The news that all-time great Junior Seau had committed suicide last week was both shocking and heartbreaking. Seau might be the biggest name player who has suffered with depression and the difficult transition period after leaving the game, but he certainly wasn’t the first. Not even close.
Unfortunately, suicide amongst ex-players has become a relatively frequent event. As recently as last year former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson committed suicide by gunshot to the chest; the same method that was chosen by Junior Seau. Duerson specified he wanted his brain to be studied in his suicide note, and researchers at Boston University found that his brain had suffered severe degenerative damage due to constant head impacts from his playing days. Seau’s brain will also be studied soon, and many expect the findings to be similar.
Seau played 20 seasons in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. He played his high school football in Oceanside, a small city just north of San Diego, and became a local legend after he found success at the University of Southern California and the NFL. Drafted by the Chargers in 1990, he played in 12 consecutive Pro Bowls starting in his second year in the league. He also played in 2 Super Bowls after the 1994 and 2007 seasons with the Chargers and Patriots, respectively, but those teams lost both games.
Junior Seau was a force on and off the field. He had a large presence in the San Diego community and gave more than his share of time and money to charities and local causes. By all accounts, his bubbly personality and positive attitude were always present and they rubbed off on anyone who got a chance to meet him.
Unfortunately, Seau fought a silent battle with some internal demons. No one may ever know exactly what Seau was going through but depression seems to have been a primary factor. If that’s the case, 20 years of collisions on a pro football field could have certainly played a part in that.
I don’t pretend to know what it feels like to suffer from depression. Nor do I have any clue what it’s like for a person to seriously consider taking their own life. However, I do know that depression is a real and serious condition, and it’s an issue that needs to be discussed more openly. The fact that ex-NFL players can’t find a way to get help when they reach their lowest point is heartbreaking. These men are members of a prestigious fraternity that comes with an abundance of resources and avenues of support. Yet their reluctance to simply ask a friend for help shows the stigma that is associated with mental illness in our society.
Not to minimize other tragic events that have come before, but the weight the Seau name carries around league circles has forced everyone to take an even closer look at mental illness and the long term effects of playing a violent sport. The NFL has been making a push to make the game safer in recent years and Seau’s death will kick those efforts into overdrive.
The NFL’s campaign for player safety is primarily a response to the lawsuits the league faces today that threaten the long-term viability of the league. However, they do have a genuine interest in keeping players healthy. Marketable stars do not have much value when they are on injured reserve for an entire season, and most importantly, no one wants to see good men such as Junior Seau reach a point where they feel suicide is the only way out.
Sadly, I don’t have a final answer. I don’t think many people do. But a good place to start is to win the battle against concussions. More research needs to be done on the brain and the equipment protecting it. Every football player needs to wear protective gear that is on the cutting edge of technology, and that goes for college and high school players as well. Rules need to be refined every year. Even though the league has already legislated out some of the most dangerous types of contact, they need to continuously look at ways to make the game safer. Lastly, the NFL needs to do a better job taking care of their own after they leave the game. Ex-players need to be monitored in the long term and a better support system is needed so players who are suffering can find help.
The NFL has a long ways to go with these issues, but they have the resources to accomplish them. I think I can speak for every NFL fan out there. Let’s get this figured out so that other players don’t end up paying the ultimate price like Junior Seau.
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