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Junior Seau's brief, ferocious career at USC is recalled

CHRIS DUFRESNE

In his junior year in 1989, Seau went from barely known to a scourge as changes in the defense allowed him 'to be turned loose.' He also was known for an energy and enthusiasm that was rare in those days.

May 03, 2012|Chris Dufresne
  • Junior Seau in action against Ohio State during a 42-3 victory in September 1989.
Junior Seau in action against Ohio State during a 42-3 victory in September… (Mike Powell / Getty Images )

Junior Seau's career at USC was like his life: remarkable but too short.

Seau delivered too many hits to call him a one-hit collegiate wonder, yet he somehow forged a lasting legacy in only a few short, brilliant bursts.

In 1989, he ransacked opposing backfields with a ferocity and flair that transcended football generations.

"I tapped Juniors picture every single day before heading out to practice at USC," former Trojans linebacker Brian Cushing — born in 1987 — tweeted after learning of Seau's death Wednesday of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot.

In terms of impact in a time frame, Seau was like a basketball one-and-done. Think of freshman Carmelo Anthony driving Syracuse to a national championship or, more recently, Kentucky's Anthony Davis.

Seau's year to remember was his junior season.

"He was good as a sophomore," teammate John Jackson recalled Thursday, "and off the charts as a junior."

There had been little inkling to that point, despite Seau's being on campus for two years. He sat out his first year because he was academically ineligible under the NCAA entrance rule Proposition 48.

Seau considered himself an outcast, saying, "The weight room was my world. No one ever wanted to be associated with a Prop. 48 at USC."

The next season, 1988, Seau didn't start a game, though he played enough to finish with 35 tackles and four sacks.

If Seau's time was coming, few knew it. In August 1989, when The Times reported USC's depth chart, the only reference to him was: "The outside linebackers will be Junior Seau and Michael Williams."

Soon, though, it was if John Facenda had taken over the narration, "the autumn wind is a Trojan."

Former teammate Brad Leggett said changes in the defense allowed Seau "to be turned loose."

Seau started with seven tackles in an opening loss to Illinois. By late October, he was a scourge. He played four positions in a 19-0 victory over Stanford, registering three sacks.

Teammate Tim Ryan said after the game, "I don't think anyone in the country can block Junior Seau one up."

Seau's performance in a 24-3 win at Arizona in November remains the pinnacle pivot point.

Seau had only one sack, but he recorded five unassisted tackles for minus-23 yards while almost single-handedly shutting down Arizona's offense.

"He was an animal," recalled Jackson, a former USC receiver. "That game, they couldn't do anything. It was comedy because they couldn't run a play. He one-man-showed it."

Arizona Coach Dick Tomey said of Seau afterward: "He's the best player I've ever been on the field against as a coach."

Did Seau's ferocious style of play — all those big hits — result in injuries that ultimately cost him his life? Some people have speculated so. But what it made him in 1989 was an All-American. He finished with 27 tackles for loss, 19 sacks and 12 pass deflections.

USC defeated Michigan in the 1990 Rose Bowl and, soon after, Seau announced he was leaving early for the NFL.

It was more than sacks and tackles over a five-month span that made Seau an icon. He played with a youthful exuberance that bucked the system — and sometimes infuriated the coaching staff.

He celebrated big plays with spontaneous, unabashed outbursts.

"It was a different style," Jackson said. "He brought an enthusiasm and energy that was rare for those days."

Seau redefined the linebacker position at USC and No. 55 became the number all others would have to chase.

"Before Junior Seau came along, the No. 55 at USC was just another number," said Chris Huston, a 1993 USC graduate who now runs the website Heismanpundit.com. "The player who had it before him was an unheralded center … Seau transformed that number from something mundane into something really special."

Seau will always remain the lead jersey in USC's "55 Club," a select group of linebackers — Willie McGinest, Chris Claiborne, Keith Rivers — who had to earn the honor to wear the number.

Freshman linebacker Lamar Dawson wore it last season, after the coaching staff researched his background with his high school coaches and counselors in Kentucky.

Dawson, who quickly became a starter, was aware of the significance. "It's an honor to wear this number," he said.

When Rivers took it over in 2004, and was caught loafing at practice, teammate Lofa Tatupu sidled up and said, "Man, you have the 5s on. It means too much. You're supposed to be good if you're wearing it."

There may have been greater players pass through USC, men of Troy who stayed longer and put up more prolific numbers. But there is only one Junior.

And there will never be another No. 55 like there was in 1989.

"It was really one year we're talking about," Jackson said. "One year, so overpowering, so dominating he became one of the best linebackers to ever play at USC. He wore the 55. Now, it's a privilege to wear it."

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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