|Smith (54) says Seau was the 'best defender to put on that uniform.' (Getty Images)|
When the San Diego Chargers made Junior Seau their first pick of the 1990 draft, he wasn't the best linebacker on the team. Billy Ray Smith was. But it didn't take Seau long to establish himself as the most significant player on that defense and one of the best playmakers anywhere.
"When he first came in," said Smith, now a broadcaster in San Diego, "I'd never seen anything like Junior Seau. He put the pedal to the metal, full throttle, on every play. He was unlike anybody I played with.
"In fact, I was just telling a story about when we were playing the Raiders, and they ran a reverse against us. I was playing outside linebacker, and he was playing inside linebacker, and Junior ran by me. I know because I felt a gust of wind. Then they threw the ball to the wide receiver on the reverse, and I said, 'Oh, I finally get to make a play because Junior's already run by me' ... except then he ran by me again and made the play. He was uncontrollable, and he was a great teammate."
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I covered those Chargers' teams, and Smith and Seau were two of my favorite stops in the locker room. Both were marvelous athletes, both were good interviews and both were team leaders. They were strong, they were productive and they were intent on doing the right thing -- whether it was on the field or off.
That's why Seau's death Wednesday from an apparent suicide is so hard to grasp -- with Smith, who played alongside him for three seasons, struggling to comprehend how we could've lost someone like Junior Seau.
"I'm sure every teammate of his feels like I do," said Smith. "It's crushing and it's aggravating and it's infuriating. Your first thought is: You want to know the story. But we don't know the story yet, and that's probably where all the frustration is coming from. I'd like to know the story, but I don't know who among is going to be privy to it.
"It's tough because he's the best defender to put on that uniform. In the end, until we find out, it's still going to be something that we're all going to have to deal with. I'm just mourning the loss of a former teammate I thought was one of the greatest I've seen play."
He was. He was named to 12 Pro Bowls. He was a 10-time All-Pro. He was a member of the 1990's All-Decade Team. He was named to the Chargers' 50th anniversary team. And he was inducted last year into the Chargers' Hall of Fame.
He played with a passion and a ferocity few would forget, with Seau appropriately nicknamed "the Tasmanian Devil," and he was enormously popular wherever he played -- as much a face of the Chargers' franchise when he was there as Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts before him.
Off the field, of course, he accomplished as much for the community -- maybe more -- as he did for the Chargers, launching the Junior Seau Foundation that supported child-abuse prevention, drug and alcohol awareness, recreational opportunities and anti-juvenile delinquency efforts.
"It was an absolute piece of the foundation of San Diego," said Smith. "Every year, all the athletes get together and go shopping with the kids. It's a phenomenal evening and you have to appreciate how Junior stayed connected in putting on that event, in particular, for the kids in San Diego. It was something that every year touched me, and every athlete who took part, and it was a great thing to do to pay back to the community."
Now, it's not just San Diego that gets to pay back Seau with its appreciation and its grief; it's everyone he touched, beginning with the football world and extending to persons who merely knew him or were affected by him.
Smith belongs to all groups, troubled now more than ever that he never reconnected with his former teammate after Seau's automobile accident in October, 2010, when the vehicle he was driving went over a 30-foot cliff in Carlsbad.
"I called his foundation then," he said, "and just passed along some wishes to Junior through them. I wish I would've done more. I wish I'd been able to dig a little deeper and actually get to Junior. But that's what you're left saying when you know you haven't done enough."