By David Leon Moore and Erik Brady, USA TODAY
OCEANSIDE, Calif. - Junior Seau's last days were filled with friends and flirting, beaches and bar-hopping, lifting weights and lifting spirits. His nights were another story.
Hours after Seau's suicide, his 11-year-old son, Hunter, told his mother, Seau's ex-wife Gina, what he'd seen while staying with his father a month earlier. Hunter got up about 3 a.m. to let out Rock, a pit bull-mastiff mix. His father's bedroom light was on, so Hunter peeked in, as Gina relates his tale.
There was his dad, sitting up on his bed, wide awake, staring at the TV. But the TV wasn't on. He wasn't reading. He wasn't writing. He was just staring.
"Dad, are you OK?" Hunter asked.
"Yes, son," Seau said. "I'm fine."
He wasn't. Seau's friends and family say he'd had trouble sleeping for years and often took powerful sleep aids, and not always as directed.
On Saturday, it will be one month since the former all-pro linebacker died at 43. Authorities say he shot himself in the chest with a .357-caliber Magnum revolver on the morning of May 2 at his home. USA TODAY Sports talked to more than 50 of Seau's friends, family members, neighbors and former teammates who are trying to reconcile his terrible end with what seemed a charmed life.
Nationally, speculation has centered on head blows and multiple concussions and how they can lead to depression and debilitating pain in the lives of former players - even if, like Seau, who played 20 NFL seasons, they never reported a concussion. Sleep disorders also are common among people who have experienced traumatic brain injury, University of North Carolina concussion researcher Kevin Guskiewicz says.
Friends say Seau had insomnia, and at least four of them say he often took Ambien. That's the best-known brand name for zolpidem, a prescription drug commonly prescribed for sleep disorders. Jack Cox, a spokesman for Sanofi, Ambien's maker, says 95% of zolpidem sold in the USA is generic.
The FDA-approved prescribing information for Ambien warns that suicidal thoughts or actions have been reported by depressed patients using this class of drugs. The information also instructs users not to take it if they drink, which friends say Seau did, and also if they cannot get a full night's sleep while taking it.
"He told me he usually woke up around 1 or 2 and couldn't go back to sleep," says Nancy Emsley, who often worked out with Seau at a local gym. She said she lectured Seau that he needed to sleep for eight hours after taking one.
"He just rolled his eyes," she says.
Seau's sleeplessness goes back at least seven years. Mark Walczak, who played with Seau on the San Diego Chargers in the early 1990s, says he witnessed Seau using a prescription sleep aid on a visit to Miami in September 2005 when Seau played for the Dolphins.
"I know he's had a very difficult time sleeping over the years," Walczak says of Seau, who retired after the 2009 season. "I think it's gotten worse and worse. Lack of sleep creates huge anxiety."
On the last weekend of Seau's life, Walczak visited him in Oceanside to celebrate Walczak's 50th birthday. Another visitor that weekend, and through the last days of Seau's life, was Megan Noderer, who had been Seau's on-again, off-again girlfriend for at least five months. It was Noderer who made the frantic 911 call from Seau's house.
Noderer, who told Gina Seau and Walczak she had been with Seau the last night and morning of his life, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Seau, who was among the most highly regarded players in NFL history, grew up in Oceanside - a gritty, diverse beach town about 35 miles north of San Diego - and that made him a homegrown hero to Chargers fans. He lived in a $3.2 million beachfront house on The Strand, a narrow street hugging the Pacific Ocean.
Seau's last days offer a look at a big, beloved and beleaguered man: Who he was, what he loved to do, who loved him, how he lived and, maybe, some clues as to why he died on that Wednesday.
Sunday, April 29
Seau regularly traveled about a dozen blocks from his home to work out in the small, nondescript gym on Mission Avenue that is sandwiched by a wig store and a burger joint. In big, block letters above a plate-glass window are the words: THE GYM.
Seau was a regular who mixed easily with The Gym's other gym rats, and they came to see Seau as a gregarious, fun-loving and inspirational workout buddy more than as a former NFL star and San Diego's favorite son.
"I feel like our little gym group was a very different part of Junior's life," says Emsley, a software consultant. "He wasn't a superstar to us. He was just a good guy, a normal guy."
Emsley and others at The Gym say Seau didn't seem to have a care in the world. On that Sunday before, Seau showed up at The Gym for a memorial service for Marty Miller, a postal carrier and weightlifter who had died of cancer. Seau delivered a eulogy with an uplifting message about loving life and making a difference.
Most of the regulars at The Gym were there, including David Mitchell, 31, the owner and personal trainer who looked up to Seau as a big brother; Brian Vujnovich, 41, a dental equipment salesman who leaned on Seau during his divorce; and Emsley, 46, who says she was never romantically involved with Seau but got very close to him.
Walczak, Seau's longtime friend, was visiting from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he owns a real estate company. After the midday memorial, Seau and Walczak went out to lunch in nearby Carlsbad. Just then, Walczak says, a woman with striking red hair came in with Seau's wallet; he'd forgotten it at home, a typical lapse. Seau called her "Red." It was Noderer.
"He described her as a girl he knows, a friend of his," Walczak says. "She lives in Dallas. She was coming here to do some business in L.A. and she was staying with Junior for a few days. It seemed to me a mutual, relaxed relationship."
Seau and Walczak moved on to O'Sullivan's Irish Pub, where they were joined by some bar regulars for beers on an outside patio.
By the time they reached Hunter Steakhouse in Oceanside, the group had grown to include three women and another friend of Seau's. Two of the women eventually left the table, but the third stayed at Seau's side.
This was not unusual for Seau.
"It was no secret that he had a lot of women, and that was probably his weakness," Emsley says. "He was not shy about it, and the women he was involved with all knew it. That was him. We all knew that, we loved him and accepted that."
Walczak left about 9 p.m. and headed back to Seau's house to pack for an overnight drive home to Arizona. Walczak found Noderer on the couch watching The Apprentice on TV.
"I was thinking Junior would show up any minute," Walczak says. "When he didn't, I texted him and said, 'OK, buddy, I gotta go. I wanted to see you before I left, but I gotta hit the road.' It was about 10:30, and that was it."
Monday, April 30
Seau was up in the morning and headed north on I-5 to Dana Point, where he put on his public face to play in a celebrity golf tournament co-hosted by former NFL star receiver Tim Brown.
One of Seau's playing partners was Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, who later said that Seau seemed "lively" that day and was just crushing the ball off the tee.
Almost everybody who had seen him in situations like these over the years - whether it was former NFL or University of Southern California teammates or Oceanside community leaders - says the same thing: Junior seemed great.
"There was just no indication of any problem," says Hall of Fame offensive lineman Anthony Munoz, who saw Seau in mid-April at the USC spring football game. "It was the same old Junior I've known all these years."
Beneath Seau's happy-face front, there were issues that could have been weighing on him. In financial statements covering 2009 that he submitted during court hearings that year to adjust child-support payments, Seau claimed a $78,168 loss on his San Diego restaurant, Seau's, which closed its doors shortly after his death. He also claimed a loss of more than $300,000 on an investment in a Ruby Tuesday restaurant that closed a year later after a name change.
Seau apparently paid cash for his $3.2 million Oceanside home in 2005 because there is no lien. He took out a loan of $1.2 million against the value of the house in 2011.
Gina and Junior Seau divorced in 2002. She said in papers for the 2009 child-support hearing that Seau was a gambler who lived extravagantly. But these days, Gina is quick to point out her ex-husband never missed a payment. She says Seau initiated the hearing, typical for highly paid athletes when they retire. A judge ruled that Seau's income had significantly decreased and reduced his monthly obligation from $17,500 to $7,974.
D.J. Kot, a casino host at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, sat on Seau's foundation board, and Caesars donated $5,000 to a foundation scholarship fund last year. Asked if Seau was a valued Caesars customer, Kot says, "No, I wouldn't say that. We don't talk about that anyway. There is nothing I could tell you about that."
In October 2010, Seau was arrested for domestic abuse alleged by a then-girlfriend. Charges were not filed, but less than nine hours after his arrest, he drove his SUV off a 90-foot bluff in Carlsbad. Former teammate Gary Plummer is among those who wonder if that was a first suicide attempt.
But Emsley says, "He told me he fell asleep, and I believed him."
Gina Seau says she and her children "took care of Junior after that incident. ... He couldn't sleep after that. ... We ended up talking all night. It was actually great."
Tuesday, May 1
Seau and Noderer came to The Gym early with a bag of breakfast burritos.
"We were all shocked to see Red," Mitchell says, because he and the other gym regulars remembered hearing they'd broken up weeks earlier.
Noderer was a little different among Seau's girlfriends, the gym crowd thought - older than most, in her mid-30s and not the cheerleader or model type he favored. She told Emsley months ago that she knew about Seau's past with women because Seau was a friend of her brother, through whom they met.
Mitchell says Seau had a routine for ending relationships. He'd invite a woman to a crowded restaurant or bar with other friends for what Seau called "break-up parties." A suddenly former girlfriend would be "mad or sad" at first, Mitchell says. "Then he would buy her lunch or a drink, and by the end of the breakup they'd be laughing and talking about the good times."
Mitchell says he declined an invitation to a break-up party for Noderer in early April: "No, Junior, I don't want to be a part of your drama today."
Seau and Noderer passed out the burritos that Tuesday to a group that included Mitchell and his girlfriend, Crystal Nath. As Seau and Noderer were leaving, Mitchell recalls saying, " 'Oh, dude, you're not working out?' He said, 'I'll be back later today.' That was the last time I saw him."
Gina Seau says she has spoken to Noderer since Seau's death and that Noderer said she and Seau spent a quiet evening at his house that night, eating dinner in and watching a Los Angeles Lakers playoff game on TV.
Wednesday, May 2
The 911 call came about 9:30 a.m. Noderer seemed to hyperventilate as she told dispatchers that she had found Seau shot in a bedroom.
Police, paramedics and two lifeguards from the beach responded, but Seau could not be revived. He was on the floor on his back, dead of a gunshot wound to his chest. A .357 Magnum revolver was on the bed next to him. There was no note.
Noderer told police she had seen Seau at 7:45 a.m., had gone to a gym workout and came back to Seau's house and discovered him shot. Within hours, the Oceanside Police Department was publicly calling Seau's death a suicide. A day later, the San Diego County medical examiner's office ruled it as such.
In the weeks since, Oceanside proved it wasn't ready to move on after the death of a local hero. The city was awash in rumors and speculation. Friends and relatives couldn't believe he'd shot himself; some turned amateur sleuths, comparing timelines and spinning conspiracy theories.
Walczak speaks for many when he says, "It would be easier for me to believe that you were from Mars than it would be for me to believe that Junior killed himself."
On Thursday, Oceanside Police Lt. Joe Young said, "I'm aware that there is a segment of folks out there that don't want to believe that Junior took his own life, and I respect that. But the bottom line is ... there's nothing to indicate anything other than suicide."
Young, who is overseeing the investigation, says it is nearing completion. He expects a toxicology report in about 30 days.
Thursday morning at Seau's parents' house, Seau's mother, Luisa, said she didn't know anything about the investigation. Her daughter, Mary, reached at work, said the family had no comment at present. No public decision has been made about whether Seau's brain will be studied for signs of degenerative disease.
About two weeks after his death, Seau's family, including siblings and cousins, met at the parents' house in Oceanside to discuss hiring a lawyer and to decide what to ask police. A day later, a large gathering of his relatives met with police. Both sides declined to discuss what was said.
Sydney Seau graduated from high school a week ago and plans to play sand volleyball, an emerging college sport, at USC, becoming, like her father, a Trojan. Gina Seau threw a post-graduation ceremony party. One of the guests was Noderer, who has become friendly with Gina since Seau's death.
"I feel bad for what she went through that morning," Gina says. "She has shown the kids and me complete sensitivity, kindness and compassion."
Jake Seau, 16, plays football, like his father. But Jake is making his name in a different sport at The Bishop's School in La Jolla, just north of San Diego. He is a star lacrosse player who just finished his sophomore year, and he has verbally committed to play for Duke, a collegiate power.
"I'm proud of him for blazing his own trail," Gina says. "I know lacrosse is a tough sport, too, and there's a lot of contact. But it seems there are fewer head injuries, and I'm happy about that."
Walczak has been posting pictures of Seau on his Facebook page. He loves the image of Seau surfing on his longboard near the Oceanside pier.
This week, Mitchell and Nath went out to dinner - at Hunter Steakhouse. They told stories that brought out laughter, about Seau pulling a prank on someone, about him saying or doing something crazy. At one point, Nath started to tear up, and she excused herself.
"It still comes out sometimes," Mitchell said.
Then he, too, started to well up.
"It will never be the same," he said. "The Gym will never be the same."
Contributing: Jarrett Bell, Steve Berkowitz, Jim Corbett, Michael Florek, Gary Hyvonen, Tom Krasovic, Jamie McCracken, Gary Mihoces and Jon Saraceno. Krasovic reported from Oceanside and San Diego. Moore reported from Los Angeles, San Diego and Oceanside.