- Shelley Smith, SportsCenter correspondent
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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 His wife, 75-year-old Luisa, patiently pedals an outdated stationary bicycle.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.
"One minute, we were sitting at the table, and then he said, 'Let's pop,'" says Auwae. "What do you mean? Where we going? Boom, next thing you know we're sitting in Las Vegas in a suite." A $40,000-a-night suite with a private indoor pool, golf simulator, full butler service and a shellfish bar, which was stocked with crab and shrimp upon their arrival. Auwae says he never saw Seau put down any money, assuming the casino comped the room for a high roller like Junior.
According to a lengthy October 2012 report by U-T San Diego, Seau owed $1.3 million in casino markers to Bellagio and Caesars Palace in November 2010, just a month before his trip with Auwae. According to the same report, he was losing $60,000 to $70,000 a month because of a poor post-retirement investment in Ruby Tuesday restaurant franchises, while his own restaurant, Seau's, was also in need of upgrades he couldn't afford.
After Seau returned to the room announcing he had won $800,000, Auwae recalls telling his friend to "just chill." Junior seemed to agree, content to lounge in the pool for a while with a cocktail in hand. Then there was a knock at the door. "They sent people up to the room to get him to go and play more," Auwae says, not wanting to name names or the casino. "So he goes down, and not even an hour and a half later he was back."
Junior looked distraught and told Auwae that he'd lost it all and then some. "He goes into his room and he's looking at the ceiling," Auwae says. "He's just staring like something's wrong with his head. At the time I'm like, dude, this guy's crazy. What's wrong with him? Why would he do that?"
In the past, Auwae had watched Junior in the high-stakes room and joined in the drinking and revelry that came along with it. But Seau had confided in him that his massive debts were mounting, and this trip was the first time Auwae truly understood that Junior was gambling away millions that didn't exist. And he couldn't watch anymore.
Auwae says Junior had already called Bette Hoffman, the trustee of Seau's estate, to wire more money to the casino. But Hoffman called Auwae, he says, and told him: "Whatever you got to do, you got to help [Junior]. You've got to stop him. You've got to stop him."
Auwae went to Junior's room, where he found him laying on the bed, still staring at the ceiling. "I go, 'Buddee, please let's go home. This ain't our world,'" Auwae says. "[Junior] goes, 'We gotta make it back. Buddee, I've got this.' And I go, 'Trust me, you don't got this.' He goes to bed. Morning comes, the money comes and the gentlemen come back up to grab him. He goes back down." According to Auwae, Seau lost another $400,000 that day.
Instead of continuing on with Junior to Tyler's football game, Auwae says he returned to California. Despite the disagreement, the two men remained close and did occasionally go to the casinos again. Auwae says he often made attempts to dissuade Seau from playing such high stakes, but Junior ignored the advice, telling Auwae: "I'm a grown man."
ON THE FIELD, Junior was larger than life. Former teammates say he surely had multiple concussions, based on the way he hit and was hit. But they say he never admitted to being hurt or impaired when he was between the lines. It was that way outside them as well. The man who played with no fear was afraid of showing weakness, especially in his private life.
Yet friends and family say that looking back at his actions -- not just gambling but womanizing and partying and sleepless nights -- Junior was exhibiting symptoms of both depression and CTE, a progressive degenerative disease associated with multiple concussions and other forms of head injury. At the time, they were noticed only in pieces, never being linked together. No one completed the puzzle -- until it was too late.
Unlike most of Seau's closest friends, Auwae never knew Junior the pro football star. While he had recognized Seau surfing several times in Oceanside, the two didn't grow close until February 2010, a month after Seau retired from the NFL for good. They were at a reggae concert that Auwae was promoting with a friend in San Diego, and he got Junior backstage. By many accounts from numerous people in Oceanside, including Junior's parents, the two men became nearly inseparable after that.
"I think he liked my discipline from being a Marine," says Auwae. "He would tell people: 'Twenty-four years of service in the Marine Corps.' He was proud. Of course, I'm proud of him. And I'm Polynesian, too. We connected on a lot of levels."
At 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, Junior towered over the 5-6, 175-pound Auwae, who was raised in Hawaii and resembles Seau. Junior's sister called him "mini-me." Junior called him "Tattoo" after the character on the old TV show "Fantasy Island." But despite his stature, Auwae was almost as strong as Junior and their daily workouts became legendary competitions among the locals.
Just about every morning before Auwae went to his shift on base, they went through their routine: a run along the Strand, a trip to the Mission Avenue gym where Junior would secretly add weight to Auwae's bar, making sure to win the circuit workout. If the waves were right, then they'd head out with longboards. If they weren't, then it was to Swami's Cafe for breakfast or to Jitters, a coffee joint, where they'd strum ukuleles with "Pops," the owner, and cousin Dale.
"Being Polynesian, and being that we loved to surf, loved to play music -- we both couldn't sing -- loved to play ukulele, it was a way of healing, spiritual healing," says Auwae.
Seau's charm drew countless new friends into his circle after retirement, each one feeling as though he or she had known Junior forever. Auwae knew he was referred to by some of Seau's friends as a hanger-on, but in reality, he says, he wanted nothing more than to be Seau's buddy. "[Junior] was just someone you couldn't not want to be around," he says.
That was also the case with the many women Seau had relationships with after divorcing his wife in 2002. One of his more serious girlfriends was Mary Nolan, whom he met in 2007 when she was only 22. Nolan lived with Seau in Boston during his final season as a New England Patriot in 2009, and returned with him to Oceanside, where they resided in Junior's $3.2 million home. According to Auwae and others, it was Nolan who was by Junior's side most often during his ups and downs in Vegas.
But less than two months before Seau's impulsive gambling trip with Auwae, that relationship came to a traumatic end and may have been the first major clue that Seau's mental state was deteriorating.
Early on the morning of Oct. 18, 2010, he was arrested and taken to jail, accused of assaulting Nolan, who'd learned that Seau had been cheating on her. Seau claimed that he never put a hand on Nolan, who immediately left Oceanside without filing a complaint. After posting bail, Junior ran his car off a cliff in what many of his friends now are convinced was a first suicide attempt, though Seau always insisted he simply fell asleep at the wheel and the police agreed.
His ex-wife Gina and their three children, Sydney, Jake and Hunter, and Junior's oldest son, Tyler, picked Seau up from the hospital and brought him to their house for a few days to heal. When he had trouble sleeping and Gina didn't have Ambien, Junior called Auwae, who says he came to pick up his friend and drive him home.
The media attention surrounding the arrest and crash was enormous, and Auwae, who had left Hawaii after hearing the news, says he stayed with Junior inside his home for several weeks, ordering in food and watching football. Seau, bandaged and bruised, refused to discuss the cause or reason for the crash, yet Auwae didn't push. He was accustomed to comforting injured servicemen through his work with Wounded Warriors.
Players around the NFL confirm that Junior was a heavy drinker, but Auwae says it was about that time Seau's drinking worsened and he was taking Ambien along with it to sleep. Auwae was as well. His own marriage was struggling and he, too, was in a raw emotional state.
Initially, Auwae says, he was swept up in what appeared to be Seau's zeal for life, the jetsetting, the drinking, the gambling and the women. But running with Seau put a growing strain on Auwae's relationship with his wife and their three children. By September 2011, he even contemplated suicide; Junior convinced him otherwise. "He knew that I wanted to end it for myself, but he saved me," Auwae says.
If Seau had suicidal thoughts, he never expressed them. Meanwhile, Auwae and others say that they noticed his memory beginning to fade, unable to remember simple things, like his daughter Sydney's volleyball game, or plans for lunch, to even the most mundane things like the day of the week.
"He would be like, 'Buddee, I've got to go somewhere,'" Auwae recalls. "And Sydney would call: 'Dad, where you at?' He would be like, 'Oh, dang, we forgot the game.' As I look back, there were so many incidents. It was almost common for me to see that. But I'm not thinking that way. Nobody's thinking that way."
SEAU WAS ALSO suffering with being away from football, the regimented lifestyle he'd known for the last 20-plus years. Post-retirement therapy is often advised for professional athletes to cope with the loss of such an intense and integral part of their lives. But Seau never reached out for help, just like he always chose to play through pain.
Following retirement, he hosted a reality sports series on Versus that was canceled after just one season, and he failed to secure an NFL broadcasting job even at the regional level. Instead, he watched his former peers on TV, still part of the game he gravely missed.
The failing restaurants had depleted his savings, as had a costly divorce from Gina, child support payments (as high as $40,000 a month during his playing days) and an extravagant lifestyle that at least back in 2006 had cost him around $400,000 a year, according to the U-T San Diego report. In 2011, Seau took a $1.2 million loan against the value of his Oceanside home.
Hoffman, a 73-year-old professional fundraiser and the trustee of Seau's estate, discussed Seau in an Outside the Lines interview for a different story. She said that Junior always believed he had to take care of the people around him. His family was massive and continually would go to his restaurant, Seau's, expecting to eat and drink for free. They had seen Junior make more than $50 million during his playing career, and surely couldn't have imagined that most of it was gone.
"There were a lot of people who hung out with him that never paid for anything," she said. "I got all the bills. I would notice some of the expenses from restaurants and I'd say, 'Oh my God, Junior. How could you have spent this much money?' One thousand dollars, easily, for a night out."
Auwae also says he watched Junior spending more and more money on dinner and drinks -- which was typical for Seau, who always wanted to be in charge -- but paying with different credit cards.
Yet even a week and a half before Seau died, there was nothing to indicate, according to Auwae and other friends, that Junior was thinking about ending his life. Auwae and Junior had driven to a charity golf tournament in Fontana, Calif., run by former Kansas City Chiefs running back Christian Okoye.
"We came home and he goes, 'Buddee, next year just promise me when we go to the tournament we'll catch a private plane,'" Auwae says. "He'd ordered the Mayweather-Cotto fight at his restaurant for the following week. He had a trip to Hawaii tentatively scheduled with his kids. Mother's Day was coming up."
Junior's daughter, Sydney, had just been admitted to USC, his alma mater, where Seau had recently played his ukulele at the spring game. He also had recently become a grandfather, when his then-22-year-old son Tyler and Tyler's girlfriend had a daughter.
Former teammate Mark Walczak was coming to stay the last weekend of April 2012 with Junior to celebrate Walczak's 50th birthday. The two men had been roommates when Junior moved to San Diego for his rookie year in 1990.
Walczak told Outside the Lines that Junior seemed in good spirits at the thought of a weekend with old friends, and they spent Friday night, April 27, 2012, with Chargers team doctor David Chao and a few friends in Del Mar, about 20 miles from Oceanside. When they returned to Junior's house, there was an electrical outage in the neighborhood. They lit candles and talked long into the night.
Auwae joined Junior and Walczak and they spent much of the next day on Seau's porch overlooking the ocean, playing music and grilling barbecue. It was then that Auwae said he found an envelope with a letter inside by the kitchen sink that had "Do not read" written on it.
"Well, I'm sorry but I'm going to read it," Auwae remembers thinking. "Junior comes walking in, and we stare at each other for a few seconds. Then he grabs the paper and says, 'Have a seat.' He tells me, 'Buddee, listen to this song.'"
Inside the envelope was a letter with the lyrics to "Who I Ain't," co-written by his friend Jamie Paulin, a musician in Nashville, Tenn. Junior had learned it on the ukulele. The country song is about a man attempting to reconcile his sinning ways and his faith. Auwae thinks now that the letter might have been an attempt at a suicide note, but at the time thought nothing of it.
By then, Auwae says he was fully aware that Seau's financial issues were far worse than they'd been on that December 2010 night in Vegas. Junior would likely have to close the doors on his restaurant, Seau's, because he couldn't pay for the necessary upgrades or the lease. And that meant laying off hundreds of employees, including his own son Tyler, who worked there. During Walzack's birthday visit, according to U-T San Diego, the Bellagio attempted to claim a $400,000 marker given to Seau, but the gambling debt couldn't be paid because of insufficient funds.
That Saturday night after the barbecue, Junior, Walczak and Auwae made plans go to a pricey restaurant, 333 Pacific, to have drinks. "He looks at me, 'Buddee, I need you to catch me.' Catch the bill," says Auwae, who was surprised that Seau would ask him to pay at such an expensive restaurant. "Normally I would treat if we were going to a cheaper establishment. But I was like, 'Oh, Buddee, cool. I'm going to pay it.'"
On Sunday, Walczak says he and Junior went to Carlsbad for lunch, where he was introduced to Seau's on-and-off girlfriend, Megan Noderer, who Junior had met at a wedding in Key West, Fla., a few months earlier. The pretty redhead was living in Dallas but came to San Diego to attend a baby shower for her sister-in-law. Later that night, Noderer and Walczak were waiting on Junior to return from meeting other friends for a birthday drink at a nearby bar. Walczak wanted to say goodbye to Junior before driving back to Phoenix. But by 10 p.m., Seau was still out so Walczak sent him a text.
"Buddee, thank you for an awesome birthday! I'm heading back now. Love you brother. Thanks again Buddee!!"
He never heard back.
On Monday, April 30, 2012, Junior played in former Raider Tim Brown's golf tournament in nearby Dana Point and was paired with former 49er Jerry Rice, who later told reporters that Seau seemed upbeat; he was also posing for photos and talking about his children and the upcoming NFL draft.
But sometime after 7:45 a.m. Wednesday morning, May 2, according to the coroner's report, Junior walked into a guest bedroom with a .357 magnum revolver, put it near his heart and pulled the trigger. Police say there was an impression of the barrel on his chest, meaning there was no hesitation mark, which signals fear, uncertainty or foul play. A half-bottle of water was found on the nightstand next to the bed. The gun was next to his right hand. Noderer, who had gone to work out, was the first person to find Seau.
Police traced the gun back to its original owner, who told them he traded it in at a gun shop in New York "a long time ago." They have not found out why or how Junior came to have it.
Auwae, who was on base, got the call from cousin Dale and rushed to Seau's home. Junior was already on a gurney in a body bag. Family members were standing around in the garage stunned and weeping hysterically. "I grabbed my phone and I sent a text to one of the people I'd met from Vegas numerous times," Auwae says. "I said, 'My friend is dead. Thank you very much.'"
The person Auwae sent the text to, he says, was one of the Vegas casino hosts who enticed Junior back to the blackjack tables during the December 2010 episode. Auwae has since apologized to the man, having learned more about CTE and how it leads to compulsive behavior. He says Junior's gambling debts in Las Vegas and in California have been "washed away." The Las Vegas casino host declined to comment, but Auwae says several casinos have assured him Seau's debts no longer exist. U-T San Diego also reported that his gambling debts have been forgiven.
"I think it came to a boiling point," Auwae says of Junior's death. "Junior thought, 'This is the best way to deal with it, because my head has been hurting my whole life.' I don't think he had control with what was going on in his brain. He had too many things planned. He had too many people that loved him."
A YEAR LATER, Oceanside isn't the same without Junior. A portrait of him, fashioned out of letters, was donated to Jitters, the coffee shop that was often filled with the sounds of Junior's ukulele. The words spell out his favorite phrase, "Work for today, plan for tomorrow, pray for the rest."
Another giant portrait of Junior smiling, sits on an easel in his parent's pristine Oceanside home. They planned a small, private ceremony, with T-shirts bearing one of Junior's favorite scriptures for the May 2 anniversary of his death, and then a backyard barbecue at their house, just like those Junior loved to throw impromptu and they loved to host.
"It's been hard to get to that point of everything not continuing to be very difficult," says Junior's sister, Annette. "Last year, when he died, the music stopped. But now the kids are starting to pick up their ukuleles again, remembering songs Junior taught them."
"There will be music Thursday," cousin Dale says. "Much music."
Auwae says he didn't go public with his knowledge of Junior's finances and gambling habits until now because he never wanted Seau's memory to be tarnished. But in light of the CTE diagnosis, Auwae says he believes it's important for others to understand the insidiousness of the disease and how it can ruin lives. Looking back, he recalls the two of them watching coverage of former NFL safety Dave Duerson's suicide. Duerson shot himself in the chest and left a suicide note, requesting that his brain be studied. Seau turned to Auwae and compared Duerson's emotional and physical struggles to those of the Wounded Warriors who Auwae continues to help.
"Now I feel like he knew what was going on," Auwae says.
At the same time, he also wrestles with how much Junior's suicide was just a way out for him, a solution to a myriad of problems that may or may not have been caused or blurred by CTE. All he really knows for certain, he says, is how 2½ years with Junior changed his own life.
"Buddee, ever since I met you my life went upside down," says Auwae, whose wife filed for divorce less than two weeks after Junior's death and last November filed a restraining order against him that will be lifted this week. (No charges were ever filed.) "A part of me regrets it, a part understands that everything has a purpose. There's this tug of war."
Auwae says he doesn't visit Junior's parents and siblings as much as he used to, saying it's too painful because they see Junior in him. Still, he will be there for the May 2 ceremony, ukulele in hand.
The status of the Junior Seau Foundation is believed to be stable because its funds are separate from Seau's estate, while the status of Seau's estate remains unknown. By law a person's estate should be revealed within a year of his or her death, but it is unclear what, if anything, there will be to split. Some assets have been sold. Junior's beachside home, which he bought in 2005 for $3.2 million, recently went for $1.975 million.
A family source told OTL that Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who grew up near Junior and went to USC and considers himself family, paid a good portion of Seau's funeral service and for his grave plot in the Eternal Hills Memorial Park, a prime spot near the main path where Junior's parents also will be buried. The family visits often, as does Auwae. One day in early spring, before the headstone was placed, he went and strummed "Earth Angel," one of Junior's favorite songs.
Seniors continue to trickle into the Junior Seau Center to rehabilitate injuries and exercise at a low cost, but Club 55 will shut its doors if it doesn't receive funds. The city of Oceanside recently donated $7,500 for the center (along with the Senior Center next door), but it will need substantially more.
A giant "Say Ow" banner hangs on the wall behind the strength machines. It was the name of Seau's line of activewear that ended as yet another failed business venture. Seau's mother sits at one of the machines and breaks into tears at the thought that it's been a year since her son took his own life. She can't bear that the Junior Seau Fitness Center, which meant so much to Junior, could soon be gone.
"It's where he could come and be himself," says cousin Dale. "It was a refuge for him and is still a tribute to him. His soul lives within these walls."
In an exclusive interview, ESPN's Shelley Smith sits down with a close friend of Junior Seau to recount the NFL star's disturbing downward spiral.