Some day either there will be a new football stadium in Oakland or the Raiders will leave town, but they’ll never replace the memories that only a few of us in the business had when watching Junior Seau play at the Coliseum.
Say what you will about the crumbling Coliseum, but the best thing about being part of the home team media is that opposing coaches are right next door in what is normally the home radio booth for baseball. A thin sheet of plexiglass is all that separates the visiting coaches from the press.
That was never more advantageous or entertaining than when Seau played against the Raiders in Oakland, which fortunately happened every season. It was one of the first things I thought of today when the news broke that Seau had taken his own life at age 43.
I’ll leave the heartfelt tributes for Seau to guys like Jim Trotter of Sports Illustrated and Mike Silver of Yahoo Sports!, both of whom did him justice Wednesday in a way I never could. Take the time to click on the above links if you want an idea of what Seau was all about.
Everyone has their own way of dealing with bad news, and in this case, I’ll choose to remember the reaction Seau often got from his own coaching staff when facing the Raiders, because it will never fail to make me smile.
Seau played linebacker as if it were a saxophone in a jazz composition. He knew the notes, but was a firm believer in instinct and improvisation.
It drove his coaches nuts on game day. Here they had painstakingly put in a game plan, with every permutation accounted for. Only to have Seau freelance and play from the heart.
“#!%&!$#@ Junior, what the hell are you doing!,” coaches would shriek through into their headsets. “No, no, no no! . . . . Yes, yes, yes, yes!! . . . Great play, Junior!.”
It was incredible theater, listning to his coaches rip Seau for his freelancing and then in the next instant be delighted when he came up with a big play.
We usually got Seau once a year on the conference call the Chargers set up with opposing writers, and he seldom failed to disappoint. He spoke from the heart, his passion for the sport always evident.
I mentioned to Seau the things we’d heard in the press box, how coaches were besides themselves because he’d gone his own way, then ecstatic a moment later when he made a big play.
I thought I’d get at least a chuckle out of it, instead, he seemed a little disgusted.
Seau explained that perhaps the coaches never understood that perhaps his instinct came from extensive study and passion for the game. That maybe he knew what he was doing it was probably time the coaches understood that, although Seau seemed to doubt they ever would.
To be fair, there were games, particularly in the Jon Gruden years, where the Raiders seemed to be able to lure Seau out of position and his impact would be minimal. But those instances were far outweighed by the times Seau was a legitimate force. To my knowledge, there was never a time when anyone associated the Raiders ever looked forward to playing him other than having the opportunity to measure themselves against an all-time great.
There were no mixed emotions in the visiting press box, where the Seau dynamic was as good as it gets.