|Charles Krupa/Associated Press|
|Junior Seau spent his final four seasons (2006-09) of a 20-year career as a member of the New England Patriots.|
When the New England Patriots signed Junior Seau for the last time in 2009, the linebacker was already a legend. His spot in the Hall of Fame was almost certainly secure, and at 40 years old, his best football was behind him.
It would be his final season in an illustrious 20-year career.
Coach Bill Belichick, perhaps sensing a team in need of elderly guidance, signed Seau to a deal for the final 11 games of the season that resulted in few snaps on game day. That did nothing to dampen his influence on the Patriots' locker room.
Wednesday, upon learning the news that Seau's life came to a tragic end in his Oceanside, Calif., home, former Patriots teammates reflected on the man with the magnetic personality. And they all came back to the same image.
It was one of Seau standing in front of the team minutes before game time, making them as excited as they've ever been to step on the football field.
"I just remember before games, he would get the guys riled up," cornerback Leigh Bodden recalled. "And I'm not normally one that needs to get motivated from another guy with rah-rah stuff. But to see him and his passion when he spoke -- his love -- you could see it in his eyes. And he's not knowing if he's going to play one play or 10 plays or 50 plays, but that love he had for the game (was obvious). A true leader. When he spoke, guys listened, and I was one of them. He was just unbelievable, and that passion was unbelievable to see."
That's what everyone recalled on this terrible day. For those around Seau during his four seasons in New England -- from reporters to coaches to players to team administrators -- it would be hard to find someone who didn't leave a conversation with him smiling. He called everybody "Buddy, buddy," and so that's what everyone called him.
It was the truth. He was everyone's buddy.
The 12-time Pro Bowler was a team captain during the 2007 run to the Super Bowl, making a career-high three interceptions. He impressed with his instincts, even if his legs weren't what they once were. Players marveled at how fast he was when it came time to make a play.
"He was going 1,000 miles per hour," Bodden said.
During his years as Patriots defensive coordinator, Dean Pees grew close with Seau. They learned from each other. Now the Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator, Pees was reminded of their relationship earlier today, before he learned the news, while watching film of the Patriots' defense in 2007.
"I was talking to a couple coaches here and just said, 'This guy now, he's just fun to be around,' " Pees said. "I can remember one time we called a coverage where Junior was supposed to drop into coverage and I look out there and he sacked (Steelers quarterback Ben) Roethlisberger. And he points at me in laughing. He said, 'Hey, I knew what he was doing.' How can I argue with him?"
Seau's work habits stood out. Instead of waltzing in and out of the locker room, Seau arrived before everyone and left later. He practiced like it was his first day on the field.
"That's what he brought," Pees said. "Besides being talented, that's why the guy is an All-Pro. That's why the guy's going Hall of Fame. It's beyond ability. It's all the other things he brings to the table. You'd think after 20 years, he'd go, 'OK, this is kind of old. But every day was like a kid going out on the playground.' "
Seau played in just 11 games in his final two NFL seasons with the Patriots, making only 36 tackles. He was more of an honorary part of the defense than a key one.
But those statistics only addressed what he meant on the field. His speeches took his contributions a step further.
"That's one memory you can't buy if you were not a teammate of his," veteran running back Kevin Faulk said. "Straight classic, but always the right words for the situation."
It is what owner Robert Kraft appreciated in 2009 at a league meeting, right before the team signed Seau for the last time.
"He gives speeches to the players in the locker room," Kraft said in 2009. "There aren't many coaches that could inspire and motivate other players."
That's what cornerback Darius Butler, a rookie in 2009, remembered. He didn't spend much time with Seau away from the field, but those moments before games were indelible.
"When Junior spoke, just how he put it together, you couldn't help but be amped up and ready to go run through a brick wall," Butler said. "Just him coming to work with that passion, even being however old he was, that was special."
Butler noted how savvy Seau was, having played 20 years. At that point, coaches couldn't tell him much he didn't know. Still, when he made a mistake in practice, he'd crack players up by saying quickly, "Next play, next play coach."
"It was just cool to be around that type of guy for even a short period of time," Butler said.
Receiver Donté Stallworth's memories took him back to conditioning sessions. Seau would joke about his first-class seat back to California, laughing at the possibility of being sent back home by Belichick.
"I remember we had to do conditioning in the spring, and Bill was on all of us," Stallworth recalled. "He wanted us to condition more, before we all went away for Memorial Day weekend. ... Every time Buddy would take off, he'd say 'Seat 2A, here I come!' And he's not jogging, he's hauling ass, saying, 'Seat 2A, here I come!' And you could look over and see Bill smirking. Bill knew he was lightening things up."
The events of today left anyone who knew Seau shaken. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork tweeted that he was "heart broken" about the loss of one of the greatest players he shared the field with.
Running back Fred Taylor remembered Seau's quirks, including how he'd sit at his locker with "his Samoan-type banjo, hum his tunes and be as peaceful as can be." Bodden remembered Seau walking into a club in flip-flops, evidence that he marched to the beat of his own drums.
"Then, we would go out to practice, and go 1,000 miles per hour," Taylor recalled. "He was a great guy who always looked to give insight to the younger players. Prior to being teammates, I had a great deal of respect and admiration. This comes from all times we played each other. He respected me as a player and feelings were always mutual. This is tragic."
The Patriots as an organization took the loss as hard as the individual players, saying they were simply fortunate to have him on the team.
"He had a legendary NFL career and his unrivaled passion for the game quickly made him a fan favorite here in New England," the team said in a statement. "This is a sad day for the entire Patriots organization, our coaches and his many Patriots teammates. Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to his family and his many friends who will mourn this loss."
This afternoon, Pees was still in shock.
"It's just so hard to think that he's gone because he was so full of life," Pees said. "He was a personality."
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