Vai Remembers His Friend Junior Seau

NBC10 sports anchor had a bond with fellow former NFLer for more than 2 decades

My heart is heavy and broken.

News of Junior Seau’s death first filled my BlackBerry from mutual friends before it was confirmed by my station producers and ESPN.

We weren’t buddy-buddy, though he famously called everyone “Buddy.” We were good friends and we had dinner together whenever he came to Philly to play the Eagles and I’d see him whenever I was in San Diego, but we didn’t call each other weekly or e-mail. Now and then we’d text each other.

Junior was actually much closer to my younger brother, Kap. Somehow, they became connected and Kap was in his inner circle during his years as a Charger, traveling to away games and spending time at Junior’s San Diego home. I think they naturally drifted apart after Junior’s divorce and when Junior left to play in Miami, then New England.

Junior had no shortage of friends and mentors, but he treated me as a mentor and solicited feedback from me on balancing culture with family and career. In this way, he was what we call “Fa’a Samoa” -- Traditional Samoan -- he respected me because I was older and a fellow Polynesian who played in the NFL.

I was impressed that Junior avoided tattoos and maintained a short-cropped, business-like haircut throughout his life despite the cultural pull for tribal tattoos and warrior-like hairdos that identify most Polynesian players in the NFL. He once told me that it was because he aspired to be taken seriously as a businessman when his NFL career was over. Indeed, his San Diego restaurant seemed to be thriving since opening in 1996, which had much to do with his business acumen.


We first met when he was a senior at Oceanside High in January 1987. I was in Los Angeles for Super Bowl week to receive an award when I got a call from a BYU assistant coach asking if I would meet and talk to this All-World linebacker from San Diego, who was in L.A. for a day with his cousin, former BYU player Casey Tiumalu. Junior was close to Tiumalu and other cousins who played at BYU.

It was clear Junior wasn’t going to BYU, but I was intrigued with how charismatic he was at 18. These were pre-YouTube days, so I hadn’t seen any highlights of Junior playing. Of course, a few years later, he became a USC All-American and I watched for myself what all the fuss was about.

The next time I saw him was his rookie year, 1990, (he left USC after his junior year) when the Chargers came to the Northern Arizona University campus in Flagstaff, Ariz., for a three-day training session with the Cardinals -- something teams do to break up the monotony of camp.

During those training sessions in Flagstaff his rookie year, we’d sit together at meals and he’d come to my room to hang out, play island music on his ukulele and pepper me with questions about life in the NFL. He loved walking around the NAU campus wearing a bright Samoan-print lava-lava sarong over his shorts in the manner that Polynesian men do with flip flops and a tank top.  Supposedly, even when he went to New England and the weather turned cold, he continued to wear his lava lava and flip flops but with a pullover fleece, to work.

In 1990, the Chargers had an All-Pro linebacker named Billy Ray Smith, who was also their team captain. It was obvious from their interaction that Smith wasn’t happy they drafted Seau. But it was clear to anyone who watched those practices and scrimmages that Junior was the Chargers’ most athletic, fastest and most instinctive defensive player.

What amazed us in our team film study was how often he’d be out of position, yet he managed to make plays because of his speed and athleticism. When the Chargers played in the Super Bowl five years later, he was still an undisciplined player relying on his athleticism, but as he got older, he became a student of the game, worked relentlessly on maintaining his body, which rewarded him with 20 years of NFL service.

His physique was simply jaw-dropping because of how tall and perfectly proportioned he was: 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, with four-percent body fat. He was so lean that his waist was only 32 to 33 inches, despite how big he was. If you think my description is exaggerated or hyperbole, pull up the video of Ryan Leaf’s famous locker room meltdown. It was a shirtless Seau who stepped in to play peacemaker. His body was chiseled granite.

Junior loved to surf, which was his favorite activity. But his athleticism was so extraordinary that on a visit to Utah for teammate Alfred Pupunu’s wedding, he watched snowboarders and decided it’s the same as surfing, only on snow. So he bought a home in Park City and took up snowboarding. Of course, the Chargers were incredulous when they learned their franchise linebacker was carving mountains in Utah in the off-season. He eventually sold the home, but not before he became an avid snowboarder.

He was also drop-dead handsome and incredibly charming, so women found him irresistible. He made choices that he regretted that led to his divorce from his wife, Gina, yet they seemed to remain friends.

One time, Junior and I dined at a swanky Center City Philadelphia restaurant and next to us was a young couple celebrating an anniversary. He discreetly motioned for the waiter to bring him their check, then sent a bottle of very expensive champagne to their table with a note that read, “Congratulations! Much Aloha.”

He didn’t sign his name because in his mind he was doing it anonymously -- so he was somewhat surprised when the couple stopped at our table to thank us. As they walked away, I said, “June (his friends called him ‘June’ or ‘Junebug’), look around -- we’re the only Polys here. Who else is gonna write, ‘Much Aloha’? Bro, that was a total FOB move.” FOB is an acronym for “Fresh Off the Boat” -- a popular Poly term we use to tease those who’ve just arrived from the islands, ignorant of American culture. We both erupted with laughter that was unseemly in such a fine restaurant, which we knew was a FOB act itself, making the moment even funnier.

He had a certain innocence about him that was disarming.

He was a beloved figure in his native San Diego because he represented them so well, was proud of and loved his hometown. He raised millions for local charities through his foundation and annual golf tournament in La Jolla, Calif.

Junior Seau represented so many: San Diego, USC, the Chargers, Patriots and Dolphins, the entire NFL, his family, his faith, Samoans and all of Polynesia.

Polynesians claim him because he embodied so much of our best attributes: ferociously competitive on the field yet he played with such joy and enthusiasm for the pure love of sport. Off the field, he was generous to a fault, approachable and fun-loving. Yet, he struggled with all the things we all struggle with: depression, bad choices, maybe some financial strain, perhaps the difficulty of transitioning from the only life he ever knew. I don’t know.

There’s speculation that concussions contributed to his demise. That seems logical but who’s to say? No one will know for sure until they examine his brain, which I’m glad he preserved and his family will allow researchers to study.  What I am absolutely certain of is that Junior Seau will be judged for the merits of his life, which were many. He will be granted mercy in the manner he so indiscriminately offered it to perfect strangers throughout his life.

Tofa Soifua, Junebug (Farewell, Junebug). Oute alofa ia te oe (I love you).

Much Aloha.

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