When he first heard the news last Wednesday afternoon that Junior Seau had committed suicide, Jay Fiedler reacted like just about every other former teammate, family member or friend -- and even those who knew Seau only from his days in the NFL. There was shock, disbelief, intense sadness.
Then Fiedler, a close friend who first met Seau when the two played for the Dolphins nearly a decade ago, tried to piece things together, searching for clues that might hint of something was terribly wrong. Even the mysterious car crash in October 2010, in which Seau drove off the road hours after being arrested in a domestic dispute, didn't register.
"You look back now and try and think about what happened," said Fiedler, the former Oceanside High School star who played for the Dolphins from 2000-04 and the Jets in 2005. "You just try and piece some clues together. I spoke to one of his best friends after he had the accident when he claimed to be asleep at the wheel, and it all seemed very plausible to me because of the circumstances. But knowing the kind of guy he was, something like this never crossed our mind."
It is a common theme we now hear from all those who knew Seau best: Yes, he missed playing football after a 20-year career that will put him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday. But he still seemed so full of life, so willing to give to others as he had the last two decades.
"Out of just about all the people I know, there's no one in my life that just enjoyed living and enjoyed life and people being around him more than Junior," said Fiedler, who lives in Garden City and had kept in regular contact with Seau. "That's why this has all been such a complete surprise, such a complete shock. It's still hard to figure out."
So many unanswered questions after a life taken at age 43. So many left to wonder where it went wrong and why they didn't see something sooner.
Depression stemming from a life away from the game? Domestic issues? Financial problems? Neurological issues after all the hits he took from football? (That's something that medical examiners will examine now that Seau's family has donated his brain for research.)
"I couldn't say anything when I first heard about it," said Darren Carrington, a former Chargers safety and Seau teammate who had been in regular touch with him. "I was looking at the television in disbelief, mouth open, saying, 'There's no way. Not Junior. Such a fun-loving guy.' It wasn't like he didn't have any friends or family around him. He was from a close-knit family. It just didn't fit that typical box of a person who commits suicide because he lost everything, or no one was around, or he was boarding himself up in his own house. That's why it's so crazy. There was just no warning. Nobody knew."
Oddly, Seau was the eighth player from the Chargers' 1994 AFC championship team to die.
"It is spooky," said Carrington, who lives in San Diego. "All the guys were under 45. I'm like, 'Man, I'm 45. Am I going to be next?' I can't wait for my birthday to get over the hump. It's not like these are old guys. We're in the prime of our lives. For them to be gone, it's unimaginable."
The seven others died in a variety of way ranging from a plane crash to heart disease to being struck by lightning to a drug overdose. Seau is the only one to have committed suicide.
"He had such a zest for life," former Chargers defensive coordinator Dale Lindsey said. "That's why this has everybody in the dark. You didn't see a guy who enjoyed life more every day. Had he been brooding or had a dark personality, maybe we wouldn't be dismayed at this incident. But that's not the Junior we all know."
"I grew up watching Junior Seau play linebacker," Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. "My first year with the Patriots was 2009, and when Junior came in, our lockers were right next to each other. As a veteran, he shared valuable advice with me and was a true teammate."
Carrington said Seau should be remembered as much for what he did off the field as what he did on it, including 12 Pro Bowl appearances. He established the Junior Seau Foundation in 1992 to raise resources that helped youngsters, especially financially challenged kids. He hosted a golf tournament every year to raise money. And he staged what became known as his "Shop With A Jock" event in which he'd give hundreds of kids a $100 gift certificate to shop at a local department store.
"The look on those kids' faces, the thankfulness and the gratefulness they felt," Carrington said. "It was just tremendous."
Fiedler remembers how Seau changed the life of a young player named Eric Olsen at Fiedler's annual football camp in 2004.
"Eric was up there, and his coach was saying how this kid is going to be a hell of a player," Fiedler said. "He's still young and we wanted him to feel good about playing the game of football, so we set up a thing where Junior challenged some guys to block him. He allowed Eric to really pancake him, but Junior sold it well enough."
Olsen, who now plays for the Saints, recalled that experience.
"I can't even tell you how good I felt at that moment; it changed me forever," Olsen wrote on his Twitter account this past week. "The whole camp cheered for me, a chubby kid that didn't know if he even liked football. From then on I was addicted. All thanks 2 this 10 time all-pro that felt like making some snot-nosed kid's day."
Seau was that kind of a guy. The world has lost a great man.
And we may never know why.