FOXBORO, Mass. — Matthew Slater got a rare opportunity to get some snaps at safety against the Cardinals during his rookie season in 2008, and as he jogged backed to the huddle, he looked up and had a "wow" moment as he realized he was listening to Junior Seau give some defensive orders.
Slater had plenty of superstar teammates that season, but none like Seau, who actually played against Slater's father back in the day. Seau impacted an incalculable amount of teammates during his 20 years of NFL service, and that type of moment with Slater was just part of it.
"Growing up in Southern California, Junior Seau was a legend," said Slater, who learned of Seau's death when his father called him Wednesday. "I grew up idolizing Junior, and then having a chance to play with him for two years and seeing how he was off the field, the type of man he was, he was a leader that was second to none. And it's really just a surprise and a shock, but he touched so many lives just by the person that he was."
It says so much about Seau, a future Hall of Famer, that so many people have spoken more about the person he was off the field than his performance on it. That's a serious accomplishment, and it caused Patriots owner Robert Kraft to make an impromptu appearance Thursday to relay his affection for Seau.
One of the Patriots' other great figureheads, quarterback Tom Brady, released a statement about Seau.
"Junior Seau was a great teammate and even better friend," Brady said. "His legacy will live on, and the memories of his time here with us will never be forgotten. We love you 'buddy.'"
Seau spent the final four years of his career with the Patriots, and he played through the team's major transition on defense. As such, he served a huge role of bringing along the younger players, including linebackers Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich.
"I was shocked and deeply saddened when I heard the news about Junior," Mayo said. "I spent my first two years in the NFL with him. He was so approachable and welcoming, and really worked with me to help me to adjust to life in the NFL. He was a true mentor and teammate. He had a legendary NFL career and had a passion for the game that I try to emulate. This is a sad day for me. My thoughts and prayers are with him, his family and his many friends."
Ninkovich echoed the sentiment.
"I grew up watching Junior Seau play linebacker," Ninkovich said. "He defined the position, and I try to emulate my play on the field after his. It was an honor to play with an NFL legend. 2009 was my first year with the Patriots, and when Junior came in, our lockers were right next to each other. As a veteran, he shared valuable advice with me and was a true teammate. I am deeply saddened by the loss and my thoughts and prayers go out to his family."