My 1989 story on Junior Seau and his All American season
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My 1989 story on Junior Seau and his All American season

Junior Seau realized his potential in only his second college season

Photo: USC honored Junior Seau at the Coliseum.

My look back at Junior Seau. He will be the first Samoan enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 8 in Canton, Ohio. I plan to post another story soon with my memories of Junior and thoughts on his brain damage from concussions and his death.

Nov. 17, 1989, San Diego Tribune

LOS ANGELES -- USC linebacker Junior Seau sits comfortably on a bench against a wall in the lobby of Heritage Hall. The decor is strictly All-America. Four Heisman Trophies and the retired jerseys of the award winners encased in glass are on display in the middle of the room. There are other trophies as well, but too many to mention.

USC coach Larry Smith walks by on the way to his office.

"Chief!" Seau shouts across the lobby.

"I call him chief," says Seau, a junior from Oceanside High. "It goes back to my Samoan heritage. Chiefs and warriors. He's a chief -- not a head honcho."

USC fullback Leroy Holt passes by on the run. But before Holt is out of view, he calls out with what is becoming a familiar salutation for Seau: "All-American!"

USC basketball coach George Raveling is talking with one of his players when he spots Seau.

"I still have a uniform for you," says Raveling, who remembers Seau earned San Diego CIF Player of the Year honors in basketball as well as football. "You won't even have to go down to the defensive end."

Seau laughs.

"My forearms are too big now," says Seau, who stands 6-3 and weighs a solid 245 pounds. "I play basketball for a hobby -- like other people play golf."

Safety Marcel Brown, a freshman from Point Loma High being redshirted this year, stops by for a moment. Like Seau, he was a high school All-American as a senior.

"I like him," Seau says when Brown is gone. "He's going to be a great player."

He's going to be a great player ....

During Seau's first two years on campus, he heard about his unfulfilled potential at USC more times than he cares to remember.

But 1989 has been different. He already has set a school record with 16 quarterback sacks (he finished the season with 19) and has been called the Pac-10's most dominant player, even though he's on a team that has three All-Americans in safeties Mark Carrier and Cleveland Colter and defensive tackle Tim Ryan.

Seau is finally at home in Heritage Hall with the All-American decor. He's playing like a Samoan chief.

"This is me," Seau says. "I'm enjoying this. Not being considered one of the top athletes on the team was hard on me. I have so much belief in myself that I'm a leader, I like to practice it. I don't like to follow. I like to lead."

Seau's transformation from frustrated potential to All-American candidate has been so sudden, he's considering entering next spring's NFL draft, a year ahead of his graduating class.

"The only reason I'm thinking about it is my family's financial need," Seau said. "I wish it could be just USC and Junior Seau, but one of my goals is to help my dad reach the other side of life. My dad's 55 and has a bad heart. He couldn't speak English when he came here (from Samoa), but he and my mom have worked hard and raised seven kids. That's a big accomplishment in my mind."

If Seau -- called Junior because he's named after his father, Tiaina -- listens to his father, he'll be back in Cardinal and Gold in 1990.

"My dad will be totally against me turning pro," Seau said. "I was 5 years old and couldn't speak English when we came here. But my dad wanted to raise us in America so we could have a chance to go to college. I owe a lot to him. That's what makes it a tough decision."

The best decision Seau has made so far at USC is to play within the system. Admittedly playing out of control during a disappointing sophomore season, Seau said he reached that conclusion last spring. It was the first time he participated in spring drills since he was unable to play or practice his entire freshman year because of the NCAA's academic Prop. 48 rule.

Seau's sophomore year got off on the wrong foot when he suffered an ankle injury at the start of fall drills. He missed the first three games and played sparingly the rest of the way, mostly as a defensive end in passing situations. The most disappointing game was against UCLA when he was benched after five plays.

"Last year I didn't have any techniques," he said. "All I wanted to do was bang and bang and more bang. I was wild. It was a rebellious year for me. I thought the only way I'd make first string was to gamble, but I was failing when I gambled."

Seau, who tossed bodies around like rag dolls his senior year at Oceanside when he played outside linebacker and caught 66 passes as a tight end, found himself on the other end of broken tackles for the first time.

"I've learned technique overcomes power," Seau said. "I came in with the mentality of being the muscle man. That's the way I played in high school. It doesn't work up here. It's techniques and angles."

Seau has played outside linebacker, inside linebacker and as a down lineman. Offensive coordinators have yet to figure out where he'll strike from next.

But despite a dominating season that has gained national attention, Seau says it hasn't been as easy as it looks. He suffered a compound fracture on a finger at the start of fall drills. He immediately thought back to his sophomore year being interrupted by a preseason injury because both injuries happened the same way: on the first day in pads in the team's full-line drill.

"Mentally, it almost destroyed me," Seau said. "The end of my finger was hanging down. It was hard for me to look at it and say I'm going to play. But I had to stick it out or I was afraid I'd have to sit out the rest of my life. How many more chances were they going to give me? The years were going by. People were saying I was all-everything and I wasn't producing. It's hard when the alumni is criticizing you."

Seau became a frequent visitor to the training room, requesting pain killers in the morning and again after practice.

"I was in so much pain," Seau said. "I owe my success this year to the trainers."

But there won't be any pain Saturday afternoon at the Coliseum when the Rose Bowl-bound Trojans finish the regular season against cross-town rival UCLA. Seau has been looking forward to the Bruins in particular because of his time spent on the sidelines at last year's showdown.

"A game like this is what college football is all about," Seau said. "It's having fun. There's no pressure on me. I like all the attention. I'm used to it. The pressure was coming when I wasn't playing."
Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer,, and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."