SAN DIEGO >> Bobby Ross was a rookie NFL head coach in the spring of 1992 when linebacker Junior Seau turned and watched a pass sail downfield during a passing drill in the last practice of the San Diego Chargers’ minicamp.
“I said, ‘Repeat the play; Seau loafed,”’ Ross said.
The words hit Seau just as hard as he hit running backs and quarterbacks.
“He turned on me real fast: ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘You didn’t run to the ball, Junior. What if the ball was tipped? With your speed, you might have gotten an interception.”’
Ross took Seau into his office after practice and showed him film of the play.
“He turned to me and said, ‘That will never happen again.’ It never did.”’
Seau committed suicide Wednesday at age 43, stunning the city of San Diego and the football world.
In the following days, Ross and others fondly remembered their favorite moments with the star linebacker, a homegrown superstar who played 13 of his 20 NFL seasons with the Chargers.
Sort of like football eulogies.
Ross remains the only coach to get the Chargers to the Super Bowl. Seau was the fist-pumping, emotional leader, the proverbial heart and soul of the team who set the tone in practice and in games.
Ross coached Seau for five seasons. No particular game stood out over another.
“He was the exact same every game,” Ross said from his Virginia home. “He was going to play 100 percent.”
Seau led by example and with his words.
Ross recalled that after pregame warmups, he and Seau would walk together up the tunnel to the locker room.
“He’d say, ‘Can I have them for a few minutes, Coach?’ I would say, ‘You sure can.”’
Seau would then exhort his teammates to go out and give a complete effort.
Darren Bennett, who made the transition from Australian Rules Football to star punter, remembers nervously lining up to punt during his first Pro Bowl.
“It’s not funny as Dermontti Dawson goes to snap the ball, Junior and Greg Lloyd were betting who was going to get to the punt returner first,” he said. “Mentally, I’m having a panic attack that not one of these guys was going to block for me. Sure enough, I shank the punt, but Junior was 20 yards down the field and we got penalized. We had to do it again, and I crushed the punt.
“The two wing guys were arguing over $500 — ‘I bet I get to the return man first,’ and Lloyd was yelling back. No one in the stands knows this crazy stuff is going on.”’
Then there was a poor punt during Bennett’s first minicamp with San Diego.
“Junior says, ‘Listen, kangaroo leg, man, you’ve got the biggest leg I’ve ever seen. Let’s get to work.”’
“Then he says, ‘Mate, we’re from the islands together. Australia is the biggest island in the world, mate.’ All of a sudden, Australia was part of Polynesia: ‘We’re all islanders, part of the same deal.’
“It gave me an incredible amount of confidence. If Junior Seau could say it, I could do it.”
Stan Humphries, the only quarterback to get the Chargers to the Super Bowl, thinks back to the 1994 season opener at Denver, which San Diego rallied to win 37-34. John Elway and the Broncos had the ball at the San Diego 3-yard line with less than a minute left.
“I think they were going in to score and Elway sprinted out to the right or something. He was going to throw it in the back of the end zone and I don’t know if it slipped out of his hand or what but it popped in the air and Junior got it and it sealed the win.”
That’s how the Chargers opened their only Super Bowl season.
“The other thing that rather jumps out at me is he was a guy that was so active on defense before the ball was ever snapped. He was a guy you never knew where he would line up, which gap he was fixing to shoot. He was so active he made all the guys on offense start talking. He caused mass confusion.”
Sometimes, Seau would be so amped up he’d overrun a play.
“He did sometimes, but it allowed somebody else to make the play.”
In 2002, Marty Schottenheimer was finally on Seau’s side, coaching the linebacker in his final season in San Diego.
“Of all the players I’ve coached, he had the most natural, innate instinct about how to play the game,” said Schottenheimer, who had been coach of the division rival Kansas City Chiefs from 1898-98. “And I remember watching him and thinking, ‘Where in the heck is he going?’ And all of a sudden he made the play and I thought, ‘That’s a heck of a play.’
“He was a terrific, terrific player. He did a lot of damage as a defender when he was with the Patriots.”
Fellow linebacker Gary Plummer was in his eighth pro season when Seau was a rookie in 1990, the No. 5 pick overall out of Southern California.
“He rejuvenated me. The fact he practiced 100 percent every day was something that I’ll be forever grateful for,” Plummer said.
One day, Seau asked Plummer if he wanted to join him lifting weights at lunchtime before practice. At first he thought Seau was crazy, but then tried it. “That particular game I had a great game and felt fresh. I never missed a workout with Junior on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.”
They were giving their bodies the fatigued feeling they’d get late in a game, which would motivate them to push through practice.
“By the time we go out for game, you go out fresh. It was just a psychological thing: ‘I didn’t have to lift weights today.’ It really helped. I played until I was 38 years old. I definitely give him some credit for that.
“We were supposed to be the mentors, the salty old veterans, but I learned something from Junior Seau,” said Plummer, who left San Diego after the 1993 season and was with the San Francisco 49ers when they routed the Chargers 49-26 in the Super Bowl the following season. ‘’It certainly helps to push you when the guy sitting next to you is pumping 175-pound dumbbells. He was strong as an ox and as fast as the wind and as quick as lightning. He was a beast.”
Ross said he recently sent a donation to Seau’s foundation. About two weeks ago, he received a thank-you letter. Seau had signed it, and added, “Love you, Coach.”
After Wednesday, the letter means so much more to Ross.
“Amen,” he said. “I’m not going to ever let it get away. That was a very, very nice thing.”