|Well-liked Junior Seau leaves many question behind after a long career. (Getty Images)|
Junior Seau liked to crack jokes. He was always funny. As I got to know him -- not extremely well but well enough -- he always had something funny to say. There were jokes about my growing up in Maryland. Quips about my various bad haircuts. Sometimes he'd call me Mike. Sometimes he'd call me Mark. Sometimes he called me Buddy because he couldn't remember Mike or Mark.
I knew Seau for much of his Hall of Fame-worthy pro career which traversed the beaches of California to the steely cold of New England. Everyone who played with Seau liked him. I mean everyone.
There was never a bad word out of his mouth about teammates. He was always smiling, giddy. Most of the media loved him because he was accessible. After someone dies there is always that sentiment but truly, everyone really liked Seau.
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"Extremely sad about the passing of Junior Seau," tweeted friend and fellow USC player Tony Boselli. "Just 3 weeks ago I spent the weekend w/him at USC. He was a great Trojan & will b missed!"
Former player Desmond Howard said, "I will always remember Junior Seau as an uplifting and positive force in the NFL."
Just three weeks ago people saw Seau and had no idea anything was wrong. But there may have been hints that his life was about to take a tragic turn, as it did when police say he was found in his home with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Maybe we should have known that there was something else happening with Seau besides smiles and cracked jokes.
Two years ago Seau's car skidded off a 30-foot coastal bluff in Carlsbad, Calif. The incident happened after he was jailed for assaulting his girlfriend. There was speculation that Seau was trying to kill himself. He vehemently denied this.
"He would never try to harm himself or anyone else," his ex-wife, Gina Seau, said at the time. "He's fine. He's emotionally upset. No, he's not even emotionally upset. He's going to get through this, and he's going to move on."
We spoke months after the incident. He was the same. The jokes, the cracks, the niceness.
What happened, I asked?
Nothing buddy, he said. And he changed the subject quickly. It was back to the old Seau.
A close friend of Seau's, Mike Whitmarsh, who was an Olympic silver medalist in beach volleyball in 1996, committed suicide in 2009. Seau spoke at a memorial service at his restaurant for Whitmarsh. "If you came looking for answers," Seau said, "you won't find them here. All you're going to get here is a free Coors Light. Only Whitty and God know the answers, and we aren't going to see them for a while."
I saw Seau do things that only a few linebackers could. He made the 1990s all-decade team and possessed the bulk, athleticism and speed that put him almost in the same class as Ray Lewis or Lawrence Taylor. Not quite, but almost, which is pretty damn good.
More important than that, I saw Seau treat people with respect while he forged a great career. The incident of alleged domestic violence was ugly but for the most part this was a player who loved football and much of the time refused to take himself too seriously in a sport that often does.
Moments like these make you replay all of the scenes in your head when you spoke to Seau. What exactly was I seeing? Was everything Seau presented not real? Was he hiding something much darker? Did the game that made him wealthy and an athletic hero also screw with his mind? Did the sport that he gave everything to steal everything in the end?
We don't know and it's premature to speculate what effect football may have had on his emotional state. But I have a feeling this won't be the last time we talk about Seau in the context of what football does to the human mind.
Most people, for now, are going to say this: they didn't see this coming. The guy that was always happy and cracking jokes ... didn't see it. Maybe someone who knew Seau's secrets will say something different, but it seems unlikely.
For now, for right now -- I'll remember his jokes.
And that gigantic smile that never seemed to stop.