Lions wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson played five seasons with Junior Seau from 1991-95 with the Chargers.
Jefferson said watching Seau those five years changed the way he approached the game of football and what it meant to be a teammate.
"The Army has a slogan: 'we do more work before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.' That was Seau," Jefferson said. "Before we'd come into the building he'd already worked out, gone through practice and film study, everything. Everyone else was getting in and he was having a cup of coffee.
"Seeing him come to work every day and the way he approached practice and everything like that, I got a chance to see what it took to be good, to have a career in the NFL; (what it means) when people say they've committed themselves to something. I saw that every day for five years from that guy."
That's why Jefferson was as surprised as anyone to hear the news that Seau, 43, was found dead in his Oceanside, Cal. home Wednesday of what investigators are calling a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.
Seau was a larger-than-life figure in the San Diego community, but what made him the best teammate he ever had, said Jefferson, was the fact that he was just one of the guys.
"We'd go this pub on Fridays after practice and Junior Seau would show up to that every week (even if it was) just for one beer," Jefferson said. "It was important for him to come out with the team. Guys don't do that nowadays. He understood he was the leader of the team and that, (even if he had just) one beer and leaves, it's important that (his) guys see (him) there and that (he) was a part of this and not above the team. That was Junior Seau."
Jefferson and Seau were teammates on the 1994 Chargers team that made a magical run to Super Bowl XXIX before losing to the 49ers, 49-26.
"My fondest memory of that 1994 team is playing the week before the AFC Championship Game (Division round against the Dolphins). Junior gets hurt, I think he's got a pinched nerve in his left arm. He can't hardly lift his arm," Jefferson said.
"Then he has like 16 or something tackles the next game in the AFC Championship Game (in a victory over the Steelers). It was the greatest performance I've ever seen in my life. He couldn't move the arm, but he was going up and down the sideline saying, 'We ain't losing today, we ain't losing today.'
"There was something about when he spoke … everything was okay. He could will everyone else's play up to his level of his play. I'll never forget that day."
Seau amassed 545 tackles and 56.5 sacks over a 20-year NFL career, the first 13 spent with the Chargers. He was a 12-time Pro Bowler and named All Pro 10 times.
"Being around him for five years, it rubs off on you," Jefferson said.
LIFE AFTER FOOTBALL
Seau's death, if it's confirmed as a suicide, would be the third reported in the last 15 months. It's brought the issue of concussions and head trauma and how those affect players later in life to the forefront once again.
While the reason behind Seau's death may never be confirmed, Jefferson – speaking as a former player – said there's more to the football side of the story than just head trauma. In addition to concussions affecting players after football, guys also have a hard time adjusting to life outside of football.
"For a guy of that status to play 20 years and then all of the sudden not have it anymore, it does something to you," Jefferson said. "That's the dark side to the transition period from football to the regular life. There's a dark side to it.
"I'm reading all these things and people saying it was all the hits to the head and stuff like that, but if Junior was here today, he'd probably tell you that if they asked him (play the same career all over) again, he'd probably do it."
Jefferson played 13 seasons with the Chargers, Patriots, Falcons and Lions and said there was a major adjustment period to life after football for him.
"What gets you is this: having played for 13 years and having a structured life for 13 years; getting up in the morning, coming over here, interacting with the guys, going to battle with these guys every Sunday, that's what gets you," he said.
"That's the transition killer right there. It isn't so much transitioning from NFL superstar to being a regular Joe, that isn't it. It's missing the smell of the locker room. Missing the linebacker that plays on the other side of you celebrating with him when he made a tackle and you made a tackle. It's being down in the game and your team has to come up with a stop and you make that stop.
"There's a void when that goes away. You can't replace it. The only thing that can replace it is if you go back and do it."
Seau announced his retirement in 2006 but five days later signed a contract with the Patriots. He played four more seasons before retiring for good in 2009.
"It's not just the hits to the head, it the lack of being in that locker room," Jefferson said. "Being in that battle with the guys. You love your family, but going to war with these guys is a special deal."