All that matters to Seau is getting the hamstring right for the next game. "I don't know if you can understand, or if I can explain, the sheer will of this man," says Collins. "He has such a love of the game, a love of competition. He's reaching for something out there, something he may never reach, but he will use every fiber trying to get there."
Sitting there on the table, gathering himself for the long flight home, Seau told me why he did it, and I dutifully relayed in print the remarkable dedication of this man.
"The corporate game, the media game, I know that's a game we have to play. But you know what this game's all about? Respect. The respect you can earn only between those white lines."
Seau got so choked up he had to stop. Finally, he sighed and said, "The game is still hitting. It's still blocking. It's still ... it's still about courage."
There was another long pause. "That's why," Seau said, his eyes still fixed on the floor, "I can't wait till next Sunday."
As much as any player I've covered in 28 years of reporting on the NFL, Seau didn't acknowledge pain. It could be handled. It was a nuisance to be wrapped up or shot up ... anything to make it possible to play 16 times every autumn. In the first 14 seasons of his career, from age 21 to 34, this Tasmanian devil of a player missed nine games. Seau insisted that if you could walk, you could play. And we all ate it up. There's much in that to be admired, certainly. But when you don't acknowledge pain in your professional life for years and years, how will you ever acknowledge pain when the cheering stops? By all accounts, Junior Seau never acknowledged his personal pain—whether it was the black veil of depression or the misery of not having a life he wanted to live—to anyone.
I don't know what happened to Junior Seau. No one does, not yet. But I do know it bothers me that I helped create this image of a man incapable of feeling what you and I feel. In the end he must have felt more pain than any of us could imagine. And for that reason I know I'll be a lot more cautious about praising men as heroes for playing with injuries they shouldn't be playing with. If I'm not, please remind me of the day I helped make Seau so much larger than life in the pages of this magazine. That's a tough thing to live up to.