Jake Seau blazing his own trail

Jake Seau blazing his own trail

Published Jan. 18, 2013 1:38 a.m. ET

Jake Seau and his father, the late Junior Seau, had a lot in common. Same smile, athleticism, personality, taste in music, comedic nature and work ethic.

The biggest difference between the 6-foot-2, 190-pound high school junior and his father is the sport they chose to play.

While football ran in Junior's blood, it simply was not Jake’s thing. He has an older brother, Tyler, who plays football at Delta State and two cousins, Micah and Ian Seau, who played at San Diego State and Kansas State, respectively.

But instead of following in the family footsteps, 17-year-old Jake is making a name for himself as he marches to the beat of his own drum...in the lacrosse world.

“I love the game [of football] but I never felt like it was my type of sport," he said. I loved it and was committed to it but my life never revolved around it. For me lacrosse is what I do. Every day I practice.”

Jake grew up in San Diego playing soccer, tennis, golf, basketball, football, lacrosse and surfing. He started playing football in fifth grade, making it one of the last sports he learned how to play.

Junior, meanwhile, was playing for the Chargers when Jake was born from 1995 until 2002 and then went on to play for Miami (2003-05) and New England (2006-09). In his 20-year NFL career, he never pressured Jake to play sports, especially football, just simply to have good work ethic.

“He did always advise once I started to get old enough to get into the weight room,” he said. “It got to the point that working out wasn’t a chore but it was just part of my daily routine."

Jake didn’t pick up a lacrosse stick until seventh grade, but once he was introduced by Jon Zissi, his teacher at Bishop's School who was the Lacrosse coach and played collegiately at Tufts University, Jake was hooked.

“The thing that really attracted me [to lacrosse] was how difficult it was. It didn’t matter how big or fast I was, I sucked. I couldn’t pass, I couldn’t cradle [the ball], I couldn’t hold the stick in my left hand. For me that was what was so enticing.”

Lacrosse was definitely a challenge for Jake. It was a new element to the Seau family. Nobody, including Junior, knew anything about the game. Jake spent time teaching himself about the sport, reading up on the game and watching videos.

“There are just so many variables to work with in lacrosse it was really, really interesting to me,” he said. “It was a challenge and it was so new. I had no idea what it was. Then I started learning about it and playing a lot more and started getting better.”

After making it out to a practice, his passion for the game took over.

Zissi, who now coaches at rival high school Torrey Pines, tried recruiting all the middle school kids he could to help build the program up. Seeing how good Jake was at football, it was a natural fit.

"He really evolved as a lacrosse player in the last year and a half," said Zissi. "he's a really good lacrosse player with a high IQ."

In high school, Jake decided to focus on just two sports, playing strong safety and running back in football, and midfield in lacrosse. Naturally, coaches of both sports were interested in Jake’s obvious athleticism.

That’s when the letters started pouring in.

Tennessee, San Diego State and Texas football coaches were interested in him. But so were lacrosse coaches from Duke, Maryland, Notre Dame, Ohio State, North Carolina and Johns Hopkins.

After a solid sophomore season in football, Jake decided to put away the pigskin and focus on his true passion, lacrosse.

“[My Dad] always told me to do what you love. Find your passion and pursue it.”  

Jake took that advice and ran. 

After going on unofficial recruiting visits during his sophomore year, Jake immediately fell in love with Duke the second he set foot on campus.

While Junior was supportive of his son’s love of the sport, he still wanted Jake to wait to commit.

“He always told me to keep the door open, football will come,” Jake said. “To me it was like I knew lacrosse was what I wanted to do. If I got a full ride to Alabama I still wouldn’t go. But he understood that.”

Before even meeting the team, Jake cancelled the rest of the visits and verbally committed to Duke the fall of his sophomore year, relatively early in the lacrosse recruiting world.

“[My dad] was really excited for me. He was just mainly happy that I was excelling in the sport I loved and was proud that I've accomplished something a lot of kids dream of, me included."

Jake, who plays year-round between his club and high school seasons at Bishop’s High, is now considered the No. 18 player in the nation for the 2014 class by Inside Lacrosse’s Top 20 Young Gun list, and is the only one in the top 20 from California.

“I want to be known as one of the best to come out of the West Coast,” said Jake. “I want to be able to blaze my own trail and help bring West Coast lacrosse to a new level. I definitely want to spread the game as much as possible. I want to leave the impression that I helped grow the game here in the West and I helped some kids somewhere.

“If [my dad] can do, it I can do it. ‘“

As the junior prepares himself for his college career, Jake reflects on the invaluable lessons learned from watching his dad’s 20-plus years in the NFL limelight.

“I’ve learned to just be humble. On the field I’m pretty aggressive and angry but off the field I’m pretty relaxed. I’ve really learned from my dad how to turn it on and off. I’m not saying I’m anywhere close to my dad as far as fame and stardom, but handling interviews and things like that I guess I learned to be honest because he always told me to be true to myself. Never lie to yourself. Don’t let anything to get to your head.”

While the Seau family continues the process of moving on from a difficult year and preparing for what would have been Junior’s 44th birthday on Saturday, reports circulated last week that Junior was suffering from CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in many athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

“[The results] help us understand, but nothing changes,” said Jake. “It’s comforting to know and to be more sympathetic with my dad, and it explains some of his behaviors as far as distancing himself from us, but it doesn’t help. It sucks ‘cause it’s such a weird disease that you don’t know you have it until you can look at the brain. There's no way to diagnose without the person being deceased. That’s the biggest problem with it right now, no one knows until you can really look at their brain.”

Jake saw his firsthand his father suffer from the symptoms of CTE in the past few years, but says it got especially worse in his last few months.

“The last year was pretty tough on him, and then it got really bad that we wouldn’t see him for a while. He dealt with depression and a lot of things that come with CTE. He’s there and then he’s not. He doesn’t sleep. He was pretty temperamental and can take things out on people he loves for no reason. And he’ll be with you for a week and it will seem like everything is fine and then he won’t talk to you for two months. It’s a weird in-and-out type of thing and that helped explain it for sure, but with the CTE it just gave us more questions.”

Since that life-altering day last May, Jake – along with mom Gina, brothers Tyler and Hunter, and sister Sydney, a freshman on the USC Sand Volleyball team – knows it’s a day-by-day process and that they will someday move on, but they’ll never forget.

"Everyone mourns differently, and we all handle it differently, but for the most part we are doing better," he said. "We're just trying to move on with our lives. We'll obviously never forget and always remember."

But it's weeks like this that make it especially difficult.

“For a while we were doing really good and this whole CTE thing brought it all back into our lives. Right now it’s kind of tough because it’s hard to get away from all this news.

"My escape is really surfing and playing lacrosse. I’m always busy. That’s how I kind of deal with it."

Jake, a private person who usually shies away from interviews, was very clear about how he wants his dad to be remembered.

“I want people to look a past the No. 55. I see the 55, and the Chargers, and as much as I love that I understand how important it was to him and so many. As cool as that is I’d like people to look past that and look at the person and the joy that he brought and the smiles.

“It’s insane looking at the [Junior Seau Foundation], at the amount of people’s lives he touched and amount of kids he saved,” said Jake. “Things like that are really once-in-a-lifetime things and my dad did it almost every week. To me that’s what it was. The fact that he could walk into a room and everyone would turn and look at him and the mood would lighten and change is something that is really important. People would acknowledge that he was this famous guy and he had all this notoriety and stuff like that, but he never used it in a negative way, and he was always a positive person.

Despite the media attention surrounding his father’s suicide, Jake will always remember the happy father who would surf with him, or sit on the porch at his house in Oceanside with him just staring out at the ocean. 

“He always did things that made him happy. He lived pretty simply in a small beach house in Oceanside. That was his lifestyle: wake up, surf and kick it. I think that a lot of people should realize that it wasn’t all about the partying or stuff like that.”

Jake, who lives under the shadow of his father’s football career, has decided to honor his dad’s memory by becoming an advocate for lacrosse on the West Coast.

Each game the future Blue Devil writes “Dad” on his helmet and tapes up his right side with the number 55 written on it.

“It helps me remember him, and it helps me to remember how he played. When I’m on the field I’m giving 110 percent, and when I’m off the field I’m giving 110 percent to get on the field. So much of his life was revolved around excelling at a sport and to me that was something that was extremely admirable. For me honoring him is working and bettering myself on and off the field and continuing the pursuit of excellence he always had.

Like his dad would always say, “you can’t coach courage. Always be humble. Work today to build your tomorrow and pray for the rest.”

While Jake is still unsure of his plans after college, there’s one thing he does know. Like his father he’s on a mission to grow the game he loves.

With the work ethic and heart he inherited from his father, the future of lacrosse is in good hands.