Saturday, August 18, 2012

SDSU's Samoan players felt strong brotherhood with Seau

Star linebacker had tremendous influence on Oceanside products

It was the opportunity of a lifetime and Rene Siluano knew it.

How many times does an eighth-grader playing Pop Warner football get to work out with an NFL icon?

Try almost never, which is why Siluano got up at the ungodly hour of 3:30 a.m. to train at a 24-Hour Fitness Center in Oceanside with his uncle, Mike Taele, and his famous friend, Junior Seau. The kid even had a cast on his arm at the time, but he didn’t care.

Now a junior safety at San Diego State, Siluano soon would be playing football at Oceanside High School, and there was no bigger legend on campus than Seau, the Pirates’ football and basketball star who rose to NFL stardom with the Chargers and played in Super Bowls for San Diego and New England.

They would work sometimes for three hours in the gym, and Siluano experienced the powerful personality and the seemingly endless passion of Seau, who was playing for the Miami Dolphins at the time.

“He was a good motivator and a great man,” Siluano recalled after a recent Aztecs fall practice. “I learned a lot from him about work ethic and pushing through the pain … the things that help you in football, and in life as well.

“He just taught me how to have that drive. He knew I was a small person. He said, ‘Don’t let nobody put you down. You’ve got a hard work ethic.’ I’ll never forget when he told me that. That’s when I kicked it into fifth gear and never stopped.”

Like the rest of the tight-knit Samoan community in Oceanside, as well as the rest of the country, Siluano was shocked and saddened when the 43-year-old Seau took his own life with a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest on May 2.

Siluano was in school at the time, so he couldn’t attend any of the public gatherings honoring Seau, but on the Oceanside strand of beach where Seau lived, Siluano went on his own one day and stood in the water to remember the man.

“It was just a sad time,” Siluano said. “He’s a community idol and a role model who kids wanted to be like.”

Seau played his college football at USC, but right now his legacy is being felt more at San Diego State than any other college in the country. There are five former Oceanside High players on the Aztecs roster, and Seau’s nephew, Micah Seau, is a true freshman linebacker who lived in Spring Valley and played at Bishop’s.

It may not be long before another Seau is blowing past blockers to make tackles at Qualcomm Stadium.

When Junior Seau died, the Aztecs players reached out to support Micah, whom they had come to know during spring practices. Because Micah Seau is a freshman, Aztecs head coach Rocky Long will not allow him to speak to the media.

Said Siluano, “From looking from the outside, it looks like he’s handling it well. You never know how someone is truly feeling. But all we can do is be supportive of him and give him a helping hand when he needs it. I’ll always be there for him.

Playing alongside Siluano at SDSU is the Oceanside friend he has known since Pop Warner. Sophomore middle linebacker Jake Fely is one of the few returning starters on San Diego State’s defense, and though he didn’t personally know Junior Seau, the influence was inescapable. Fely has loved being a linebacker for as long as he can remember.

“I watched a game when he played against the Chiefs at home,” Fely recalled. “He hit somebody pretty good and his helmet came off. It was an eye-opener. That was Junior Seau.”

Fely and Siluano figure to be on the field the same time a lot during the upcoming season. Each is generously listed at 5-feet-10, and each is considered undersized for his position. But they make up for it with speed, high energy and ferocity.

When bodies in black jerseys are flying around on the field, distinguishing between the two can be a challenge. Each has long, black hair that flows from their helmets when they run. In that, they are more influenced by Troy Polamalu than Seau. Fely said he hasn’t cut his hair significantly since he was 6 years old; Siluano started growing his long in the eighth grade.

“I’m going to grow it until my mom says to cut it or a job requires it,” Siluano said with a smile.

The hair is one more representation of their islander culture, where tradition and family are paramount. That sense of togetherness likely motivated a famous linebacker to share his time with a kid he barely knew.

“I love my community. I love where I come from,” Siluano said. “In a small culture, family ties are everything. Everybody loves their family, but there’s an X-factor (for Samoans). There’s an extra tie to your family that makes the bond stronger, a brotherhood that cannot be broken.”

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