The Patriots placed 17-year veteran linebacker Junior Seau on injured reserve on Monday, effectively ending his 2006 season.
The hit was so gruesome that some news channels wouldn't show it after the game. The scene was of Seau in hot pursuit of Bears running back Cedric Benson. Both of them were in the backfield, as Seau had some penetration on the play. Seau went in for the tackle like he always does – full throttle. Benson, heading away from Seau, stepped out of Seau's grasp so that Seau's arm slipped underneath the running back's right foot and ended up wedged between his chest and the back of Benson's right ankle. Seau crashed into the back of Benson's right ankle as it came back down to Earth. What ensued was at once disturbing and heartbreaking, though Seau finished the play, tackling Benson for no gain.
If you want an idea of what it was like, put your right hand on your chest like you're reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Raise your right elbow out in front of you and imagine falling on a brick without being able to lower your elbow.
Now Seau was on the ground, clutching at a rubbery right forearm, and in obvious agony. He left the field on his own two feet, and left the stadium a short while later, tears in his eyes and his arm in an inflatable splint. He tapped his chest with his good arm and waved to the crowd. Sorrow, disappointment, heartache and pride were alive in his face.
He knew what fans would find out on Monday: His season's over. Perhaps his career has come to a close too. Though it would be hard to argue that the 37-year-old doesn't still have some gas left in his tank. He played in all 11 of the Patriots regular season matchups this year, and started in 10 of them including Sunday's game against the Bears. Seau had retired after being released by the Dolphins this offseason, calling it his "graduation," but returned to the game only three days later when he signed with the Patriots. He led the team in tackles twice this season and recorded a season-high 15 tackles in the Patriots hard-fought loss to the Jets earlier this month. His 70 tackles this season ranks fourth on the team, and his 1,794 career tackles totally blows everyone else on the team out of the water.
Seau has been in the league so long that fellow linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said earlier this season that he could remember playing as Seau in Techmo Bowl on the original 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Colvin was an 11-year-old boy when Seau entered the NFL out of the University of Southern California in 1990.
He's played in 241 career games with 237 starts for the Chargers, Dolphins and Patriots during a career that will undoubtedly warrant him a selection to the Hall of Fame whenever he does decided to retire. He was selected to 12 consecutive Pro Bowls, and was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame's All-Decade Team of the 1990s.
In the Patriots locker room, his venerable thoughts and opinions seemed equally cherished and respected by fellow Patriots and media members alike.
So what coach Bill Belichick said in his Monday press conference should come as no surprise - that Seau delivered a heartening speech to the team before Sunday's win over the seemingly invincible Chicago Bears.
"Junior was, he was real good," said Belichick on Monday. "Our system, even though he worked a little bit in it in Miami last year, it was a little bit different than anything else he's played in. That was an adjustment for him. He worked very hard to kind of change his style of play a little bit to fit what we do. Has a lot of leadership. It was kind of ironic, last night before the game he gave a very emotional speech to the team before we went out on the field. That's the kind of guy he is, very unselfish, team oriented. Really works hard at the game, you know, is here early, stays late, wants to take every rep in practice. He was a guy that I really enjoyed coaching. He really loves football and I have a lot of respect for him and it's unfortunate that his season ended last night."
The linebacking corps showed a bit of a different look after Seau left the game. Mike Vrabel stepped inside next to Tedy Bruschi, leaving his usual left outside spot. Colvin shifted over to that left outside linebacker spot, while Tully Banta-Cain filled in for Colvin at the right outside spot. It was a look that Belichick said the team's been practicing since training camp before Seau arrived.
Seau will certainly be sorely missed by the Patritos, but linebackers like Don Davis, who made a great fourth-down stop in the season opener;Eric Alexander, who's been active for every game this season and rookie Pierre Woods are all in line to provide the team with depth.
The Patriots will be alright, as they always are. They'll find a way as they always do. And they'll keep fighting without Seau.
With luck, Seau's words, which motivated the Pats to beat the Bears will still be available to his teammates. But perhaps more eerie than his pregame speech were his words in the week leading up to the Packers game.
"I look forward just to play," said Seau on Nov. 16 in anticipation of playing on the storied grounds of Lambeau Field. "Every day's a challenge and every game is a blessing."