Down on the stage, facing perhaps 15,000 fans, NFL and civic celebrities .
Up across Qualcomm Stadium, facing the setting sun, 31-year-old graphic artist Alex Gaytan* of Chula Vista was alone but for two strangers who saw him in the highest row of seats, and came to join him.
“My first Chargers game, my dad brought me here when I was this high,” Gaytan said of his father, Jesus, still living. “It was up here. That was the first time I saw Seau play.”
With blue GREATNE55 jerseys draped over adjacent seats, he explained: “So I figure there’s no better place to sit and pay my respects than by sitting next to 55. That’s why I’m here.”
In Section 55.
Near or far, all perspectives were represented Friday night at a free Celebration of Life of Junior Seau, whose No. 55 jersey was retired and at his Oceanside home shocked and saddened a community.
Some were supercharged followers.
“Junior solidified my fanaticism to the Chargers,” said Gonzo Ramirez of Spring Valley, who said he used to be a “casual” fan.
But with Seau bringing and stirring so much love for the game, “I stuck with the Chargers through all the thin years,” Ramirez said. “He really made me love the Chargers.”
Ken Compton of Ocean Beach recalled Seau’s personal touch.
While celebrating his birthday at Seau’s the Restaurant in Mission Valley with fellow Napa Auto Parks workers, Compton was treated to the future Hall of Famer’s hospitality—a special dessert Seau made himself.
“He was larger than life,” Compton, 49, said of that memorable day a decade ago. “He was the most awesome man. He was the best—the real deal.”
Seau shook his hand and called him “Buddy,” Compton recalled outside Gate G before entering the stadium. “He made me feel so comfortable.”
A hundred yards away, in Section D, Armando Plascencia and a half-dozen relatives tailgated under a tent, near his special-edition 2002 Ford Excursion SUV—painted a year ago with a Chargers mural.
“My wife has been a fan since she was a little girl,” he said.
Plascencia’s sister-in-law added: “Junior is the heart of San Diego because he was a player who gave so much. He’s basically the Tony Gwynn of football.”
Also a fan—since his high school years—was Joey Ko of Rancho Penasquitos, who with former junior high friends, now in their 30s, made the pilgrimage to the free Qualcomm event, which followed attended by 2,000 in Oceanside.
“He was a wonderful role model,” Ko said. “We all looked up to him. And even as we are grownups, we still look up to him. When we lost him, we lost a piece of our hearts.”
Ron Barnes—who lives in Serra Mesa and La Mesa but mostly in Maui—said he and a friend were at a Travelodge motel when they learned of Seau’s death.
“We both cried like babies,” he said.
Barnes said he recently enjoyed a free Thanksgiving dinner at Seau’s restaurant in Mission Valley. He called Friday’s event a wake.
“It’s not a sad day,” he said. “It’s a happy day.”
Justin Olamev of Chula Vista said, “When you look at San Diego sports, Junior Seau is it. He represented all of us—and we’re all huge fans. The news of his death was like losing a family member.”
Olamev’s uncle—Lee Estrada of Murrieta—said he had come to Qualcomm “to reach closure” and to pay his respects to the Seau family.
“I keep seeing his mother on TV,” Estrada said. “You know, we all love our mothers. We love Junior.”
*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Gaytan’s last name.