“I Have to Be Better Than Me”
IT’S EARLY MARCH, and the sun is just beginning to rise over Oceanside, California, a coastal town 45 minutes north of San Diego. Dew is on the grass and a chill is in the air when Sai Niu arrives at the school bus stop at six o’clock. His body is awake only in the sense that his eyes are open.
As he prepares to board the bus, he notices someone running sprints on an adjacent field. He squints through the dim light and walks around the back of the bus to get a closer look. Soon, he realizes it’s Junior—or Bug, as he is known to family and close friends.
The classmates exchange handshakes and small talk. They’re entering the spring of their junior year at Oceanside High, but already their minds are thinking ahead to the fall and winter, when they will lead the Pirates’ varsity football and basketball teams for the second straight year. Junior invites Niu to join him for an early-morning workout later in the week. When the running back/point guard arrives two days later at five o’clock, Junior is waiting for him.
They stretch briefly, then begin running . . . and running . . . and running. Niu thinks he is prepared, but he isn’t. His first workout with Junior turns out to be his last. “After that,” Niu said of that 1986 morning, “every time the bus would come and I’d see him over there, I made it a point to walk in the opposite direction. Bug would be out there like clockwork. He was one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever known.”
Junior lived in a three-bedroom bungalow where he and three brothers slept in a converted one-car garage that served as his gym as well as his bedroom. On most mornings he’d rise before the sun crept over the coast and exercise until his body was drenched in sweat and his muscles twitched from fatigue. He’d do push-ups and sit-ups on the cement floor, pull-ups on a tree branch in the backyard. He used the neighborhood streets as his personal track.
While running one afternoon, he passed the home of a cousin, who was seated on the front porch. Fifteen minutes later he passed the house again, moving in the opposite direction. The cousin didn’t think much of it; Junior was always running. But when the youngster passed the home a third time, the cousin shook his head and laughed. “Man, that kid’s crazy,” he said to a friend. “But he’s going to go somewhere.”
The words were prescient. Nearly a decade later, Bug’s journey took him to the Super Bowl, where he played on the grandest stage in professional sports. A decade after that, it took him to the White House, where President George W. Bush honored him as a “Volunteer of the Year” for his work with at-risk kids in San Diego County. And in 2015, it took him to Canton, Ohio, where he became the first player of Polynesian descent to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But to fully appreciate just how far he traveled, literally and figuratively, you must understand where his journey began.
Oceanside is the third-largest city in San Diego County, yet it often is overshadowed by smaller coastal municipalities to the south, like Carlsbad, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Coronado. Those communities are held up as symbols of affluence and privilege when people talk about the beauty of the region. Oceanside is known as the gritty military town on the southern border of Camp Pendleton, the 125,000-acre Marine Corps training facility that’s the largest on the West Coast. It’s the dirt-covered stone that has yet to be buffed and polished into a priceless gem, three and a half miles of coastline that’s as unpretentious as it is gorgeous.
The Seaus did not live close enough to the water to taste the salt in the air. They lived inland, where gangs and drugs and small, overcrowded bungalows were prevalent. Community members referred to it as East Side; while it could be intimidating to outsiders, many locals found comfort there because it was what they knew. Some 1,400 People of Samoan descent resided in the area in 2000, making it one of the largest concentrations of Polynesians in the United States, according to that year’s census.
Tiaina Seau and his wife, Luisa, grew up on American Samoa—Luisa in Pago Pago, Tiaina in the much smaller village of Nu’uuli—but they didn’t meet until both were in Hawaii, where Luisa was attending school and Tiaina was searching for work. They fell in love, married, and started a family, but thoughts of settling there dissipated quickly after son David was born with a hole in his lung.
The parents were told that David could receive specialized medical care in San Diego, where Tiaina had a sister, so the family packed its belongings and relocated. They spent two years in San Diego before moving 45 minutes north to Oceanside. The change in address stemmed from Tiaina’s desire to reduce his commute. He had found work at a rubber factory in San Clemente, and the 90-minute drive in one direction from San Diego was wearing on him. By moving to Oceanside, he could cut the commute in half.
The family settled on Zeiss Street, where children Savaii, Annette, Tiaina, and Antonio joined David and Mary. The baby of the bunch from 1969 to ’76 was Tiaina, otherwise known as Junior. Interestingly, he wasn’t a true junior. Both his father and his grandfather had the same given name, making him a Tiaina III, but everyone called him Junior to differentiate him from his dad. His mother tended to call him Pepe, which is Samoan for baby.
There’s a long-accepted story that the Seau family went back to American Samoa for several years after Junior was born, then returned to Oceanside. It also claims that Junior didn’t learn English until he was seven. Neither is true. Junior’s first trip to American Samoa didn’t come until after his third year of high school. When his family occasionally asked him to set the record straight, he’d shrug and say: “Let ’em run with it. Makes for a better story.”
Junior loved to prank people, and rewriting his family history spoke to that. While in college he told a reporter: “I was five years old and couldn’t speak English when we came here. But my dad wanted to raise us in America so we could have a chance to go to college.”
He was a handful even as a young child, unable to sit still for long stretches and always searching for the next adventure. Mary, the oldest of his two sisters, often had to babysit him while their parents were at work. When his mischievousness would wear her down, she’d allow him to go outside alone, which could be problematic because he tended to stray as far as his feet and his curiosity could take him. No one was overly worried, though, because the 1970s were a more innocent time. Most everyone on the block knew each other, and there was a sense of shared responsibility when it came to watching over the children.
But Junior wasn’t the type who needed to be protected from others—he needed to be protected from himself. He’d get into anything and everything. Fear was not in his vocabulary. Once, he and some friends found a mattress in the backyard of an empty house and moved it to the front yard, where they took turns ...