It was 25 years ago when, as recent high school graduates, the pair lived and trained together for two weeks at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot while practicing to play on a San Diego All-Star football team against the best from Los Angeles.
Today, a quarter-century later, sports fans around the world are still stunned after Seau took his own life May 2, leaving many to speculate whether his nearly 20-year pro football career may have resulted in brain injuries leading to depression.
Hastings, who has been Point Loma High School’s head football coach since 1998, said “I was very saddened to hear of his passing. He was a fine guy who I learned a lot from.”
Asked to recall his memories of their first meeting, Hastings said, “He made us all better [players]. (Seau) showed me, a guy who had pretty good skills but could get a lot better, how to play the game at its highest level. Junior Seau’s energy and enthusiasm for the game were contagious. He sure helped me become a better player.”
Looking back at those early days of their friendship, Hastings also gives Seau credit for their All-Star team’s performance in 1987, as the San Diegans took a 19-0 lead before winning 26-19 at the former Aztec Bowl on the San Diego State University campus before an estimated 7,200 fans.
Hastings, who wore jersey No. 73, was a 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound defensive lineman planning to continue his playing career at Cal Poly after graduating from what was then University High School as a second team All-CIF player.
Seau, in jersey No. 11, was already well on his way to becoming a legend in local sports history. At 6 feet 3 inches, 230 pounds, Seau had led Oceanside High School to the county 2A football championship, playing quarterback, tight end and linebacker, as needed. Parade Magazine selected Seau to its All-American team.
He was also the CIF Player of the Year in basketball and Avocado League champion in the shot put.
In addition, he was on his way to play in one of the nation’s top football programs at the University of Southern California.
But it wasn’t Seau’s emerging status and fame that struck Hastings when the All-Star team first assembled.
“Our coach, Herb Meyer, got us all together and told us to leave our press clippings at the door, that we were all the same now,” Hastings recalled, “and Junior treated us all that way, even though he was head and shoulders above all of us.”
Seau quickly emerged as a team leader.
“We had a lot of good players on that team,” Hastings said.
The roster included big names like Tommy Booker (Vista High), Ray Rowe (Mira Mesa High) and Tommy Vardell (Granite Hills), the latter of whom went on to an eight-year NFL career as a running back after starring at Stanford University.
“But Junior led us,” Hastings said. “He didn’t just give us lip service, but he actually showed us how to do things correctly.”
Seau was, as Hastings notes, a person who led by example, outworking others and encouraging them to be better. And he remembers that Seau didn’t tolerate any horseplay by their peers.
“At night, when they said, ‘Lights out,’ he didn’t mess around. If somebody said a word, Junior got up and told them straight up, ‘You’d better shut up or you’re going to get some business from me.’ And they did. Nobody ever tested Junior Seau.”
When game night came, “Junior played tight end, outside linebacker, quarterback and even fullback when he was needed,” Hastings said. “He helped us win that game with a tenacious effort, and we all played at Junior’s level. He challenged us to, and with a lot of love and passion he made us all better.”
Hastings was credited with a first-quarter fumble recovery he believes Seau caused with a hard hit.
Since that game, Hastings said Seau always remembered him, stopping to exchange greetings and share conversations.
“I was always proud of what Junior did,” said Hastings. “May God rest his soul.”
MORE IN MEMORIUM
• Perhaps some insight into Seau’s motivation can be gained from an interview with Sports Illustrated many years ago. He revealed: “There’s a lot of jealousy among Samoans, not wanting others to get ahead in life.” After scoring a 690 on the SAT exam (10 points below USC’s minimum for recruits), Seau sat out his freshman year. “I was labeled a dumb jock. I found out who my true friends were,” he said during the interview. “Nobody stuck up for me, not our relatives, best friends or neighbors.” As a result, Seau apologized to his teachers, coaches and the principal at Oceanside High.
• Seau played only his sophomore and junior years at USC, being named a unanimous All-American before being drafted fifth overall by the Chargers.
• Some of Seau’s greatest honors were his election to 12 consecutive Pro Bowls, the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team and the Chargers’ 50th Anniversary Team.