Junior Seau I Love You., INSIDE A RUN-DOWN, but clean gym tucked away on a small back street in Oceanside, Calif., a beach city about 80 miles south of Los Angeles, 79-year-old Tiaina Seau walks steadily on a slow-moving treadmill. His wife, 75-year-old Luisa, patiently pedals an outdated stationary bicycle.
This morning in mid-April is just like all the others they spend at the Junior Seau Fitness Center, a building next to the Oceanside Senior Citizens Center and across the street from the Boys & Girls Club. It’s not the well-known gym in the middle of town on Mission Avenue, where Junior would often work out with his close friend Jay Michael Auwae, a Marine whom Junior met after retiring from a 20-year career. But a quiet, discreet building, not an easy place to find. And that’s why Junior would come here religiously once he left behind his high-profile life in the NFL, often playing ukulele in the back with his cousin Dale Godinet.
“He used to say, ‘Buddee, this is the best-kept secret in Oceanside,'” says Godinet. “It was his refuge.”
Seau, who called everybody “Buddee” and also spelled it that way in texts, had two primary missions outside of football: aiding the youths of San Diego through his Junior Seau Foundation, launched in 1992, and making sure people young and old could exercise. So Junior and his cousin, Randall, who ran the Boys & Girls Club, opened Seau Fitness Center gym in 1996 with foundation money and a community grant, and filled it with the equipment that had been at the home he shared with his wife, Gina, until their divorce, as well as other machines donated personally by Arnold Schwarzenegger. They both served on the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition.
Initially, the center opened as an after-school safe haven for teens, to keep them away from gangs, which are prevalent in Oceanside, just like in so many big cities in Southern California. When Junior realized the gym was mostly vacant while school was in session, Godinet and Junior reached out to the Senior Center nearby. And when the Boys & Girls club pulled its support, wanting to build up its own youth-only programs, the gym started catering to seniors. Its doors are open now largely because of city grants. Memberships are $55 a year for patrons over 55, in honor of Junior’s jersey number. While it is formally known as the Junior Seau Fitness Center, locals have nicknamed it Club 55.
But the gym is in jeopardy of closing. The outdated equipment needs maintenance. The building needs repairs. A window is broken. There are no funds for renovations because the Seau family’s patriarch is gone.
Nearly a year after Junior Seau committed suicide on May 2, 2012, Outside the Lines conducted dozens of interviews with his family and friends, including a two-hour exclusive with Auwae, who got to know Seau in early 2010, instantly bonding with the fellow Polynesian and becoming a frequent workout partner. In hindsight, they say that Junior’s actions signaled a man who was spiraling out of control, a man who wasn’t prepared to leave behind the regimented life of pro football, the sport he’d been playing since he was a kid and slept with his three brothers in the Seaus’ one-car garage.
The ebullient, smart, funny Junior was doing his best to hide a financial free fall and deep depression. But hidden from everyone, including him, was the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which doctors confirmed this past January.
“Everyone’s looking for answers,” says Auwae, a Master Gunnery Sergeant stationed near Oceanside, whose intense friendship with Seau and grief over his death has left a life in disarray. “What could I have done better? I’m a Marine. I’m trained to look for these signs. I couldn’t even help Junior because he was beyond our help.”
So every morning the Seaus come to the fitness center, where photos of Junior and news clippings of his career on the wall make it a living, breathing memorial to their son. They feel closer to him here sometimes than even at his own gravesite; it is a building with a cause he cared so much about and people who continue to keep it thriving. They say they pray every day that the doors will stay open somehow.
“When I come here, people see me and they see my son,” says Junior’s father, Tiaina.
But, sadly, there is no certainty to the gym’s financial future. Or the future Seau left behind for his friends and family.
JUNIOR SEAU QUIETLY opened the door to the massive luxury hotel suite on the Las Vegas Strip. He walked in slowly, face ashen, his massive body hunched over as if he were grimacing in physical pain.
“He slammed a glass on the bar and looked at me and said: ‘Buddee,'” recalls Auwae, who was staying in the suite with him. “I go, ‘Man, please don’t tell me this.'”
According to Auwae, it was mid-December 2010 and Seau had just lost close to a million dollars in 90 minutes playing high-stakes blackjack — $40,000 to $50,000 a hand. Earlier in the day, the 12-time former Pro Bowl linebacker told Auwae he had won close to $800,000. After dinner at a local Italian restaurant, they went back to the room, where Auwae says he begged Seau to stay away from the blackjack tables.
“I said, ‘Man, you clipped them,'” Auwae recalls. “‘You did it. You got their money, just let it be. You can pay some bills, get some people off your back, and just relax. Let’s go watch a show.'”
In the 10 months since they’d met at a reggae concert in San Diego, Auwae and Seau had traveled to Vegas a handful of times and had visited various California casinos, where Auwae says he witnessed Seau win big and lose big. This particular trip to Vegas was unplanned, coming just two days before Seau was due to attend his son Tyler’s Division II semifinal football game for Delta State in Cleveland, Miss. At his home in Oceanside with Auwae, Seau suddenly called for a private jet.