Charging To Top Super Bowl Xxix

January 25, 1995|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

Miami -- As a child, Junior Seau slept on a cold concrete floor in the garage of a shack in Oceanside, Calif., stuffed between a dishwasher and some cleaning items.

He once lived in a neighborhood where drugs were sold on almost every corner and police answered calls for domestic arguments daily, not just on weekends. Gangs? Seau wished the local Boys Club had as many members.

So on a day when Seau was bombarded with questions about his San Diego Chargers being 19-point underdogs against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX, the inside linebacker from Samoa was at peace with himself.

"I'm not the only man in the league who lived that way, but the odds are stacked against a lot of men who have been in similar situations," said Seau, 6 feet 3, 250 pounds. "The Super Bowl is a game. Life is for real. What I went through helped me get to where I am today. I won't forget. I can't forget. Because a man who forgets his past sometimes loses his soul and forgets where to go in the future."

Seau (pronounced say-ow) likely is heading to the Hall of Fame. He has had four All-Pro seasons in a five-year career, and is the game's most dominating linebacker.

He's the next best thing to Lawrence Taylor: extraordinary run stopper, relentless pursuer, pass defender and field leader.

"The single most destructive force in pro football," said Cleveland Browns coach Bill Belichick. "He is the best defensive player we've faced, and by a pretty good margin. The part of his game that is not dominant is as a pass rusher. Yet."

Seau seems to have everything else going for him. He's intelligent and philosophical, compassionate and kind, hard-working and unselfish. A perfectionist, too.

He has done Leno and has his own Say-Ow brand of shorts, tank tops, visors and sandals. And Seau loves kids. Adores them.

He has formed Seau's Drug-Busters Basketball Team for fund-raising, and established The Seau Foundation, a charitable organization designed to benefit San Diego youth programs. He's a national Pop Warner Football representative and spokesman for the NFL's national youth programs.

"He seems too good to be true, almost phony," said Chargers defensive end Leslie O'Neal. "But if he was putting on an act, we would have found out in his five years here."

Said Seau: "I had parents who instilled in me the importance of love, morals and hard work. I give God all the glory because he has brought me through so much."

Seau was born in San Diego, but moved to American Samoa as an infant. His family moved to nearby Oceanside when Seau was in grade school. He didn't learn English until he was 7.

"As I was coming up, it always seemed like I was learning," said Seau. "If it wasn't from school, it was the 'hood. The influences of the 'hood are very powerful."

Those influences put Seau's younger brother, Antonio, 17, into jail a couple of months ago. It was one of two problems that caused Seau's performance to decline a year ago.

The other problem was his daughter, Sydney Beau, now 16 months old, who was born two months premature with underdeveloped lungs.

Antonio is serving a 10-year sentence at the California Youth Authority for his role in a gang attack. Antonio pleaded guilty to attempted murder.

"Tony is a softhearted kid who had to live in the shadow of his older brother," said Seau. "I have preached to Tony like I've preached to all kids. I'm just glad Tony is alive. He gets a second chance, which some kids don't get. I will be there for him."

Sydney Beau already has made a full recovery.

"We almost lost her," said Seau. "Now, she's fine, even overweight. If there was a time I was going to put my family before football, it was then."

Seau still finished with a team-leading 129 tackles last season, 21 more than his club high of 1992. This year, there have been few distractions, only a pinched nerve in his left shoulder the past month.

No big deal.

Seau finished the season with 155 tackles. He may have had his best game in the AFC championship, when he had 16 tackles in the Chargers' 17-13 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Our last two games have been our best two games," said Seau. "I can't help this team sitting on the bench. Everybody else was laying it on the line. I have to be there, too."

It's that attitude, teammates say, that separates Seau from others. Seau practices like he plays.

"He's a nut," said Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries. "When we're going through the offense at half-speed, Junior is still going full tilt and decking people. If there was a meter for intensity, I think he would be off the chart."

And Seau is so strong. Take it from Chargers defensive tackle Shawn Lee.

"I was in the weight room kind of showing off, maxing out and pumping 145-pound dumbbells in each arm," Lee said. "That's pretty impressive. Junior walks in, grabs the 160-pound dumbbells just to begin his workout.

"He can bench-press 500 pounds, and I once saw him run down New Orleans receiver Michael Haynes. With that closing speed, the sound of impact can be frightening."

Seau is like 49ers receiver Jerry Rice: the best at his position, but also the hardest worker. San Diego's defense is geared for the defensive linemen to take gaps and let Seau choose his own lane to the ball.

"I want to be the smartest player I can be, and that's why I watch so much film," said Seau. "I feel I should be able to anticipate everything that's going to happen. Everything. That's what separates the average athlete from the Hall of Famer."

That's Seau's biggest fear. He doesn't want to be average.

"If someone guaranteed me I could play this game for five more years, then I would take it easy now and then," said Seau. "But when I'm finished, I want to be mentioned in that elite group of [Dick] Butkus, Taylor, [Jack] Lambert and a few others.

"From my old neighborhood, I learned nothing was guaranteed, not even life itself. You better get it today, because tomorrow is not promised."

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