|Dan Fouts took lots of punishment in a Hall of Fame career in San Diego. (Getty Images)|
There were few players I remember in my 10 years covering the San Diego Chargers who were as tough or as resilient as linebacker Junior Seau ... and Dan Fouts was one of them.
The Hall of Fame quarterback played through brutal hits, concussions and crippling injuries in a 15-year career that produced a passel of records, victories and unforgettable moments.
But now Fouts, who is one of the speakers at Friday's "Celebration of Life" for Seau, believes it's time for players to reassess their approach to the game -- and he's not talking about how they attack their opponents. He's talking about how they take care of themselves.
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"The thing is," he said, "is that as players we're taught to fight through injuries ... and to play ... and blah, blah, blah ... because I don't need help; I can get off the field myself. And I think that mentality has got to change, and I think it is ... even if it's slowly.
"But the mentality that you can do it yourself -- that you don't need help for whatever it is, because the help is out there -- is a problem. Because, as ballplayers, you have to be so tough and not show weakness ... ever. And I think that has led to some players' demise."
Fouts' remarks were made in the wake of Seau's death, a suicide that provoked considerable debate about the NFL, player safety and the long-term effects of injuries or depression. While there's no proof that Seau's death is linked to CTE, his passing had people talking again about the dangers of pro football and what the game might be doing to its players.
Fouts isn't certain. He has no idea how many concussions he suffered in his career ("two that I know of that were bad"), but he does know the toll the game takes on its participants. That is why he embraces the league's push for player safety -- calling on the NFL to take more severe steps when head injuries are involved.
"Instead of money," he said, "I think the punishment should be playing time because then you get into peer pressure and hurting the general cause of the team. And that's what players don't want to do. You fine these guys a couple of grand, and that's nothing these days. So take away what's most dear to them, and that's playing."
Before there was Junior Seau in San Diego, there was Dan Fouts, and he was as much the face of the franchise in the 1980s as Seau was in the decade afterward. Fouts never played with Seau -- he retired before the linebacker arrived in 1990 -- but he knew him and introduced him at last year's Chargers' Hall of Fame ceremony, when Seau was inducted at halftime of a game with Denver.
"You couldn't not know him," said Fouts. "He was just a larger-than-life figure in San Diego with his foundation and his (golf) tournament, and he was arguably the best football player San Diego ever produced."
Granted, there was Marcus Allen and Terrell Davis, and the city gave us four Heisman Trophy winners, but Fouts is right. If he's not No. 1, Seau is in the conversation with Allen, another Hall of Fame member. Only Seau is appreciated more not only because he played for the home team but because he gave back to the city and returned to live in the San Diego area after retiring from the NFL.
It wasn't so much that he was loved by his community as it was that he was adored, which is why thousands will turn out Friday to celebrate his memory and hear what Fouts and others have to say. It could be a difficult evening, with people asked to remember a player they cannot forget and a loss they can't comprehend, but it's a necessary one.
After all that Seau gave San Diego, it's time the city gives itself to him -- if only for one night.
"I'm having trouble with it," Fouts said of his remarks, "because this is a tragedy. But I'll probably talk about what he meant to people and the everlasting vision of him making a tackle in the backfield, getting up, doing his dance and the place going crazy.
"Because when I think of players I think of moments like that -- of Johnny U. or Joe Namath or Junior -- it's what do you remember about them? And the one thing that stands out with Junior is the passion with which he played the game."