Junior Seau was pool-side at the Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa on Oahu last February when the harassment began. Amused by the notion that the Chargers' star linebacker and leader would soon be playing for ultra-demanding Marty Schottenheimer, Seau's fellow Pro Bowl participants joined forces to make him feel troubled in paradise.
"Welcome to hell," one player told him.
"Go ahead and retire," said another.
Six months later Seau laughs at the memory: "I didn't even try to fight it. You know the guys—once they have a couple of mai tais, it's all over."
But unlike in Washington, where he encountered a faction of set-in-their-ways veterans last season, Schottenheimer received a warm welcome in San Diego. Part of that was because he brought along a .621 winning percentage accumulated in 16 seasons—the Chargers, after all, haven't made the playoffs since 1995, giving them the league's second-longest drought behind the bumbling Bengals—but an assist goes to a certain workaholic linebacker with unmatched intrasquad influence. "This," Seau decrees, "is Marty's team."
Or, as Pro Bowl defensive end Marcellus Wiley says with a laugh, "Junior's been demoted to assistant head coach."
Given Schottenheimer's recent past, Seau's endorsement was of no small consequence. "It's always good when your premier players put the team before themselves," he says, "and that's what Junior's done. He desperately wants to win."
Reeling from training-camp turmoil last season, the Redskins lost their first five games before rallying to finish 8-8. The Chargers experienced the opposite sensation, ruining a 5-2 start by losing their last nine games, which led to the departure of coach Mike Riley. Enter the 58-year-old Schottenheimer, who had been fired after clashing with Washington owner Dan Snyder over front-office power. Redskins defensive end Bruce Smith wasted no time advising his buddy Seau to "get ready for the toughest season of your life."
Other Chargers heard similar warnings, and after Schottenheimer's first full-squad meeting at an April minicamp—during which he laid out a list of strict rules, including a ban on chewing sunflower seeds and wearing hats in meetings—the locker room was filled with the whispers of discontent. That's when Seau stepped up.
"Any of us have rings?" Seau asked his teammates. None responded. "If someone has a proven system that will work, speak now," Seau continued. More silence. "Well," Seau said, "he's won more games than all of us with that system. I'm buying into it."