FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Junior Seau was hurt. The cart came out to take him off the field. Would the inspirational leader return?
Seau was with San Diego then and Rodney Harrison figured his teammate was finished.
"I thought he was probably lost for the season," said Harrison, now in his second year playing with Seau on the Patriots. "He comes back five plays later. First play back, he goes and gets a sack and he gets up and he's cheering. He's pumping that arm and it was pretty amazing.
"That just sums up Junior right there. You can never count him out."
Not when he finished the 2004 and 2005 seasons on injured reserve with Miami. Not when he announced his retirement after that. Not even when he reversed that decision four days later to play for New England in 2006.
And not when he ended that season early with more pain -- a broken arm sidelined him after the 11th game.
So on Saturday night, Seau will use his energy and ability to try to extend the Patriots' unbeaten season in a divisional playoff game against Jacksonville.
Just seven days before his 39th birthday, one of the greatest linebackers in NFL history will be back in the playoffs for the first time in 13 years.
Others may have wondered why Seau kept coming back. He listened only to himself.
"I never doubt myself playing the game of football. One thing I've always said to not only myself, but people around and in the locker room," he said Wednesday, "is never allow the world to put barriers on you as a person, or as a player, or as a human being, as to what you should be doing, what you should be saying at any age you may be.
"And I never allowed that to happen."
Seau was the fifth pick in the 1990 draft out of Southern California, the school where Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio also played linebacker just six years earlier. From 1991-2002, Seau was selected for 12 straight Pro Bowls.
The Super Bowl in his fifth season is a less pleasant memory. San Diego was routed by San Francisco 49-26. It was a dark day for Seau, even though he had 11 tackles and a sack.
"As a professional athlete, to go in there and compete at the high level that you had hoped to and to go out there and have it handed to you on national TV as the world was watching, it was embarrassing," he said. "I've always dreamt to have another opportunity and another chance, and that's why I'm here."
He played in just one more playoff game the following season and the Chargers lost 35-20 to Pittsburgh despite Seau's 11 tackles and an interception. The Chargers didn't have a winning record in any of his remaining seven seasons there. He spent the next three seasons in Miami and was part of just one winning team.
With all the individual accolades, there was an empty spot in his career: team success.
"Whenever you get into the playoffs and when you gain success early, as a human being, you think it's easy and it's going to come back again," Seau said. "But it doesn't always work that way.'
He had another chance when Patriots coach Bill Belichick, with three of his linebackers injured, wanted an intelligent veteran before last season. Seau came out of his brief retirement -- he called it a graduation -- and started 10 of 11 games he played before being hurt.
This season, he didn't start any of the first 12 games, but played a lot as part of a five-man linebacker rotation. But when Rosevelt Colvin went on injured reserve, Seau started the last four games at inside linebacker.
"Every time we go in the huddle, he has an energy and a presence about him that's pretty much nonstop," Belichick said. "I think he's obviously one of the most respected players in the league, certainly on this team. He has a good message and people listen to him."
He couldn't deliver that message on the field last season, when the Patriots blew a 21-3 lead and lost the AFC championship to Indianapolis, 38-34. He couldn't bear to watch and went surfing in San Diego, his hometown.
On Saturday night there's no other place he'd rather be than Gillette Stadium - yapping in the huddle, charging at the quarterback and slamming running backs to the ground.
"I'm not here for anything else," he said. "I'm not here to practice. I'm not here to go to meetings. It's a great game, and I do love the game, but you would love to finish it the way you dreamt of finishing it when you were a kid."
Until then, he'll keep showing up before most of his teammates and studying as much film as he can. Harrison once arrived before 6 a.m. and found Seau already working out.
"The guy practices harder than anyone I've ever seen," Harrison said. "That just shows that he isn't taking anything for granted. He knows this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"He walked away from the game and he came back. He had the opportunity, got hurt last year, and now he's taking advantage of it and making the most of it."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.