OCEANSIDE, Calif. — Junior Seau, regarded as one of the N.F.L.’s best linebackers over a 20-year career with the San Diego Chargers, the Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots, died of a gunshot wound to the chest Wednesday at his home in Oceanside, Calif. He was 43.
The Oceanside police said Seau’s death was being investigated as a suicide. He was found by his girlfriend in a bedroom of his beachfront house Wednesday morning, and a handgun was found near the body, the police said, adding that Seau did not appear to leave a note.
A native of Oceanside, Seau starred at the University of Southern California before being drafted fifth over all in the 1990 N.F.L. draft by the Chargers, who played 40 miles south of his hometown. A 12-time Pro Bowler, Seau played 13 seasons with the Chargers and was one of the team’s most popular players. In the 1994 season, he led the team to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 49-26. The Pro Football Hall of Fame selected him for the 1990s All-Decade Team.
“Everyone at the Chargers is in complete shock and disbelief right now,” the Chargers said in a statement. “We ask everyone to stop what they’re doing and send their prayers to Junior and his family.”
Seau was traded to the Dolphins in 2003, and after three injury-plagued seasons he was released. He signed a one-day contract with the Chargers in August 2006 to announce his retirement. But four days later, he signed with the New England Patriots and was a member of the 2007 team that went undefeated in the regular season, losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl.
His last season in the N.F.L was 2009. He finished his career with 1,524 tackles, 56 ½ sacks and 18 interceptions.
He is survived by three teenage children: a daughter, Sydney, and sons Jake and Hunter.
“It is incredibly tragic and sad,” the N.F.L. said in a statement. “Our prayers are with Junior’s family.”
Seau is the second retired N.F.L player to commit suicide in the past few weeks. Ray Easterling, a safety for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1970s and a plaintiff in a high-profile lawsuit against the N.F.L. over its handling of concussion-related injuries, died last month of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The circumstances of Seau’s death raised comparisons to the former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson. In February 2011, Duerson shot himself in the chest, saying in a note that he wanted his brain donated to the study of football head injuries.
Though remembered as a hard-hitting, inspirational linebacker, Seau did not have a documented history of concussions. He missed several games in his career with leg and chest injuries.
In October 2010, he sustained minor injuries when he drove his S.U.V. off a 30-foot bluff after being arrested on suspicion of domestic assault. The police said he fell asleep at the wheel.
After the 49ers‘ offense lagged behind its dominant defense last season, general manager Trent Baalke used his first two picks in the NFL draft to get his unit up to speed.
First, he grabbed Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins with the No. 30 overall pick. He then selected Oregon running back LaMichael James in the second round.
The message was clear: Let’s get out of second gear, guys.
“Our defense does play at a high level and plays fast,” Baalke said after the draft’s final day Saturday. “And we needed to add some pieces to the offense to allow us to do the same thing from an offensive perspective.”
It remains to be seen whether Jenkins and James, who have recorded sub-4.4-second times in the 40-yard dash, are the solutions for an offense that moved downfield deliberately in 2011 before becoming inert in the red zone.
Both speedsters clearly possess such potential, though.
Consider that Jenkins had five touchdown receptions of 50-plus yards last year and James had four runs of at least 50 yards. The 49ers’ offense, meanwhile, managed two 50-yard-plus touchdowns. In fact, San Francisco had only three offensive plays of 50 or more yards, matching the number of 50-yard returns Ted Ginn produced on special teams.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock believes San Francisco’s offense, which ranked 26th in the NFL in yards per game, added a different dimension with James.
The 49ers “did not generate many yards on offense last year,” Mayock said after San Francisco’s second-round pick. “They won with great defense and by protecting the football. (James) gives them the rare ability to hit a home run anywhere in the park.”
Mayock’s colleague, Charles Davis, continued the baseball theme when discussing James, who averaged 6.6 yards a carry at Oregon: “He speeds things up like the old film of Babe Ruth circling the bases after a home run,” Davis said.
When head coach Jim Harbaugh was asked about the infusion of speed, he was quick to note that Jenkins and James were college stars, not merely sprinters. Despite leaving school after his junior season, James was one of three running backs in Pac-12 history to rush for more than 5,000 yards. As a senior, Jenkins had 1,276 yards and 90 catches.
“We didn’t just take guys who were just speed guys,” Harbaugh said. “Not just workout-warrior-type guys, but football players.”
After Jenkins and James, the 49ers’ final five picks lacked similar sizzle as they addressed depth issues along their offensive line, linebacker corps and secondary.
Similar to their first two picks, though, each had a trait that the 49ers prize: consistent college production.
Starting with Wake Forest guard Joe Looney (fourth round) and finishing with Virginia outside linebacker Cam Johnson (seventh), San Francisco’s final five selections each started at least 32 games in college, averaging 35.6 starts between them.
Another trait that links most of them: As Baalke said of Johnson and Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson, they’ll enter the NFL with something to prove.
Robinson, for example, slipped to the sixth round because of concerns about his height (he’s 5-foot-9 1/2). Looney dropped a bit after incurring a Lisfranc foot injury at the Senior Bowl. Sixth-round center Jason Slowey will have to prove he belongs in the big leagues after dominating at Division II Western Oregon.
Finally, Johnson fell to the final round, probably because teams worried about his sickle-cell trait, a genetic disorder that can cause extreme fatigue during physical exertion.
“He’s a guy that believed he should have been a much higher pick,” Baalke said. “For whatever reason, teams passed him over, and you like that. You like that about guys, (who) come in here feeling that they were looked past and have a chip on their shoulder and are ready to compete for a position.”