A University's Dying Football Players

Posted by Ed 38 days ago
In 1989, USC Had a Depth Chart of a Dozen Linebackers. Five Have Died, Each Before Age 50
None of them died on the field, but for each former Trojan, football was inextricably tied to mortality. These are their stories.

Matt Gee always says that “Junior does what Junior wants,” and what Junior Seau wants on this day is to die. Matt is out for breakfast when he gets the news, in the staccato notes of a breaking national story: Junior Seau . . . dead . . . gunshot wound to the chest . . . possible suicide.

Matt is shocked. At 42, he is not yet used to watching his teammates die.

Junior was a Samoan from San Diego. Matt was a country boy from Kansas. They became friends only because they were both USC linebackers. Matt was the one who gave Junior the nickname June Bug, after the beetles that invade Kansas summers. Junior didn’t even know what a june bug was.
Junior was the best player on their USC teams—such an absurd amalgamation of speed, strength and agility that it really did seem like he could do whatever he wanted. He often ignored his assignment but tackled the ballcarrier anyway.
Matt joked that Junior got this otherworldly athleticism from eating so much pineapple. Once, the two went swimming in the Pacific, and Junior swam up to a dolphin and grabbed its fin.
Matt became a successful businessman, happily married to his college sweetheart, raising three kids, proud of what his USC career begat. Junior became a Pro Football Hall of Famer—such an enormous star over 19 NFL seasons that most of his old teammates rarely saw him.
Only later would they see these fleeting interactions as dots marking his descent: Junior squaring off against offensive tackle Matt Willig, a fellow Trojan, in an NFL game in 1994 and failing to recognize him . . .
Junior stopping to say hi to another USC teammate, Calvin Holmes, at a restaurant in 2002—but “walking like a zombie,” Holmes would say. “I’m thinking, Wow, football messed you up like that.
It was just his soul. His brain.” (Seau would play pro football for seven more years.) . . . Junior, who didn’t drink in college, slurring his way through a speech at a golf tournament he was hosting—“a sad, depressing kind of drunk,” says former USC defensive back Mike Salmon, who was so saddened and depressed by the scene that he walked out. 

Twelve names. Twelve dreams.

Twelve linebackers on the Trojans’ depth chart in the fall of 1989, each with the strength of a man and the exuberance of a boy, swimming in everything USC has to offer: joy and higher education and adulation, endless adrenaline surges, alcohol, cocaine if they want it, steroids if they need them. Anything to feel fearless and reckless, wild and free.

Twelve players, all trying to impress men like linebackers coach Tom (Rogge) Roggeman, who served as a Marine in Korea. In 1989, tacklers are taught to lead with their heads. Drug tests are easy to beat. Pain is for the weak. Complaints are for the weaker. This is how the game is played.


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