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What Junior Seau's life and death mean to this generation of Polynesians

Junior Seau inspired hundreds of young players on the Pacific Islands to try and make it through football.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Junior Seau's death complicated his legacy, especially for a generation too young to have seen his prime. Ask a high school senior, even one who grew up in American Samoa, what he can recall of Seau's prime, and you'll get a lot of uhhs and umms.

And that makes sense. A 17- or 18-year-old today was born half a decade after Seau won Defensive Player of the Year. He would not have seen Seau lead the Chargers on an improbable run to the 1995 Super Bowl, and would be lucky to be alive for two of Seau's eight first-team All-Pro seasons.

But Seau is more than his accolades, his demons or the man that only his family can truly speak to. Ask that same Samoan high schooler, a three-star prospect potentially headed to the mainland on a scholarship, whether he would be in this situation without Seau, and there's no hesitation.

"As far as football -- we still have Troy [Polamalu], Rey Maualuga, those guys, Manti Te'o and them -- but Junior Seau, he set the bar for us Polynesians, that anybody can make it," says Jeremiah Pritchard, a linebacker now playing in Honolulu. "Without him, I don't think the bar would be that high."

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Most of Pritchard's direct knowledge of Seau comes from Madden video games and occasional ESPN clips from when he was really little. Everything else he knows he learned from another generation.

"My dad would tell me things about Junior Seau," Pritchard says. "He'd say 'Junior Seau, he's athletic. He can run, he can stop passes, he's a hard hitter.' That's one of the main things my dad said, Junior Seau is a very hard hitter. I took that in, I went out, and my mentality as a linebacker was just hit really hard."

If it hadn't been Pritchard's father passing along stories, it could have been a coach, or an uncle in the case of Juliano Falaniko, a safety from Pago Pago with offers from Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona and Ole Miss among others. Falaniko's uncle played with Seau at Oceanside High School just north of San Diego. He taught his nephew that though Seau was a vicious player on the field, he was level-headed in all other ways.

Without having seen Seau play, Falaniko took that lesson to heart. His reverence for Seau is transitive but strong.

"I always looked up to Samoans playing in the NFL, like Troy Polamalu, Rey Maualuga," Falaniko says. "I know he was a big influence on them, so since they looked up to him, I also look up to Seau.

"Though he wasn't the first Samoan in the NFL, he was the first great Samoan who showed us that if he can make it that any of us Samoans can make it."

Seau was massively popular in the Pacific Islands during his prime. Keiki Misipeka was roughly 14 years old at the time, and remembers when Samoan kids only wanted to wear Seau's number. They wanted to play like him and be like him -- get a scholarship, play in the NFL, become a star.

Football's influence in Polynesia grew.

"If it could be, American football would be our national sport," Misipeka says. "To this day, we continue to do whatever with limited resources -- and I guess that's what makes it more meaningful is that Junior Seau, coming from American Samoa, and us growing up there with the limited resources that we have and with the success story that he has, it gives every kid growing up in American Samoa hope."

Misipeka is the player development officer at Pasefika International Sports Alliance, an organization that helps Polynesian athletes find college scholarships. This year, his organization has helped 16 kids earn offers from four-year or two-year institutions. That's an extraordinary number given the state of high school football when Misipeka played.

"We were very lucky to have one college coach visit Samoa 20 years ago," Mispeka says. "I remember the University of Arizona visited American Samoa once because of the success Joe Salavea had. That was one D-I college coach during my four years in high school."

Today, there are more than 70 players of Polynesian descent in the NFL, 30 of which come from American Samoa alone. A record five Polynesian players were selected within the first 66 picks of the 2015 NFL Draft -- Marcus Mariota (No. 2 overall), Danny Shelton (No. 12), Hau'oli Kikaha (No. 44), Nate Orchard (No. 51) and Jeremiah Poutasi (No. 66). American Samoa has an estimated population of 57,000 people. By Forbes' estimation, that means that Samoans are 56 times more likely to play in the NFL than people from the rest of the United States.

The Samoan "boom," such as it is, can be traced back to a time when Seau's greatness consumed the island.

"I would see a lot of Seau jerseys roaming around, and a lot of kids back in Samoa, when they wanted to play linebacker or throw on a jersey, they always wanted No. 55," Misipeka laughs. "They always wanted to wear No. 55 because they already knew what No. 55 meant to the Samoa community. Wearing that jersey in the Samoan community meant a lot."

Seau had been named to a fourth consecutive Pro Bowl when the Chargers made the 1995 Super Bowl, making that season the height of a storied career. A loss to the 49ers didn't remove any of his luster -- the Chargers were underdogs anyway. The important thing to Samoans was that Seau was there.

"That's something that I still remember clearly," Misipeka says. "And being able to see him play in the biggest game in the NFL, that's a huge accomplishment for any athlete. But it meant a lot to me. It meant a lot to me being Samoan, and him being able to do that coming from a tiny island, that inspired me to want to pursue football, that inspired me to want to continue to help Polynesian athletes."

Football has been ubiquitous for so long in the United States that every region can't possibly fawn over every one of its heroes. Samoa certainly doesn't need to any more, with so many islanders having found success in the NFL. But Seau was a novelty then, and so the island stopped and watched and became inspired. Pritchard describes Seau as a Samoan icon, comparable to Michael Jordan in Chicago or LeBron James in Cleveland.

And on the day Seau died, Samoa stopped once again and mourned. Misipeka recalls signs and posters going up around the island in tribute. Pritchard heard the news from his parents in the morning -- "Junior Seau has passed" -- and says his father was in shock. Falaniko called it "one of the saddest days."

Reno Mahe, a former BYU and Philadelphia Eagles running back of Tongan descent, echoed Pritchard and Falaniko, telling the Deseret News that whatever the circumstances of Seau's death, the linebacker would always be looked up to as a guy who "made it."

"He had talent, worked hard and made the best of all his opportunity," Mahe said. "It's sad to think about how young he was and what led to this, but I'm gonna just focus and think about all the great things he did while he was here: the example on the field and the smile that he always had."

An example, too, because the way that Seau carried himself was distinctly Polynesian. "Humble" says Falaniko. "Loving" says Pritchard. "Warrior-like" says Misipeka. Stories of Seau's generosity are easy to find, from the time he serenaded a Marine and picked up his bar tab, to his long history of charitable efforts, to his mentorship of young players in American Samoa.

Then when Seau lined up, he became something else.

"So he puts on his helmet, his shoulder pads and he steps on that field, it's just a different animal." Misipeka says. "It's a different beast, and you know you come out there and you know it's every hit, every tackle, just his style and nature of play -- every Samoan athlete can relate to that, relate to that style of play, relate to that warrior-like mentality."