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Junior Seau remembered by thousands at San Diego celebration

SAN DIEGO -- We've lost so many icons and legends in the NFL, their deaths tend to make us put their football careers in perspective, since of course, we pretty much know them for the football exploits.

What became evident immediately upon entering Qualcomm Stadium on Friday night for a public memorial service is that Junior Seau's death -- well, his remembrance -- was different. He was a local guy who did good and made the folks who watched him grow up and become a Chargers legend like proud brothers and sisters.

Thousands filled a stadium nine days after Seau took his own life (the Chargers later estimated the crowd at about 20,000), bearing thoughts of the kid who grew up rough and lived life 100 miles per hour. The conversations from those who spent this particular Friday night like they used to spend Sundays watching Seau play almost singularly centered on how he represented his hometown and the people who lived here.

"Junior Seau, I want to tell everybody here, loved you guys," former teammate and linebacker Billy Ray Smith told the crowd. "I am pretty sure you loved No. 55 as well. He was a great friend. He was a great teammate."

Former teammates and coaches and those who played and coached against him -- or simply watched him play -- spoke in memoriam. The words were kind and funny, as they tend to be at times like this. They also were jarring.

"There is no hiding that Junior's passing is a tragedy," Chargers legend Dan Fouts said in his closing remarks. "With all tragedies, there are lessons to be learned by all of us. The lesson here is if you need help, get help. All you have to do is swallow your pride and ask for it. Help is out there for all of us."

Bobby Ross, Seau's coach on the Chargers' lone Super Bowl team in 1994, said that on the fateful Wednesday, he was headed to workout at the YMCA at his home in Richmond, Va., when he saw Seau's name and picture flash on TV. Ross thought No. 55 was making another comeback.

Then "I saw pictures of his house and the flowers," and Ross had to sit down. He was stunned and shocked. He had outlived another one of his players.

"He was a coach's dream," Ross said privately after the ceremony. " ...There were two things I really wanted in our program when I was here: I wanted us to play hard ... and I wanted us to play together, and he had so much to do with helping to create those two things."

Chargers owner Dean Spanos told the crowd that the team will officially retire Seau's No. 55. Hall of Famers Dan Fouts (No. 14) and Lance Alworth (No. 19) are the only other Chargers to have their numbers retired.

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Former Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson spoke movingly at the ceremony, and said afterward that the evening was an important step in the healing process.

"It brought closure, no question, because the last week has been really tough. It's been just days of just daydreaming and being sad, wondering about his family, and to come here and have a celebration of his life ... to talk about the great things he taught us. That's what tonight was about."

While this celebration was just that, the reality of why so many gathered can't be lost. Seau committed suicide at age 43. The death of this violent and spectacular player has triggered speculation that long-term head trauma or other health reasons prompted him to do what so many think is unthinkable.

And while this has created healthy discussion and debate, we don't and won't really know why the future Hall of Famer did what he did.

The end result though led to this ceremony -- if that's what it could be called. What was clear is that to many, this was premature but the celebration of the star football player who loved to surf and tried to help kids not have it as tough as he did would have been celebrated at some point, regardless.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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