There’s a moment in your life when you unquestionably enter “adulthood”, and while turning 21 or graduating high school or college are real moments, when I heard that Junior Seau had passed away from an apparent suicide last night, I quickly concluded that naivete and adolescence could no longer be terms that I use to define myself.
Athletes come and go and heroes fade, but Junior Seau was a leader among the first generation of football players that I grew up with, and he’s one of the first to go. He’s the first one who became human. The NFL was pivotal in my transition into American culture as a young immigrant, especially seeing an Asian American, someone who I could associate myself with on the field, dominate the way he did with such class and altruism. He will be missed.
Of course, what he meant to me will never be on par with what he meant to his family or friends. Junior Seau epitomized everything you wanted in an NFL star: a first round pick who played with passion on a San Diego Chargers team that fizzed into mediocrity. He retired in 2006, only to sign on with the New England Patriots days later, playing a pivotal role in the 2007 Patriots team that went 16-0 only to lose to in the Superbowl to the New York Giants. He personified sportsmanship and philanthropy, as reflected by his Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 1994 and the Junior Seau Foundation, which has raise millions of dollars to empower troubled youth. Many athletes and millionaires establish charities or foundations, only to be awash of the cause, but he was always conscious of his impact on young people and exemplified the very best in himself to those who looked up to him.
Perhaps most relevant to the current discussion is what he meant as a pioneer and community leader to Samoans, a vastly underrepresented community even within Asian American Pacific Islander circles. He was the first of many Samoan players drafted in the early 90’s but by far the most famous and effective of the bunch. The trail he blazed was soon followed by other Tongan, Samoan, and other Pacific Islanders such as Troy Polamalu, Manti Te’o, Haloti Ngata, and many more. Because he played and lived in San Diego, a city noted as a predominant location for Pacific Islander immigrants, his impact was that much more felt.
A lot of questions will come from his apparent suicide and football. In early 2011, Dave Duerson of Chicago Bears fame also committed suicide, which was quickly linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease associated with concussions. Indications seem to point that Seau was conscious of the fact that he also may have been afflicted, (he shot himself in the chest, instead of the head) and his brain will be sent in for further research. Until then, we can only mourn and ponder.
Rest in Peace, Junior Seau.