Vai's View: Much aloha, Junior Seau

Published: Friday, May 4 2012 12:55 p.m. MDT

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 email. Now and then we'd text each other.

He 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 his 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 he 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, including Vic So'oto.

It was clear he wasn't coming to Provo, 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 SC 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.

At that time, 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 Seau 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.

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.

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