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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

"You run away from him and he chases it down," Kennan said. "Sometimes I think you're better off running right at him, even though nobody seems to be able to block him. The best bet is probably counter stuff, hoping he takes off with the flow and gets caught up in the wash."

In a word, Seau is an athlete.

Unfortunately for Seau's ambitions, he will have to settle for playing linebacker. From that position, he settles for handling the ballcarrier rather than the ball.

"I love to control the defense," he said. "I love to make the calls. If there's a fourth and one, blitz me. If there's someone they want to count on, I want to be the guy. I'll take care of it. That's the attitude I have. I can't be satisfied going home after a game, knowing that someone else screwed something up. If something goes wrong, I want it to be my fault."

This drive to be \o7 the \f7 force is born of a fear rarely stated in the macho world of professional football.

"I'm afraid of being average," Seau said. "There's going to come a time when I'm going to be average in terms of skills, when I get older and maybe I'm a step slower. Right now, I have my youth working for me, but I'm not going to be content to let my athletic skills carry me through the early part of my career like a lot of guys do. I'm not going to wait until I grow older to try to gain the knowledge I need to make up for lessening skills. I want to learn all I can and learn it now."

Seau may never play quarterback in the NFL, but his job description puts him into the quarterback's head on every play. He has to think like a quarterback to be a linebacker.

Jay Schroeder, formerly with the Raiders and now with Cincinnati, went head to head with Seau two and three times a year.

"He got to know our checks, and we got to know his checks," Schroeder said. "We'd kind of start hollering out things back and forth and he'd be checking one way and I'd be trying to check the other way. Going against him was a mind-game within the game."

Seau seems to surface wherever he is needed, on or off the field, wearing 55, rather than an S, on his chest.

"If something can be done, I want to be the guy to do it," he said.

Seau does not restrict this philosophy to the football field.

When a gang-related shooting cast a pall over a mall in National City last winter, Seau knew there was something he could do.

"He wanted to go to the mall and get a message to the kids," said Steve Morgan, a San Diego lawyer who helped set up the Junior Seau Foundation in December. "The people at the mall wanted to know how much he charged, but Junior wasn't interested in money. He wanted to get a microphone in his hand and talk to the kids. About 1,000 people showed up."

Earlier, when heavy rains caused flooding near the Mexican border, Seau and some friends went down and handled sandbags along the overflowing banks of the Tijuana River.

More than anything, Seau uses his growing fame and popularity to get messages to youngsters who share the deprivation he experienced in his Oceanside boyhood.

"Not everyone is going to be fortunate enough to play in the NFL," he tells youngsters. "But everyone can work hard enough to succeed."

Seau worked hard enough in high school, both in athletics and academics, to position himself to earn an athletic scholarship to USC. He had a 3.6 grade-point average and his world had a rosy hue.

Unfortunately, he ran afoul of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. His score was not high enough, according to the mandates of Proposition 48, to allow him to play his freshman year. He is of Samoan heritage and that was the language in the family home. He is Exhibit A for the argument that the SAT unfairly weighs against minorities, particularly where English is emphasized.

"I could sit here and make a lot of excuses about the SAT, but I'm not going to do it," he said. "It drove me crazy, but I wasn't going to let it drive me down. That first year was tough in the sense that I had been a three-sport guy in high school and now I get to college and I'm a no-sport guy. I just had to fight it and face it like a man."

Seau made virtually a cameo appearance at USC, at least on the football field. He lost his freshman year, then limped and gimped through his sophomore season with an ankle injury. He was a special teams player and backup linebacker. He hardly appeared destined for stardom on any level past Oceanside High.

Still, something significant happened the year Seau was a sophomore, though it did not seem likely to impact his future. Barry Sanders left Oklahoma State after his third year and signed with the Detroit Lions. Suddenly, the floodgates were open for third-year collegians to head for the NFL.

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