Junior Seau, a homegrown superstar who was the fist-pumping, emotional leader of the San Diego Chargers for 13 years, was found shot to death at his home Wednesday morning in what police said appeared to be a suicide. He was 43.
Police Chief Frank McCoy said Seau's girlfriend reported finding him unconscious with a gunshot wound to the chest, and lifesaving efforts were unsuccessful. A gun was found near him, McCoy said. Police said no suicide note was found, and they didn't immediately know whom the gun was registered to.
Seau's death in Oceanside, in northern San Diego County, stunned the region he represented with almost reckless abandon. The same intensity that got the star linebacker ejected for fighting in his first exhibition game helped carry the Chargers to their only Super Bowl, following the 1994 season. A ferocious tackler, he'd leap up, pump a fist and kick out a leg after dropping a ball carrier or quarterback.
"It's a sad thing. It's hard to understand," said Bobby Beathard, who as Chargers general manager took Seau out of Southern California with the fifth pick overall in the 1990 draft. "He was really just a great guy. If you drew up a player you'd love to have the opportunity to draft and have on the team and as a teammate, Junior and Rodney [Harrison], they'd be the kind of guys you'd like to have."
Seau's mother appeared before reporters outside his house, weeping uncontrollably.
"I don't understand I'm shocked," Luisa Seau cried out. She said her son gave no indication of a problem when she spoke to him by phone earlier this week.
"He's joking to me, he called me a 'homegirl,' " she said.
Seau's death follows the suicide last year of former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson, who also shot himself in the chest.
In October 2010, Seau survived a 100-foot plunge down a seaside cliff in his SUV, hours after he was arrested for investigation of domestic violence at the Oceanside home he shared with his girlfriend. The woman had told authorities that Seau assaulted her during an argument.
There was no evidence of drugs or alcohol involved in the crash, and Seau told authorities he fell asleep while driving. He had minor injuries.
"I just can't imagine this, because I've never seen Junior in a down frame of mind," Beathard said. "He was always so upbeat and he would keep people up. He practiced the way he played. He made practice fun. He was a coach's dream. He was an amazing guy as well as a player and a person. This is hard to believe."
Seau's ex-wife, Gina, told the Union-Tribune of San Diego that he texted her and each of their three children separate messages: "I love you."
"We're all in shock," she said. "We're beyond sad and beyond shocked. The kids and I are just huddled together at home. There is no way to make sense of this."
Seau, who played in the NFL for parts of 20 seasons, is the eighth member of San Diego's lone Super Bowl team who has died, all before age of 45. Lew Bush, Shawn Lee, David Griggs, Rodney Culver, Doug Miller, Curtis Whitley and Chris Mims are the others.
Seau's also is among a few recent, unexpected deaths of NFL veterans.
Duerson's family has filed a wrongful death suit against the NFL, claiming the league didn't do enough to prevent or treat concussions that severely damaged Duerson's brain before he died in February 2011.
Former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who had joined in a concussion-related lawsuit against the league -- one of dozens filed in the last year -- died last month at age 62. His wife has said he suffered from depression and dementia after taking years of hits.
Seau, however, is not known to have been a plaintiff in the concussion litigation.
Seau left the Chargers after the 2002 season when the team unceremoniously told him he was free to pursue a trade. He held a farewell news conference at the restaurant he owned in Mission Valley, and later was traded to Miami.
Seau retired a few times, the first in August 2006, when he said, "I'm not retiring. I am graduating."
Four days later, he signed with the New England Patriots. He was with the Patriots when they lost to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl following the 2007 season, which ended New England's quest for a perfect season. His last season was 2009.
Last fall, finally retired for good, Seau was inducted into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame.
Bills General Manager Buddy Nix worked in San Diego the last two years of Seau's career with the Chargers. Said Nix in a statement: "I am deeply saddened to hear the news of the passing of Junior Seau. This is such a tragedy, and his passing will be felt by many. Junior was a great player in this league for so many years, and he embodied that competitive spirit that all the great linebackers possess. My deepest sympathies and heartfelt condolences go out to his children and his entire family, his friends, the Spanos family and the Chargers organization."
Bills defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt was head coach for Miami for the first two of Seau's three seasons with the Dolphins, 2003 and 2004.
Said Wannstedt: "Hearing this news about Junior it's just so tragic -- it's hard to believe. I still to this day remember the day that Junior joined our family at the Dolphins. He brought a sense of renewed energy and a spirit to the field, off the field, in the weight room, just everywhere that Junior went and everyone that Junior was associated with. He instilled a belief that we hadn't reached our potential and that we could be better, and he would find a way to help make that happen."