They sat in the corner, the far back right from the presenter’s stage, their table distinguished from the other 100 or so here only by the Polynesian dress of some of those in the seats.
This is the gold jacket dinner, always one of the coolest parts of Pro Football Hall of Fame induction weekend. One hundred and two inductees showed up, all of them wearing their custom tailored jackets, here to welcome a new class.
This is the unofficial start of the sport’s biggest celebration other than the Super Bowl. Even men who’ve been in and around the league for decades get chills during this event.
In that back corner, they’re getting a lot more than chills. Junior Seau’s family is back there. His parents. His children. They are suing the NFL for hiding the impact of hits to the head, and there is not a minute that goes by without them thinking of how and why Seau is not here by their side.
This is Seau’s induction weekend, but of course it has become much more than that. The former star linebacker killed himself with gunshots to the chest three years ago, and doctors found markers of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in his brain.
So much of what’s followed has been inevitable, uncomfortable and ugly awkwardness. Sydney Seau wanted to give the speech her father would’ve given, and said she was originally told that she could speak at Saturday’s ceremony.
Then, family members were told they could not say anything, the league citing policy created for situations much different and simpler than this. More recently, there have been indications that Sydney can answer approved questions after the ceremony, but the whole situation remains an inescapable cloud over one of the NFL’s proudest parties.
At the gold jacket dinner, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is introduced. Four thousand people are in this auditorium, and they’ve been primed to convey energy for a national television audience. Goodell receives polite applause from most of them. The Seaus’ table is silent.
Later, when Sydney is introduced on her father’s behalf, she is met with a standing ovation.
More than ever before, the fear and affects of CTE are real and part of the shared experience of NFL players and their families.
The encroachment of tragedy on celebration has a larger symbolism, of course. This is the NFL’s new normal.
The day before Goodell was introduced at the gold jacket ceremony as a man of integrity, it was revealed that he — let’s be generous — misrepresented Tom Brady’s testimony in explaining why a suspension would be upheld. The space between promotion of the sport and manipulation of the facts is shrinking and becoming harder to navigate.
At the ceremony, a video played for each inductee. When Seau’s began, his mother broke down in emotion, grabbing Seau’s oldest son with both hands and burying her face in his chest.
It was hard not to notice that all of Seaus’ tackles chosen for the highlights were fundamentally perfect — heads-up tackling, in the parlance of the NFL’s safety jargon. That almost certainly was a deliberate choice. Charles Haley’s video, for example, was filled with the sort of helmet-to-helmet hits that Seau often delivered and which were admired in that simpler and less informed time.
Those who knew Seau remain moved by his kindness, and spirit. He loved football in a way that was obvious to anyone who saw him play. There are good and bad parts of the sport, of course, but his friends know he cherished his opportunity to compete. That he isn’t here to deliver that message in person is hard to take.
“There’s a void,” says Dan Fouts, the Hall of Fame quarterback who got to know Seau through their connection with the Chargers. “It’s sad. Tragic. But we’re here to celebrate his career. But, still, it’s sad.”
Seau was a defining player, and personality, for the NFL. No defender has played more than Seau’s 20 years. He was a fierce and relentless middle linebacker playing for his hometown Chargers. The apex came in 1994, when he carried an otherwise nondescript team to the Super Bowl.
He had such an infectious energy that, no offense to the other inductees, he almost certainly would’ve been the dominant personality here this weekend. The image of Seau making a big tackle — then celebrating with a fist pump that seemed to make him swell by half — is one that Hall of Famers are talking and smiling about here.
Induction weekend is about celebrating the past, but Seau’s honor is one more mile marker because you cannot think of his on-field glory without also thinking of the problems that led to his death.
The NFL has been justifiably blasted over the years for many things, including its slow acknowledgment and slower efforts to address the connection between football and head injuries. But in this very narrow context, it’s hard to criticize the league or the Hall of Fame too harshly for how it recognizes Seau’s tragedy this weekend.
The situation was bumbled in the beginning, but assuming Sydney is allowed to speak, the end result is palatable. Besides, this is supposed to be a celebration, not another trial.
But that assumes the ceremony is handled with class. And it has become hard to give the NFL the benefit of the doubt on things like this. The league’s treatment of Seau has been OK so far, but it will be closely watched on Saturday — and not just by fans and media.
“It’s not over yet,” Fouts says. “So I’ll just wait. I want to see how they handle it.”
The Seau family left the gold jacket dinner early. This is not completely uncommon. It’s a long event, and at some point, people have other things to do.
Steve Young also left a bit early. He walked out into the cool night with his wife, smiling and joking with old friends. Eddie DeBartolo was there, and Young laughed upon hearing his picture is prominently displayed in DeBartolo’s home gym.
The mood around the Seaus was much more somber. They accepted well wishes from a few friends, but the difference was stark. Young looked like a man who left one party and was headed for another. The Seaus were grieving, and understandably so.
There is no good way for the league and the Hall of Fame to do this. Seau’s highlight video quickly acknowledged his death — “life tragically ended,” the narrator said — before moving on. But, really, most of the official treatment is irrelevant. Seau’s death, and all that it says and represents about the sport everyone celebrates this weekend, is never far from the mind.
In the cool air behind the security barriers after the gold jacket dinner, the Seau family stood together and waited for a ride. They were mostly silent. After about 10 minutes, a white transport van pulled up and a man nodded their way.
The family got in, and the van drove away into the night.