Junior Seau, one of the best linebackers in NFL history and by all accounts an indefatigably exuberant man throughout his 20-year career, died Wednesday of a suspected self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.
He was 43.
Police in Oceanside, Calif., said Seau's girlfriend discovered his body in the bedroom of his home in this city north of San Diego. Paramedics unsuccessfully attempted to revive Seau. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
A handgun was recovered in the home, and his death is being investigated as a suicide, police said.
Reports said no suicide note was found.
Seau's ex-wife, Gina Seau, said he texted her and each of their three children on Tuesday, sending messages that said, "I love you," according to the San Diego Union-Times.
"We're all in shock," she told the newspaper. "We're beyond sad and beyond shocked. The kids and I are just huddled together at home. There is no way to make sense of this."
Dozens of NFL players, executives and reporters expressed shock in the hours after the news broke. With the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots, Seau's happiness, personal magnetism, intensity, work ethic and leadership were legendary.
That's why news of his apparent suicide did not add up for those who knew him.
"It's hard to imagine it's possible, he was so full of life," former NFL coach Steve Mariucci said on NFL Network.
"You always looked at Junior as a very happy person," Donte Stallworth, a wideout on the Pats when Seau played in New England, told ESPN. "He was always making people laugh. All the time. That's what Junior will always be remembered for."
But since retiring from the NFL in January 2010, Seau reportedly battled depression. Just 10 months into his retirement, he drove his Cadillac Escalade off a cliff near Carlsbad, Calif., after having been arrested for felony spousal assault. He later claimed he had merely fallen asleep at the wheel.
Right or wrong, Seau's apparent suicide immediately fanned the flames of a rapidly exploding controversy -- that is, the growing chorus of voices charging that the NFL does not do nearly enough to help former players deal with either the mental or physical post-career trauma that seems to afflict so many. Concussions and depression top the list.
"(Seau's) death will bring serious change to the way the NFL deals with depression issues of retired players," tweeted player agent Drew Rosenhaus.
Nolan Harrison III, a former NFLer and senior director of the NFLPA, tweeted, "I am PLEADING with all my brothers and NFL family: If you need help, someone to talk to, if you know someone who does, PLEASE REACH OUT!"
Tiaina Baul Seau Jr. was raised in Southern California, and was a star linebacker at USC before jumping early to the NFL at age 21. The Chargers drafted him fifth overall in 1990.
For the next 20 seasons -- 13 with the Chargers, three with the Dolphins, and the last four with the Pats -- Seau redefined the modern inside-linebacker position. He was ferocious, fast, instinctive and hit as hard as anybody.
"Great players feel the game," he once told NFL Films.
Seau is the only NFL linebacker to be a 12-time Pro Bowler, and he was an all-pro 10 times. His last significant on-field contribution was in the 2007 season, when he helped the Patriots become the first NFL team to go 16-0 in the regular season. He retired after the '09 season.
Last November, Seau was inducted into the Chargers' Hall of Fame. He is a shoo-in to be a first-ballot NFL Hall of Famer in 2015, but will now be inducted posthumously.
"Have covered football for 28 years," Sports Illustrated's Peter King tweeted. "Have met a lot of intense, driven, unforgettable players, but none more dedicated than Junior Seau."
Chargers president Dean Spanos said Seau was the "heart and soul of our franchise" for 13 years, and that no coach would ever dare give an inspirational talk to the team because no one could top Seau in that regard.
"We all lost a friend today," Spanos said. "Junior was an icon in our community. He transcended the game. He wasn't just a football player, he was so much more. He was loved by everyone in our family, our organization and throughout the NFL. This is just such a tragic loss ... It's heartbreaking."
Said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement: "All of us are deeply saddened about Junior Seau, a great player loved by teammates who also worked hard to serve his community. Junior and his family will remain in our thoughts."