This past weekend the San Diego Chargers retired the late Junior Seau’s #55. But forgotten in all of the pomp and circumstance was Frank Buncom, the first man to wear the number for the Chargers. In the following excerpt from his upcoming book, Finding Frank: Full Circle in a Life Cut Short, author, Buzz Ponce, discusses the similarities between #55 Buncom and #55 Seau.
When the San Diego Chargers famously retired Junior Seau’s uniform number on September 16 at Qualcomm Stadium in front of a crowd of nearly 61,000, it was a grand and deserved gesture on the team’s part to honor Seau’s contributions not just to the Chargers but to the entire community of San Diego.
But there’s a story and a twist behind Seau’s legacy that reaches all the way back to the American Football League.
The news was stunning, shattering, and heartbreaking. The great former USC Trojan and San Diego Charger, number 55, had died suddenly, unexpectedly, and much too young. He was a former college All American, a recurrent All Pro, the embodiment of a warrior. He left behind a grieving family, memories of a renowned career, and promises cut short and unfulfilled.
But here’s the twist: his name was Frank Buncom, not Junior Seau, and this tragedy occurred 43 years ago.
Buncom was the original number 55 for the Chargers and many of the similarities shared with Seau are eerie in some respects.
Media reports at the time of Buncom’s death were brief and void of particular insight; there was no memorial, no huge public outpouring of anguish. After just a few days the news subsided. Very soon, the memory of the man and the death mostly vanished.
Buncom played college and professional football in a long-ago era. He was a stellar, three-time American Football League All Star but today most people cannot recall his name. For those who knew him though, Frank Buncom far exceeded the customary boundaries of a football star; he personified dignity and how to correctly live a life.
Some of the parallels with Seau may be ordinary, but others are staggering in their depth. Start with Seau’s year of birth in 1969 – the same year as Buncom’s death.
Both came from underprivileged backgrounds in southern California and went on to football stardom at the University of Southern California. Both were college All Americans, both were drafted by San Diego. Both had brilliant Chargers careers that culminated in both being enshrined in the team’s Hall of Fame. Both played a linebacker position, both ended their playing days with different teams. Both wore the same jersey number and large, infectious, luminous smiles. Both died suddenly, unexpectedly, tragically. But there the similarities abruptly end.
Seau was evidently haunted by demons or perhaps more likely, lingering, pronounced head trauma from his football career. An alleged domestic violence episode in which he also drove his vehicle off a beach cliff on one reckless night and early morning in 2010 was well publicized. His suicide two years later is national, front-page headline news. His community charitable contributions are deservingly well documented and he will continue to be feted and honored.
Conversely Buncom, ever clean, always with a spotless personal record, always unsullied, is all but anonymous. The details of his death are short and long forgotten, but this much we do know:
In 1968 following five seasons with San Diego, Frank Buncom was shipped from the Chargers to the Cincinnati Bengals in the American Football League allocation draft. After one season with the Bengals, he died in a hotel room in Cincinnati in the early morning of September 14, 1969. The Bengals were scheduled to play the Miami Dolphins that day and Buncom’s roommate, another former Charger named Ernie Wright, was awakened at 7:00 am by Buncom’s laboring for breath. According to reports the next day, Wright did everything possible to help his friend. An Associate Press article included a quote from Wright. “Frank woke me up. He was breathing like he had an asthmatic attack or something. I called to him then went over to his bed and shook him – real good. I got no response. I checked his mouth to make sure he wasn’t having a convulsion and swallowing his tongue. Then I called for help. There was nothing else I could do.”
When Cincinnati’s paramedics and Bengal team trainers arrived that morning Frank James Buncom II was dead. Later, it was determined that he died of a pulmonary embolism.
That Junior Seau is remembered, admired, and mourned as one of the great linebackers ever to play the game and Buncom is largely forgotten is an incongruity. His anonymity both as a player and now long after his death is certainly not a fault – his or anyone else’s. Buncom intentionally didn’t pursue the limelight partly because generating unnecessary attention was not a staple of his personality, not in his DNA. In part too, he played professionally for a team that had many colossal egos in the 1960’s, many perceived stars. The San Diego Chargers of that era were the toast of the city and had a roster full of outspoken, larger-than-life personalities. Beat writers covering the team back then never had to look long or hard for a juicy quote, a morsel of glitzy information from a player or coach that could and would generate mass media attention, or at least what amounted to mass attention in the time long before the internet and social media were ever possibly imagined.
Buncom’s life, his time, his era, was an epoch before, a world apart from today’s society, today’s pace. He transcended racial boundaries and overcame enormous odds. Yet his lessons taught and learned many years ago by those fortunate to know him still can echo, still can enlighten, and still are valuable.
When he died at age 29, Buncom left many unfulfilled hopes and dreams. Prominent among them was his future coaching career; he looked forward to mentoring kids and giving them the guidance and discipline he believed they all deserved.
He also left his wife Sara, later a principal in the San Diego Unified School District, and seven-week old son, Frank III. Today his grandson, 16 year-old Frank Buncom IV, attends St. Augustine High School and is on the varsity football team.
So as we remember Junior Seau, let us also remember Frank Buncom — the first number 55 for the Chargers. His legacy should live on. 3 3