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SEAU'S PLAY DELAYS RETIREMENT THOUGHTS

Retirement arrived at a perfect time in Junior Seau's life.

His body was battered and weary. His motivation for the game was lacking. After 16 seasons in the NFL, Seau needed the solace he discovered on a surfboard in the rolling waters of the Pacific Ocean.

All in all, it was among the best four days of his life.

Funny how much better your world can seem once you step away from it. Two years ago, Seau could not see the point of continuing with his career. He had missed large chunks of the previous two seasons with injuries. He had gone 10 years without making the postseason.

He could have scrounged around for a roster spot, but it seemed pointless and degrading. So Seau chose to walk away. To begin the journey from active player to Hall of Fame icon.

Thus, on Aug.15, 2006, Tiaina Baul Seau retired.

And, on Aug.19, 2006, he made a comeback.

"It was easy," Seau said Tuesday. "When Bill Belichick calls and says he has a position for you, then you know you've got something pretty special. I had to take that chance."

This is how a fairy tale gets written. With twists and surprises. With a quest in the distance, and a hero riding fast. This is how, after 18 years and 257 games, Seau has a chance to win his first Super Bowl.

It is an amazing opportunity for an amazing player. A 12-time Pro Bowl selection, Seau will go down as one of the greatest linebackers to have chased a quarterback or leveled a receiver.

Not that long ago, Seau had come to grips with the idea that a Lombardi Trophy would never pass through his hands. Like Dan Marino, like Fran Tarkenton, like Bruce Smith, he would have a bust in Canton and more than 15 years of highlights, but no Super Bowl memory worth preserving in the scrapbook of his mind.

His career, he decided, would be defined by a legacy instead of a ring.

And, truth be told, that would have been enough.

"He doesn't need a Super Bowl. What he has done, speaks for itself," said safety Rodney Harrison, who has played with Seau in San Diego and New England. "Just what he meant in my life and other young guys around the league, that's something you cherish and hold near to your heart.

"I don't think he needs a Super Bowl, but there's nothing wrong with having it. It'll just put that final stamp of approval on an already successful career."

Belichick was not interested in Seau as some ceremonial star. Not as a leader in the locker room with no real role on the field. When Seau returned in 2006, he was a starting inside linebacker and was second on the team in tackles when he broke his arm against the Bears in November.

Once again, he had a chance to call it quits.

Once again, Belichick offered him a job.

"He has earned a tremendous amount of respect on our football team," Belichick said. "The fact he was elected captain this year when it was only his second year on the team is a bit unusual. The way the voting went was also unusual in that he had the exact same number of votes from offensive and defensive players. But if you know Junior, it isn't really surprising."

At 39, Seau is not the player he was in his prime with San Diego. He's certainly not as quick but, he jokes, he does take better angles. There's a lot of that self deprecation in Junior Seau today. He knows what it means to be the best at his position, and he no longer needs that kind of praise.

When he arrived at the University of Phoenix Stadium for media day on Tuesday, he strained to step up to the podium and complained that they should provide step stools for old men.

Among linebackers, only Clay Matthews has ever started more games in the NFL. And no defensive player has ever reached the Super Bowl at Seau's age.

"Whenever you get to a point where people are recognizing you for longevity, it's definitely a compliment. In my eyes, it is. A lot of people would look at it like you were calling them old. Hey, I am old," Seau said. "To be able to play with guys who were 4 years old when I was a rookie, that's pretty special."

Before nearly every game, Seau talks in the locker room. He can be loud, he can be poignant, he can be funny. But he almost always brings the message home that the Patriots have something special in front of them.

"I've told the guys that you decide what category you're going to fit in. There's a good category. And there's a great category. Those categories you can always dispute whether there was somebody better," Seau said. "But there's also a category where you stand by yourself. Where nobody can argue what it means. That's the category of ever. We have a chance for that."

Seau should know.

Because, from here, his career looks that way.

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