PHOENIX —When Junior Seau’s name is mentioned as a first-time Hall of Fame candidate, people nod in recognition of his career achievements.
Then they shake their heads with sadness.
Seau spent 20 seasons in the NFL as a dominant linebacker, winning Defensive Player of the Year honors for San Diego in 1992, making six All-Pro teams, and the league’s All-Decade team of the 1990s. His reckless abandon defined his career.
Seau committed suicide in 2012 and was found to have developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (a brain disease).
“He was a phenomenal player, teammate, friend,” Tom Brady said during Super Bowl week of Seau, who finished his career in New England. “His attitude was infectious. He brought enthusiasm every day in practice. You’d show up in the weight room and he’d be the first person there at 6 in the morning, on the treadmill, running, going into his 18th year in the league.
“He had a love for life and he’s missed by all of his family and friends and certainly by me, all the guys that had a chance to be around him. He was a special person. I have no doubt he’ll be elected. If he can’t make it, nobody can. He’s truly one of a kind.”
Joining Seau among the first-year eligibles for Saturday’s vote are quarterback Kurt Warner and tackle Orlando Pace — who protected Warner when he was winning MVP awards in 1999 and 2001 with the Rams.
Then there’s Morten Andersen.
The longtime kicker broke into the NFL with the New Orleans Saints in 1982 and played until 2007.
A seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro, Anderson spent 13 seasons with the Saints and retired as the NFL’s career leader in points (2,544) and games played (382).
At the other end of the spectrum is veterans’ committee nominee Mick Tingelhoff, who retired in 1978 after starting all 240 games of his career as Minnesota’s center.
Fellow nominees among the 18 finalists include stars of recent vintage (Marvin Harrison, John Lynch, Jerome Bettis, Will Shields); less-recent standouts (Charles Haley, Tim Brown, Kevin Greene); coaches Tony Dungy, Don Coryell and Jimmy Johnson; and contributors Bill Polian and Ron Wolf.
Also a finalist is running back Terrell Davis, the key (along with John Elway) to Denver’s NFL championships in 1997 and 1998.
Davis, the 1998 league and Super Bowl MVP — he rushed for 2,008 yards and scored 22 touchdowns — retired in 2001 after only seven pro seasons. This is his first time as a finalist.
“Yeah, it’s very different,” Davis said. “The first time I was a semifinalist, I was excited about that because to be in the conversation was something that I had never dreamt of it, and it never really became something that I was focused on or ever worried about. But then I got on that list, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty special.’ ”
Davis isn’t one to analyze his chances of being inducted, but he was exhilarated to find out how far he’d gotten in this year’s balloting.
“So then I’ve been at this for seven, eight years, but every year being on that list was exciting. Well, get to this year and take the next step,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d feel the way I felt when they told me: ‘You’re a finalist.’ And yeah, I was like, ‘Wow, man. I don’t know, wait a minute, could this be a possibility that one day I can get that (gold) jacket?’ ”
It’s certainly possible, as it is for all the nominees.
The panel of 46 media members will spend much of Saturday discussing the merits of each candidate, beginning with Tingelhoff, who must receive 80 percent of the ballots to be elected.
Same thing for Polian and Wolf, general managers who built Super Bowl champions and will be considered next.
Then come the other 15 modern-era candidates. After further discussions, their number will be reduced to 10 and, eventually to five.
Those five will receive yes or no votes for selection, just as Tingelhoff, Polian and Wolf do earlier in the meeting.
The class of 2015 will be announced at the NFL Honors TV show Saturday night during which The Associated Press individual NFL awards will be handed out.
Inductions in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, will be in August.