No one has illustrated that paradox better this week than Junior Seau, the outstanding linebacker on whom the San Diego Chargers are pinning their slim hopes in Sunday's Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers. Seau plays the game with an intensity exceptional even by the driven standards of his sport. Yet no one has maintained a more dignified presence in the run-up to the big game. Seau speaks with a quiet authority about the game, genuinely modest about his possible contribution to it, with littlehint in his courteous manner of a ferocious alter ego.
Seau also illustrates a deeper truth about his sport - that, for many, it is a way of escaping from poverty. For all his current affluence - at 25 he earned $2.5m (£1.5m) this season - Seau carries plenty of reminders of the deprivations he has endured, and you sense that one reason for his competitiveness is a fear of what he might become if his sporting career was to end.
Seau's team-mate, the wide receiver Mark Seay, provides a still more vivid example. Six years ago, he was struck by a stray bullet in a drug-related shooting as he dived to protect his niece in the family home. Seay was critically ill, had a kidney removed and still plays with one of the bullets lodged in his chest. After experiences like that, perhaps the weekly collisions that occur in the NFL seem a sensible way of earning a living.
Seau has suffered his own hardships. As a boy in a poor Samoan district of Oceanside, a town 40 miles north of San Diego, he and his three brothers made do with a garage as a bedroom. There were no beds. "We thought everybody slept in the garage," he said.
Like Seay, drugs and violence provided the back-drop to their everyday lives, and the dangers of such an environment were brought home to the Seau family last year when Tony, Junior's younger brother, was jailed for 10 years after using a baseball bat ina gang brawl.
All the Seau brothers were expected to work, but an exception was made in Junior's case to allow him to fulfil his extraordinary athletic potential.
After an outstanding college career, he was drafted by the Chargers, and his reputation as a fearsome competitor was established by the end of his first season. His blend of strength and speed is exceptional, and the Chargers allow him to improvise. "If there's a football on the field, I've gotta be on it," he said. His capacity for conjuring the big play has prompted comparisons with the game's greats.
For the Chargers, Seau's ability to intimidate the 49ers quarterback Steve Young represents their only real opportunity for causing an upset. Yet even here, any optimism has to be tempered by medical reality. Seau pinched a nerve in his neck in the middle of the season, and has been playing with the injury ever since. It means his left arm often hangs inert by his side. Many colleagues and opponents have told him he should let the injury heal but, sensing his importance to his team, Seau ref uses. He had an outstanding game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game, but it is clear that he remains seriously impaired.
"How's your health?"
"Mentally I'm doing great."
"What about physically?"
"Emotionally I'm doing great."
"What part of your body doesn't hurt?"
"My big toe."
However, given Seau's warrior mentality, and capacity for enduring pain, the 49ers will know better than to underestimate his influence. Sunday's game is the pinnacle of Junior Seau's career and he will not be beaten without a terrible fight.Reuse content