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Linebacker Seau Plays With Purpose : USC: Trojan has dedicated season to his cousin, the late Sal Aunese of Colorado.

October 29, 1989|CHRIS BAKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Linebacker Junior Seau of USC wears a towel with the name 'Sal' printed in large letters.

Sal refers to Sal Aunese, the Colorado quarterback who died last month after a six-month battle with stomach cancer. Seau and Aunese were cousins who grew up together in San Diego.

"We were very close," Seau said. "He lived down the street from me and we went to church together."

Seau has dedicated his season to Aunese.

"I talk to him every day," Seau said. "I say, 'Sal here we go again.' And I know he's up there listening."

Aunese would have been proud of the way Seau played in USC's 19-0 win over Stanford Saturday at the Coliseum.

Seau (pronounced Say-ow) sacked Stanford's Steve Smith three times for 19 yards in losses.

Seau said he saw fear in Smith's eyes when the Stanford quarterback surveyed the defense.

"Smith was always peeking at me," Seau said. "When you get the quarterback peeking at you, you know you're doing something right."

Seau and USC's defense did a lot of things right, limiting Stanford to minus-six yards rushing.

"I think they're the best defense in the country," Stanford Coach Dennis Green said. "I don't think there is any doubt about it. They have great personnel with guys like (Tim) Ryan and Seau and (Mark) Carrier and (Cleveland) Colter. Those are four guys that will be All-Americans, and I'm sure I hurt somebody's feelings and left a couple of guys out.

"They're a good team and they can explode and put a lot of pressure on you if you're not able to run, and nobody has been able to run on them so far this year."

Stanford couldn't run or pass against the Trojans, due in large part to a fierce rush applied by Seau, who leads the Pacific 10 with 10 sacks, most by a Trojan since Marcus Cotton had 12 in 1987.

"Junior Seau is a real force on the field," USC Coach Larry Smith said. "He's a great pass rusher and a fine football player. We try to move him around so people don't know where he is and can't double up on him."

Seau played four different positions against Stanford, lining up at nose guard, tackle, end and linebacker.

"It was real confusing for them," Seau said. "They'd see me at nose guard and then they'd see me at linebacker. It was a big shocker to them and it worked out for us."

Bob Whitfield, the Stanford freshman tackle who spent the game watching Seau rush past him, said Seau confused him.

"You can tell a lot about a pass rusher by the way he lines up," Whitfield said. "I wasn't sure which way he was going to go, in or out. Seau is a very excellent player."

Whitfield seemed to handle Seau easily at first, but Seau said he was just setting up the Cardinal tackle by using a straight ahead rush to set up his outside rush.

The tactic worked well.

"I don't think anyone in the country can block Junior Seau one up," USC defensive tackle Tim Ryan said. "I don't care if it's a lineman or a running back."

After sitting out his freshman season in 1987 because he was ineligible due to Proposition 48, Seau has blossomed into one of the leaders of the Trojan defense. A reserve last season, Seau said he didn't feel comfortable until this season.

"I was a young buck in the system last year," Seau said. "This was USC and I didn't really get a grasp of things here. I felt that it was too good for me. But I believed I could compete, and I built my confidence in the spring and I played football the way I thought I can."

Seau said he was an outcast at USC as a freshman because he was ineligible.

"It's very disappointing to not have friends and have nobody to be around and look up to," Seau said. "I'm used to the limelight and it was very hard to deal with."

Seau concentrated on academics and spent his free time lifting weights.

"The weight room was my world," Seau said. "No one ever wanted to be associated with a Prop. 48 person at USC. I didn't have my social group with me so I had to train alone."

The weightlifting has helped Seau overcome injuries such as the compound fracture of his left index finger sustained during two-a-day drills last August.

But Seau also drew inspiration from Aunese.

"He was fighting cancer at the same time I had a compound fracture in my finger," Seau said. "And I looked at it like he's fighting for his life and here I am with a compound fracture. I told myself that I'd better get out there and play."

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