GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It's been 724 quarters. 181 games. 13 years. That's how long Patriots linebacker Junior Seau has waited to get back to the biggest stage in sports. As a member of the San Diego Chargers in 1995, Seau's team got blasted, 49-26, by the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX. He finished the 2005 season as a member of the Miami Dolphins, and at the age of 36, retired (Seau says he only "graduated") briefly from the National Football League.
"Other teams were saying they would love for me to be on their team, but that gave me a clue to mean they wanted me, but didn't really need me," Seau said. "Belichick called two weeks before the season and he said, one-on-one, 'I have a position for you.' And it changed my life."
Belichick seemed equally pleased that Seau could be talked out of joining AARP.
"We talked about what our situation was at the Patriots at that point and what his situation was. We were able to work things out and I'm glad we did," he said.
Indeed, Seau's career has come full circle since that conversation in August 2006. He joined a team that made it to the AFC Championship Game, but a broken arm cut his season short well before the final snap of the season. A healthy Seau returned to training camp in 2007 and in just his second season his teammates (an equal number of both offensive and defensive players) voted him one of their captains.
"I think that shows the widespread support that he had within our football team," Belichick said. "If you know Junior, it isn't really surprising because he brings a great professionalism and energy to our football team. … He is a tremendous guy to coach, as are the rest of the group, but he is a special one."
Seau became the oldest player in Patriots franchise history to record two or more interceptions in a game this year when he picked off Derek Anderson twice in Week 5. He picked up one more the following week against the Cowboys to finish the season with a career-high three interceptions. His 3.5 sacks in 2007 were also his highest sack total since the 2000 season.
To endure nearly 20 years in the NFL at the linebacker position is a remarkable achievement, and Seau has done it with mental toughness and by avoiding serious physical injury. That toughness is what his coach and teammates say make him one of the most respected players in the league.
"I think that a guy that plays that long and plays with the kind of passion that he plays with every week, and every day for that matter, he comes in with that kind of attitude every day, that's why he is the player that he is now and he has had a great career," fellow linebacker Mike Vrabel said.
Those sentiments were echoed by his coach. "If a guy can do it that long, he obviously has some special physical qualities and durability and certainly the right mentality, attitude and love for the game to keep doing it over an extended period of time," Belichick said.
Indeed Seau's passion for football is something he practices as well as preaches.
"I love this game and it doesn't change. I can't have more love than I did in '90 as opposed to '08," he said. "I can't. I'm embracing this. It's like embracing something when you know it's going to leave and you'll just do anything for. That's what I'm doing every day."
Seau said that he doesn't know whether or not Sunday will be his final game, but even as he looks forward, he can't help looking back on the path he's traveled to get to Glendale in 2008.
"Being part of the league for 18 years, working one day at a time, one game at a time, and one play at a time, that equals this journey," he said.
Five more days. One more game. Four more quarters.