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Monday, August 14, 2006 | As good as Junior Seau was with the Chargers – and the 12-time Pro Bowler is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer – I reflect back on his career believing he could have been better. I mean that as a compliment to his preternatural athleticism.

You see, early in his career he endured the misfortune of being handcuffed while playing for Dan Henning and Kevin Gilbride in four of his first nine NFL seasons.

Thank God Bobby Ross came along from 1992 to 1996 to move Seau around – as opposed to planted in the middle – and unleash a talent that made him one of the three greatest football players to come out of San Diego along with San Diego High’s Brick Muller, the first All-American from the West on Cal’s Wonder Teams of 1920-21-22 and Lincoln High’s Marcus Allen, a Heisman Trophy winner and Super Bowl MVP and NFL MVP.

Seau announces his retirement at 5 p.m. today at Chargers Park having played 13 of his 16 NFL seasons as a hometown kid from 1990-2002. Among the many mental snapshots of his career, I believe he would have been better served by a Bill Parcells- or Mike Ditka-type coach instead of two self-aggrandizing figures like Henning and Gilbride.

Henning and Gilbride believe they’re such geniuses with X’s and O’s they can plug players into their system and make them better. Not when you have unique physical specimen like Junior Seau, you don’t.

You give Seau the freedom to rush the quarterback with abandon Taylor had under Parcells and you might have had best linebacker of all-time. Seau could rush the quarterback as well as Taylor, but Taylor couldn’t stuff the run or cover pass routes as well as Seau.

I’m no admirer of Ditka as a coach, but he had fun with his team when he let defensive tackle William “The Refrigerator” Perry carry the football for short yardage touchdowns. Ditka made Perry an icon.

Sending Seau into the game as a tight end would have been fun. By the time the team flirted with the move later in Seau’s career – Ditka had fun with Perry when he was still a novelty – it was misconstrued by some people as grandstanding.

I guess they didn’t know Seau, an All-American linebacker at USC, could have accepted a college scholarship as a tight end after his two-way career at Oceanside. He was so athletic he was San Diego’s CIF Player of the Year in football and basketball.

Seau catching touchdown passes as a tight end would have made him bigger than he is now as he awaits the Hall-of-Fame call when he’s eligible in five years. And Seau already is as big as it gets.

Sports Illustrated once proclaimed on its cover that Seau was “The Linebacker of the 90s.”

We all have our own memories of Seau’s career with the Chargers such as leading the team to the Super Bowl in the 1994 season and those two interceptions against Houston in 1993 when Ross said it was the greatest performance by a linebacker he had seen are a couple. How about the time he taped Dennis Gibson’s No. 57 to his jersey when the Chargers took the practice field for the first time after Gibson clinched the AFC Championship win at Pittsburgh with a defended pass?

I saw Seau in high school as a Parade All-American in football, a CIF champion in basketball that then-USC coach George Raveling tried to convince to play basketball for the Trojans as well as football – “You won’t even have to play defense,” Raveling joked as I interviewed Seau in Heritage Hall – and as a 59-foot shot putter in track and field.

One of my favorite all-time quotes as a sportswriter came from former Oceanside High basketball coach Bill Christopher. In Seau’s junior season, the Pirates played at the gym of their cross-town rival, El Camino. In one of those crowded situations under the boards, Junior was in the middle of a fight that broke out.

A few days later Christopher and Seau went to El Camino’s practice and Seau stood before the Wildcats and apologized for the fight.

Christopher was explaining Seau’s fierce competitive nature to me that Junior was still learning to reign in at that point of his career. Citing Seau’s Samoan warrior heritage, Christopher – himself a big man who played basketball at Oklahoma State – said to me, “You know, Samoan warriors fight to the death. How would you like to see Junior Seau holding a spear and know you have to fight him to the death.”

Uh, no thanks.

Something else to consider is it’s not as easy playing in your hometown as Junior Seau made it look. The Seau Foundation has raised $1.5 million for San Diego youth programs and his sports bar in Mission Valley remains a San Diego hotspot.

But in the Chargers’ down years, there was always some knucklehead at Qualcomm shouting something at Seau. A lesser man would have had enough of Henning and Gilbride’s miscasting of him and demanded a trade, but Seau was playing in his hometown, not Buffalo, so he forged ahead.

When Seau was in high school, I remember covering a game for a newspaper and writing that when he hit people they “Say-Ow!” Some supposed big-city copy editor took it out of my story, assuming this was a bit too much hyperbole for a high school kid.

Well, a few years later “Say-Ow!” was often written about him and it became his NFL trademark. I missed out on royalty rights, but at least I had the pleasure of watching him when he was a kid and later as the Hall-of-Famer he became.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. Send a letter to the editor.

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