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Ultimate Linebacker : Super Charger Junior Seau Has Found Niche in NFL, but He's Athletic Enough to Play Almost Any Position

September 03, 1993|DAVE DISTEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Dale Lindsey clicked off the projector. He had run about a dozen plays featuring the San Diego Charger defense. It might have been called a highlight film. Junior Seau was the highlight.

"You want more?" asked Lindsey, the Chargers' linebacker coach. "How much time do you have?"

No mas, thank you.

In his varying alignments at linebacker, with a few plays at defensive end as well, Seau had gone mano-a-mano with offensive players of virtually every job description.

Given his background and athleticism, Seau could probably become the first NFL player to play every position in the same game. It has been done in baseball, but the NFL is probably too stodgy for such shenanigans.

"If the opportunity came, I'd love to play quarterback," Seau said.

Seau played quarterback up Interstate 5 at Oceanside High School, but he also played safety, running back, wide receiver and, of course, linebacker. It wouldn't be fair to say he played center and guard as well, because that was in basketball.

Stan Humphries, the Chargers' quarterback, can undoubtedly rest easily. Take it from Burt Grossman, Seau's teammate on the San Diego defense.

"Nobody could argue that Junior couldn't play running back or receiver or tight end or anywhere on the defense," Grossman said. "I think about the only position he couldn't play would be quarterback. You take quarterback away and he could probably play any position on the field."

Seau's skills have made him perhaps the premier linebacker in the NFL, a superstar on a Charger team long noted for offensive explosiveness and defensive ineptitude. He was a major force as the 1992 Chargers went to the playoffs for the first time since 1981. His feats were applauded and his number draped from the railings of San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. The name is pronounced Say-ow, but fans modified it to Say-wow.

Life in the NFL has not always been so glorious for Junior Seau.

His pro career began in the late summer of 1990, when he was dreaming of a triumphant return to San Diego. He was born in San Diego and had gone away to USC, but now he savored the thought of the reception he would get.

But he was a No. 1 draft choice, and the inevitable happened. The first players picked seem to be the last into camp, and Seau was no exception. He held out until just before the last exhibition game.

The irony was that this last exhibition game was against the Raiders in the Coliseum, Seau's home field during his days at USC. His family and friends packed themselves into a caravan and headed for Los Angeles to witness this long-awaited debut.

Seau was ejected after the first play of his first game as a professional football player for doing a clean and jerk on one of the Raiders' facemasks.

This, combined with controversy over the holdout, did not sit well with the San Diego populace. San Diegans, at the time, were less than thrilled with most things associated with the Chargers, who had not had a winning non-strike season since 1981.

"My first game at home in San Diego and the defense is introduced first," Seau recalled ruefully, "I get booed in front of my whole family. It killed me. I knew I had a lot of work to do to get the respect of the fans back."

The date of that occurrence was Sept. 16, 1990. Seau has been endeavoring since to earn the respect and affection of San Diego's fans. He has taken this pursuit far beyond the football field and onto swollen river banks, into troubled malls and in front of receptive high school students.

Everything begins, of course, on that football field. The fact that Seau is all over the field has caused his presence to be in demand all over the community. And Seau is all over the field.

"He's so versatile and so active, you never know where he's going to be," said Warren Moon, Houston's quarterback. "It seems like they line him up in a million different places. He can be effective no matter where they put him, because he has such tremendous speed and tremendous acceleration."

Seau is but one man in a defense that includes luminaries such as Leslie O'Neal and Grossman, but he is the one who gets the most attention when opponents are devising offensive game plans.

"No question," Moon said. "It's because of the way they use him. You better make sure you know where he is at all times."

Larry Kennan, the Seattle Seahawks' offensive coordinator, has to contend with Seau twice a year in the AFC West.

"He's the guy you have to figure out," Kennan said. "You have to figure out where he's going to be and compensate in the game plan. He shows up so much on film, it's not hard to find him. You see him everywhere."

How, then, to cope with this man named Junior who is unusually big for a fast guy, unusually fast for a big guy or both?

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