|Junior Seau played three seasons for the Dolphins, from 2003-05, between his years in San Diego and New England.|
PLANTATION, Fla. -- As former NFL linebacker Channing Crowder pulled up to Jacaranda Golf Club, a few miles from the Miami Dolphins' facility where he spent a season under the mentorship of Junior Seau, Crowder did exactly what anyone would do when they hear unbelievable and unthinkable news about a friend.
Crowder scrolled through his cell phone to Seau's name, and he called him.
But it just rang. And rang. And rang. Nobody answered, sparking the first sickening realization that, yes, Seau is gone.
"Just crazy, man," said Crowder, shaking his head. "Nobody was like Seau."
On a strange afternoon when a man is forced to begin referencing his friend in the past tense, Crowder spent the next several hours telling one story after another, just like everyone else who ever knew or played with one of the most popular players in the history of the NFL.
That's the thing about Seau: It wasn't just his 12 Pro Bowls that defined him. It wasn't just that he played into his 40s. It wasn't just what he did on Sundays at all. It was the stories -- the crazy, fun, energized, memorable, impactful stories. Some pretty funny ones, too.
In 2005, which was Nick Saban's first of two seasons with the Dolphins, the notoriously strict coach called Seau over to him during a practice because the linebacker was wearing normal sneakers instead of cleats.
"Where's your cleats?" Saban scoffed.
"Buddy, buddy, buddy," said Seau, as recalled by Crowder. "If I wear cleats, then I'm going to be running faster than everybody, then I'm going to hurt somebody. You don't want me to hurt anybody, do you? We don't want that!"
Seau then turned around, without waiting for an answer, and ran back to the huddle.
"The crazy thing is, he says it because he feels that way," Crowder laughed.
And actually, he proved it once during a very casual practice when players were wearing nothing more than shells and helmets (not full pads). Seau figured out what play the offense was running, and he bolted through the line, slamming into running back Ricky Williams with a helmet-to-helmet thud.
"Both of them fell on their asses," Crowder said. "It was a crazy hit, and everyone's looking at Junior like, 'What the hell are you doing?' But from that moment on, the rest of the practice was amazing.
"If Junior was going to be knocking people around at his age, then we had to tighten up. And we sure did."
Crowder spent his rookie season playing alongside Seau, and although Seau only played the first seven games of that season before landing on injured reserve, it was enough to resonate for a lifetime. Crowder was often amazed by Seau's unique ability to predict exactly what an opposing team would do -- and act on it with an animal-like approach.
During one game against the New York Jets, Crowder recalls, Seau was lined up man-to-man with wide receiver Wayne Chrebet. But Seau knew what the play was, so he completely abandoned his coverage, leaving Chrebet wide open down the field. The problem for the Jets was Seau knew quarterback Chad Pennington's first read would be to the opposite side of the field -- and he sacked him for an eight-yard loss before Pennington ever knew what hit him.
"He'd take some really big gambles," Crowder said. "But he made 12 Pro Bowls. Clearly, it worked out more often than it didn't!"
While Crowder doesn't recall Seau as a "rah-rah" guy, he remembers more one-on-one inspiration from him. If a cornerback missed an interception, Seau would run up to him and say something like, "Buddy, buddy, buddy (yes, he called everyone 'buddy'), don't worry about that one -- but you owe me two picks now! You owe it to me!"
Undoubtedly, the massive respect that Seau garnered from his teammates always led to inspired play around him.
"When he was on the field, he was full tilt -- all day and all night," Crowder said. "That's what people screwed up: They assumed because he was a vet, he'd take it easy on you. He's out there outrunning everybody on every sprint, laughing and stuff. 'You gotta get those legs right! C'mon buddy! You gotta get those legs right!' "
As Crowder told that story, he let out a big belly chuckle, the type of laugh that tells you his genuine appreciation for the man that Seau was. It was the type of laugh that provided assurance that Seau's legacy won't be remembered for how the world lost him -- but instead by the way he inspired.
The NFL will mourn the loss of one of its greatest players in the coming weeks and months, but rest assured, it won't all be tears. Not when the person who is gone left so many with memories of laughter.
"Tell me something negative about Junior Seau that you've ever heard," Crowder said. "He was a great guy. When it came to his teammates, he did everything right. Just a great person that had a great impact on my life."
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington