About a year ago Junior Seau suggested to Rey Maualuga to put a ukulele in his locker and when he needed to relieve the stress to strum a few chords.
"He said, 'It will just be you and the uke,' " Maualuga recalled Wednesday afternoon, still numb with the news. "He wasn't one of the best ukulele players. He always walked around with a uke. He'd sing different songs with the same chord and I asked him why he was into the tune and rhythm. He said it kept him at peace.
"So when I came back last season, I ordered one."
Maualuga, the Bengals middle linebacker, could only hope that his friend and idol found that peace with his death at 43 following a shooting at the San Diego-area home Maualuga visited last year.
Initial reports were calling it suicide and Maualuga just couldn't see how. Not after all the advice Seau had given him about taking care of his body, one USC All-American linebacker giving counsel to one of his heirs.
"Your body is a work of art and you have to take care of it day in and day out," is what Maualuga remembers Seau telling him. "Working out. Gettting massages, getting in the cold tub. He played 20 years in the league. That's every player's dream. Of all the things he could have been doing with his time, I just couldn't believe he'd spend it sitting there and talking to me and sometimes goofing around."
They weren't tight-tight, but they were close enough that for the last two years Seau invited Maualuga to his foundation's golf tournament and dinner in San Diego. Last year they hung out with friends and Maualuga took a nap in his home and he rode around with Seau in his golf cart. Last month they hung around the hotel and at one point Seau told Maualuga he had watched some games last year and he thought Maualuga had done well.
"For him to invite me," he said, "that meant a lot."
It meant everything for the kid from Eureka, Calif., a son of native Samoans who naturally gravitated to toward the greatest Samoan football player of them all anchoring the middle for the San Diego Chargers.
"I grew up (watching) Polynesian players," Maualuga said. "He was one of the big reasons my dad wanted me to go to USC because of all the great Polynesian athletes they recruit. And obviously me following in his footsteps being a linebacker. They had a saying, 'Say-ow' on T-shirts because of his crushing hits."
Maualuga grew up to be recruited by USC and on the day of his visit at a game, Seau was being inducted into a Hall of Fame, his first brush with his hero.
"I didn't stand next to him," he said, "but just walking by him I was hoping somehow I could rub off his magic and put it on me."
And then Maualuga grew up to drive around in the golf cart with him.
"I stink at golf and I had nothing to do," he said. "We'd drive around, talk, he'd get out, kid guys, and take a shot."
The dinner was powerful for Maualuga. It had been going 17 years running.
"There were people not just from San Diego, but from all over the country," he said. "And they weren't there because they had to be there. They came to show their support. Everybody had ties to him. He was an icon."
That's why Maualuga simply can't understand it.
"Everyone is saying it's a suicide," Maualuga said. "He had everything. Family. Kids. He had everything going for him. He was the heart of San Diego."
And he had the smile. A big smile.
"We'd be in a restaurant and that's the way he presented himself," Maualuga said. "He never brushed anybody off. He greeted everyone the same way he'd greet his family or close friends."
Everybody was "Buddy." Maualuga would get texts from Seau asking him how it was going. "Hey buddy, how did you do?"
The advice had been simple: keep getting better. There is always something you can improve on.
Seau never brushed anyone aside and Maualuga is hoping his death isn't brushed off, either, and just forgotten.
"People are just wondering why? Why," said Maualuga and, yes he wonders about recent suicides of former NFL players and the connection with concussions. "It's always in the back of my mind. You hear about these other deaths and their autopsies showing brain damage or other influences. It's something people need to take seriously and not just brush it aside."
His friend and idol is gone. But his ukulele is not.
"I'd look on YouTube and see how to play it," he said. "A couple of my buddies showed me how to do certain songs and Domata (Peko) would give me a few lessons because he's a good guitar player. I'm still trying to perfect being a good uke player."