SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A crowd of 15,000 fans celebrated the life of former football star Junior Seau in a memorial on Friday at a San Diego stadium, as they cheered on his grieving family and listened to speakers describe his generosity and sense of humor.
Seau, regarded as one of the best defensive NFL players of his generation, died on May 2 at his home in Oceanside, just north of San Diego, from a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest, according to police. He left no suicide note.
His death came during heightened scrutiny of the effects of repeated blows to the head in football and other contact sports, and the potential for such injuries to contribute to depression and long-term health problems in players.
“His passing is a tragedy, and with all tragedies there are lessons to be learned,” Hall of Fame retired quarterback Dan Fouts, 60, told the crowd at Qualcomm Stadium. “The lesson is, if you need help, get help. It’s out there.”
Seau played most of his 20-year career with the San Diego Chargers. Speakers at the memorial described his generosity to his local community, and an on-the-field intensity matched only by his carefree demeanor away from the gridiron.
Pastor Miles McPherson, a former Chargers player, said in an interview that Seau’s mother, Luisa, had always told her son to “do happy” which meant “not only be happy, do it, inspire it.”
The public memorial held hours after Seau’s burial in Oceanside was punctuated by humorous memories of him shared by the likes of former Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson, with the linebacker’s family sitting in the front row near such football greats as retired Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway.
“Mama Seau, papa Seau, it’s time for you to take a bow,” Tomlinson said from the stage. “Because of everything you instilled in Junior and told him to go out and do happy and be happy, he did that.”
That drew one of several standing ovations from the crowd. When Seau’s parents arrived at the stadium earlier in the evening, the crowd cheered them on, as Luisa Seau dabbed tears from her eyes and waived to the fans.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was also in attendance, and went over to greet Seau’s parents.
An estimated 15,000 fans attended the memorial, said Tom Carson, stadium operations manager.
The ceremony ended with Seau’s four children taking the stage to more cheers from the crowd. Afterward, Seau’s 22-year-old son Tyler Seau told Reuters the fans have helped his family “through some hard times right now.”
A spokesman for the Seau family had said last week that they planned to have the linebacker’s brain examined for evidence of injury from his playing days, but Tyler Seau said they are still giving it further thought.
“We still have another week or so where we’re going to sit down and we’re going to talk to a couple people and get a little bit more knowledge about it, and talk as a family and decide together,” Tyler Seau said.
Sarah Gordon, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office, said on Friday, “Steps have been taken to allow study of the brain tissue if the family wishes, and we will make every effort to support their request.”
Such a study would be done by an outside group, she said.
Seau was selected 12 times for the Pro Bowl, the NFL all-star game. He retired after the 2009 season, and aside from the Chargers he also played for the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots.
Speakers at the stadium memorial on Friday recalled how Seau liked to play the ukulele. He also was an avid surfer, and fans were given the chance to write personal messages on surf boards to be given to the Seau family.
Former Chargers linebacker Billy Ray Smith recalled jokingly how Seau, after being forced to pay for teammates’ dinner as a rookie initiation ritual, later pulled a prank on Smith by using his credit card to charge flowers for female staff members of the Chargers.
A foundation Seau created that was named after him has given millions of dollars to disadvantaged youths in the San Diego area, McPherson said. The foundation plans to continue its work.
In a Los Angeles Times opinion piece on Thursday, former NFL linebacker Riki Ellison said he believed Seau’s death “is the result of sustained concussions to the brain together with the inability to control depression” after leaving an adrenaline-fueled career in professional sports.
In February 2011, former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson shot himself to death and left notes asking that his brain be examined for evidence of injury from his playing days. Last month, retired Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who was among hundreds of former NFL players suing the league over head injuries, killed himself.
The league has focused in recent seasons on health and safety issues. It has cracked down on hits to the head and stiffened rules that bar players from using their helmets as a weapon through head-first contact, which is subject to fines and suspension for repeat offenders.
Despite the high-profile suicides, a study published in January from a division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed retired NFL players had a lower rate of suicide than the general public.
Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Peter Cooney and Lisa Shumaker