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Trying to maintain a traditional Samoan life-style in the middle of a gang-ridden neighborhood was laudable, but it didn't always work to the Seau children's advantage. For one thing, they lacked language skills; Junior didn't speak English well until the end of elementary school.
"I can't blame them for pushing their language over English," Junior says. "They didn't understand that you can't bring the Samoan culture here and live it. If you want to be something in America, you have to convert to American ways."
All of the Seau youngsters were expected to get after-school jobs to help support the family. Except Junior. All the Seau boys played sports, but Tiaina recognized that his namesake had special skills, and as a reward for victories Tiaina would slip Junior an extra few dollars with his weekly lunch money. Losses, however, meant the silent treatment from Dad, or worse. "If we lost, Dad acted like we were failures," Savaii says. "He'd say, 'You're lazy.' "
Pleasing his father motivated Junior. As a senior tight end and linebacker at Oceanside High, he led the Pirates to the city 2A championship on a team with only 18 players. He was named the defensive MVP of San Diego County and the offensive MVP of the Avocado League. Acknowledging Seau's extraordinary versatility, Parade magazine named him to its high school All-America team simply as an athlete, refusing to specify a particular position. Recruiters from every major college football program flocked to the Seaus' front door. "This was my paycheck to my parents," Junior says. "It was my way of saying, 'You did all this for me, now I'll make you proud." "
However, after Junior was offered a football scholarship to USC, the family was dealt a humiliating blow. He scored only 690 on his SATs, below the NCAA's mandatory 700 score for freshman eligibility. Junior would have to sit out his first season. "Everything I'd worked for, everything my family had stood for was gone," Seau says. "I was labeled a dumb jock. I went from being a four-sport star to an ordinary student at USC. I found out who my true friends were. Nobody stuck up for me—not our relatives, best friends or neighbors. There's a lot of jealousy among Samoans, not wanting others to get ahead in life, and my parents got an earful at church: 'We told you he was never going to make it.' "
Seau embarked on a mission to restore honor to the family name. He made a special trip to Oceanside High during his freshman year to apologize to his coaches, teachers and principal for letting them down. He withstood the resentment of some of his USC teammates, but he wound up earning their respect in the weightroom. By the spring of his freshman year Seau blew away the entire team in the Trojans' annual Superman Contest, an eight-event test of strength and speed. And he even pulled above-average grades in the classroom.
Sprained ligaments in his right ankle, suffered during preseason practice, hampered him for much of his sophomore year, and the skeptics resurfaced, but when two Trojan starters were injured in summer camp a few weeks before his junior season, he was named the starting outside linebacker. By the end of the season he was a consensus All-America and the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. After convincing his parents to allow him to leave school a year early, Seau was selected by the Chargers as the fifth pick overall in the 1990 draft.
Now, before Charger home games, it's easy to spot Seau's large cheering section in the parking lot at Jack Murphy Stadium. "It's a little Samoan village," Gina says. Over her muumuu Luisa wears a Charger jersey with Junior's number 55 as she serves a feast of barbecued chicken, sweet and sour chicken, roast pork, rice, taro and bananas. "The Seau tailgates are like luaus," says Junior's cousin, Frankie Wolfgram, who's of Tongan, German and Swedish ancestry. "The only thing we don't have is the hula dancers."
On game day Junior will share prayers on the phone with his parents, his wife and Savaii. With Gina and Savaii he will give thanks for his talent, ask for safety and pray that he will play to God's glory. But praying with his father, only one person does the talking. Junior just listens.
"Dad gives thanks for what the family has," Junior says. "He talks about how proud he is of the situation the family is in, and he says how we know that we aren't worthy."