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A Loss and a Gain : After Mark Seay Lost a Kidney, George Allen Helped Him Resume Playing at Long Beach State. : Now Seay Is Catching On in NFL

September 23, 1994|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — More than the street thug who shot him, or the kidney he lost, or the niece's life he saved, or the reluctant hero he has become, Mark Seay thinks about the coach who rescued him:

George Allen.

In the wake of Seay's unexpected ascent to starting receiver for the San Diego Chargers, the media have returned to probe the particulars of Halloween night, 1988, when the then-Cal State Long Beach receiver went from innocent gang target to national hero.

Seay should put out a press-release, saying: "I was not a gang member. Bullets rang into my sister Mary's Long Beach home. I dived to cover my 3-year-old niece, Tashawnda. Slug pierced my back, tore through kidney and lodged three inches from my heart.

"Tashawnda and I survived. My kidney did not."

Seay has rehashed the play-by-play so often that he politely refers to it as his "situation" and prefers to leave it at that.

No, he does not consider himself a hero.

"Never got used to it, never will, to be honest," he said. "But I'll go with the flow. It's a no-win situation for me."

No, he doesn't mind if others consider him one, even if one of those "others" includes Jerry Sullivan, the Chargers' receiver coach.

"America should love this guy," he said of Seay. "We've got people running around shooting each other. People are looking for role models. Here is a great, old, American success story."

No, Seay said, the bullet still lodged in his chest doesn't hurt; no, he does not feel the effects of playing with one kidney.

But yes, he does miss sharing all he has earned with the late George Allen, the legendary coach who went back to school in the twilight of life to save the Cal State Long Beach football program and a wide receiver.

"I always felt everything happens for a reason in your life," Seay said. "There was a reason why Coach Allen came into my life. I used to tell Coach he was God-sent here for me. He's the only person who could have helped out the way he did."

He said Allen is the reason Seay (pronounced Say) of San Bernardino will make an emotional and triumphant return Sunday when the 3-0 Chargers play the 1-2 Raiders at the Coliseum.

Because Allen jumped in to cover Seay, so to speak, the wide receiver said he found the strength to pursue a pro football career against improbable odds.

On Sept. 4, at 27, after years of toil and doubt, Seay caught the first pass of his NFL career against Denver, a 29-yard scoring strike from quarterback Stan Humphries.

Afterward, Seay said private thank-yous to two men upstairs.

"It tied up a lot of loose ends," Seay said of Allen and the catch.

The next week at San Deigo Jack Murphy Stadium, with his parents in the stands, Seay had eight receptions for 119 yards and two touchdowns against Cincinnati.

Seay will start against the Raiders as the Chargers' second-leading receiver with nine catches for 148 yards and three touchdowns.

Had he accepted conventional wisdom, Seay would be entering the Coliseum only as a paying customer.

"If (the doctors) would have convinced me, I would not have been here," Seay said.

The ordeal of the Halloween shooting was difficult enough. After the shooting, Seay was hospitalized for 2 1/2 weeks. Then, it was another two months of soup and bed rest.

But another fight awaited.

In January, 1989, Seay returned to classes and rejoined the Long Beach football squad for spring practice, intending to play the 1989 season.

That June, though, he was declared medically ineligible by Long Beach officials. For the school, the memory of Todd Hart lingered. Hart, a former 49er player, was awarded a $2-million settlement from the state after he was paralyzed in a 1984 game against UCLA.

Some medical experts were concerned that Seay risked serious injury, playing with one kidney.

Seay said it was his risk. He sued the university in an effort to keep playing, but in September of 1989, a U.S. District judge denied the request for an injunction that would have permitted his return.

Then, in the winter of 1989, Seay's godsend arrived.

Long Beach shocked most observers when it announced the hiring of George Allen, the former Ram and Washington Redskin coach.

The move temporarily saved the financially strapped football program, which has since been dropped.

Allen was several years removed from the game, in his 70s, and a controversial figure; a stubborn and stern ruler who had alienated so many that he essentially was exiled to his own football Elba.

But Allen changed Mark Seay's fortunes. Soon after he was hired, Allen told Seay, "If they don't let you play here, I can get you a shot in the NFL . . . but I know they're going to let you play."

Seay said it was Allen's clout and behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led to the resolution of an ugly situation. In the spring of 1990, Seay settled his lawsuit with the school out of court and was allowed to rejoin the team.

"He cut through the red tape," Seay said of Allen.

Seay agreed to sign a waiver absolving the university from liability should he be injured.

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