 20,000 fans put their Friday night on hold to remember and celebrate Seau in a ceremony aired live on local television. There were thousands of No. 55 jerseys — powder blue, white, dark blue. No. 55 was painted onto the grass, where the 50-yard line would be in season.
Denver Broncos quarterbacks past and present, John Elway and Peyton Manning, attended. So did Broncos coach John Fox, a former Chargers assistant coach. Speakers included San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, former Chargers LaDainian Tomlinson and Dan Fouts, and former opponent John Lynch.
Like Seau, Lynch attended a high school in northern San Diego County and made his name in the NFL as a hard-hitting defender. He was an offseason workout partner of Seau.
"Football has been taking a beating here of late," Lynch said. "It’s a wonderful sport, a wonderful game. It brings people together from Oceanside, Chula Vista, from Encinitas, because they love something, the San Diego Chargers, or because they hate the Raiders. That’s always been a beautiful thing, for me.
"In football, you’ve got people coming together from all different places, from all different races, to work together as a team. Nobody represented this better than Junior Seau.
"I once asked him, ‘Junior, how is it that you’re such a leader?’
‘Buddy,’ he said, ‘I’ve got an advantage you’ll never have. You’re going to have to work a bit harder. See, I’m brown. When I want to be black, I’m black. When I want to be white, I’m white.’ That’s Junior. And he did it well."
Lynch repeated a story told at the morning service. Each morning, when Junior and his siblings went off to school, their mother, Luisa, would tell them: "You go out. Make happy."
"Junior did that every day," Lynch said.
Seau’s ability to "make happy" was no passing thing. He helped bring Tomlinson a lifetime of happiness, according to LT.
"I went to Junior and told him I had a special lady in my life and it was time for me to become a man. I was ready to propose," Tomlinson said. "I asked him, ‘What’s a good place to do it?’ "
Seau’s advice was to go to La Jolla Cove, a scenic spot favored by divers and sightseers.
"You go there, and she’ll love you forever," Tomlinson recalled Seau telling him.
"Well," Tomlinson added, "she’s still with me because I followed Junior’s advice."
As Fouts took the podium, the scoreboard played a video of him presenting a Parade All-American award to Seau at an Oceanside High School assembly in the 1980s. Fouts remembered the meeting distinctly, as Seau’s humor was fully developed at age 18.
"There’s a lot of Raiders fans here," the teenaged Seau told the Hall of Fame quarterback. "But don’t worry; I’ve got your back."
The thousands cheering Seau one last time Friday surely wish they could have had Seau’s back.