Junior Seau and I both grew up near San Diego, California, and we're about the same age. The first time I met him was in the late 1980s, when he and I were both still in high school. His high school basketball team (Oceanside) and mine were each in the state high school basketball tournament. Our teams split the court at the San Diego Sports Arena (where the NBA's San Diego Clippers played long ago and where that tournament was being held) for a single scheduled practice session before the tournament started. Despite being a local celebrity even then, Junior Seau was an incredibly nice, approachable young guy with an infectious, broad smile. At the end of our teams' separate practices, our coaches decided that our teams should scrimmage each other. It was during that scrimmage that I got a lesson in how physically superior great professional athletes really are to "mere mortals."
Even then Junior Seau was well known in San Diego as a great high school football player. Basketball was an afterthought for him, it seemed like to me. And yet as we played that day, he was so clearly two or three notches above everyone else on the court. He ran faster, and, seemingly effortlessly, jumped higher and reacted more quickly than everyone else on the court. After that day, I was never surprised when he was recruited to USC,or when he left there early to enter the NFL draft, or when he went on to have a Hall of Fame career in the NFL with the Chargers.
I ran into him again near the end of his career, five years ago or so, after he had been traded to the Miami Dolphins. I was with some friends at an upscale bar in downtown Los Angeles. It was the night before a friend's wedding and, since none of us was from LA, we just sort of found ourselves at this random place having a few drinks after dinner because it happened to be near our hotel. As the night wore on, however, the bar transformed around us into a more exclusive, celebrity-laden place. All of the Los Angeles Lakers arrived (other than Kobe), even Shaq, to celebrate, it turned out, Brian Shaw's birthday. Junior Seau was there, too. I went up and introduced myself and said I was a fan from San Diego. He smiled back politely (if a little weakly) and responded with a well practiced (if distant) "thank you," but nothing more. And then his glance moved deliberately over my shoulder (like that photo above), to something (perhaps nothing) in the distance. I got the message.
He was rich and famous by then, having fulfilled all the promise (and more) of his much-ballyhooed high school career 15 years earlier. But he wasn't as physically imposing as I had remembered. And the infectious smile was gone. (And that was at a party....)