By Karen Billing
Up above the Torrey Pines High School football field is a cluster of wooden obstacles. At first glance, it doesn’t look like much but that collection of humble, worn wood once helped support the career of Junior Seau, 12- time Pro Bowler, member of the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team and San Diego sports legend.
“It’s something that I’ll treasure forever,” Seau said of becoming part of the special football fraternity, a moment he will share with his family on the field.
Seau, called “the heart and soul” of the Chargers by President Dean Spanos for his 13 years as a Bolt, was able to play 20 seasons in the punishing NFL. He credits a lot of that lasting power to his workouts on the Torrey Pines High School “Patch” and believes strongly in the physical, mental and unique challenges that the course offers.
Developed by Pete Egoscue of Carmel Valley-based Egoscue Inc., The Patch is a physical training course inspired by those used by the United States Military. The Egoscue Method is a series of stretches and exercises designed to restore full natural function to muscles and joints without drugs or surgery, and the Patch course was designed to focus on proper alignment, posture and muscle engagement.
Egoscue built the Torrey Pines Patch 12 years ago with help from John Lynch, the TPHS grad who was a Super Bowl-winning safety and nine-time Pro Bowler in his 15 NFL seasons.
Participants get their workout performing various exercises on, around and under the system of logs. Trainer Liba Placek starting working out with Seau for the last six years of his career, near daily during the off-season at Torrey Pines.
“You can do everything, cardio, stamina, agility, using all the different positions your body gets into playing football,” Placek said. “Not just like the weight room where you’re only using one position. That’s not what happens in the game, that’s why it’s so popular for football players, as well as volleyball players, who like it for the jumping.”
Seau said the workout loosened his hips and kept him aligned, from his hips down to his knees and to his ankles. He said everyone’s body naturally has a dominant side and a weak side and people rarely strengthen their weak side. The Patch workout helped him strengthen that weak side and continue to dominate on the football field for years longer.
“It helped keep everything balanced, giving me a better chance to stay healthy,” Seau said.
Helping prevent injury is very important for athletes looking to boost their longevity. While the humble Placek won’t say the only reason why athletes she’s trained have had long careers is because of the Patch workouts, it has certainly played its part: she also helped train Padres pitcher Trevor Hoffman, who played 18 seasons in the MLB, and Chris Dudley, who had a 16-year career in the NBA.
“John Lynch and Junior Seau have said they believe that’s what kept them playing at a very high level in a late stage of their careers,” Placek said.
Through his Junior Seau Foundation, Seau provided a $25,000 grant to his alma mater, Oceanside High School, to build a Patch training facility on campus — they celebrated a ribbon cutting on Sept. 13.
“When you find something that works, you hope to pass it on,” Seau said.
He wanted to give Oceanside football players a chance to use a system that he knows can get results and hopefully those players will find their way into a long NFL career of their own someday.
The linebacker, who recorded 1,849 tackles, 56.5 sacks and 18 interceptions in his career, still firmly remembers his Bolt beginnings, that first NFL home game in The Murph.
They were playing the Cincinnati Bengals.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Seau said. “I was going up against Anthony Munoz, one of the better linemen in the history of the game, so I was really excited — he also went to USC. Of course, I had to buy 50 tickets for my family and friends and I was definitely looking forward to playing in front of my hometown.”
The “Tasmanian Devil” made an impact right away and was named an alternate to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. He’d make his first of 12 Pro Bowl appearances in his second year.
Seau helped the Chargers on to their first, and only, appearance in the Super Bowl in 1995. His most memorable game of his career happened during that special 1994-95 season: the AFC Championship game against the Steelers, which they won 17-13.
“Nobody thought we were supposed to be in that game,” Seau said. “To win it in the fashion that we did, with that tipped ball, definitely made it the most memorable game.”
In the game, the Chargers defense protected their three-point lead with a little over a minute left with the Steelers on fourth and goal with a tipped pass by linebacker Dennis Gibson. Seau would record 19 tackles in that game despite playing with a pinched nerve in his neck.
Seau was traded to the Dolphins in 2003 and retired in 2006, only to come back with the New England Patriots and play another three years, including playing in his second Super Bowl in 2007. He played his last game in 2009.
Unfortunately, the Torrey Pines Patch, which enabled Seau to have such a long and memorable NFL career, is in a “very sad state,” according to Placek. While many schools are installing Patch — locally, Cathedral Catholic High School will have one by 2012 — Placek has been told that the TPHS facility will be torn down.
She remains hopeful that it could be saved, to serve a new batch of athletes with Seau-sized aspirations.