Few opponents could escape the grasp of Junior Seau during the 20 years he wreaked havoc as one of the NFL’s best players. The linebacker was quick, fast and strong, sure, but it was an enduring love for the game that made him a perennial All-Pro. Combine those traits with an ever-ready smile and compassion for strangers, and it’s obvious why Seau became one of modern pro football’s most popular defensive players.
Many non-football fans would have never known about Seau, though, had he not picked up a shotgun in May, 2012 and punctured our mainstream consciousness with a single, haunting blast. The suicide made worldwide headlines and has provoked an array of questions – many of which will never be answered for the children whose last words from their 43-year-old father came through a single text message before he gripped the gun – “I love you.”
One major question, though, was answered Thursday morning.
The chaos that increasingly clouded Seau’s mind in his final years is directly linked to the chaos he sewed on the gridiron in the preceding decades. Five brain specialists have concluded Seau suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to dementia, memory loss and depression. Multiple parts of his brain showed CTE-caused effects that include neurofibrillary tangles which slowly strangled his brain cells.
Now, his children know why their surf-loving father started suffering dramatic mood swings, depression, forgetfulness, insomnia and detachment after retiring in early 2010.
They will always wonder if Junior Seau would still be alive today if more had been known, sooner.
He is the most high profile in a lengthening line of former NFL (and college) players who have suffered the devastating effects of brain disease linked to head trauma. Others include former Razorback star Jerry Eckwood and former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson, who made sure to spare his brain for posthumous study before pulling the trigger.
Concern has steadily increased in the last two decades with more available data about head trauma’s long-term effects. Attitudes were different in 1994, when the New York Jets’ team doctor told Sports Illustrated: “Concussions are part of the profession, an occupational risk. An NFL player is “like a steelworker who goes up 100 stories, or a soldier.”
A group of ex-players are now waging legal battle.
More than 4,000 former players are suing the NFL in federal court, many of whom are alleging the link between football and brain damage, even after CTE was discovered in former players. As of November, 2012, some of these player-plaintiffs included native Arkansans or former Razorbacks like Joe Ferguson, Keith Jackson, Willie Roaf, Wayne Martin, Trey Junkin and Billy Ray Smith, Jr. (correction: whose father is pictured in the above photo associated with the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame).
Recent data has indicated that for some players there may be no way to escape the long-term debilitating effects of football. Junior Seau, for instance, was never diagnosed with a concussion on an NFL injury report. Maybe he didn’t pay heed to some symptoms (such as headaches) and report them. Or maybe his team doctors didn’t report the symptoms because they still believed small concussions are “insignificant, just like a bulb dimming for an instant,” as a Pittsburgh Steelers medical consultant told Sports Illustrated in 1994. “Does a very mild concussion need to be reported?,” asked neurologist Dr. Joseph Maroon. “Probably not.”
In September 2012, Seau’s longtime San Diego teammate Gary Plummer told sportswriter Dave Zirin he estimated Seau actually suffered around five concussions a game – adding up to 1,500 for his career.
Plummer is not talking about concussions like the kind of “lights-out hit” that the sports highlight shows giddily replay on a loop with a graphic describing how a player was “jacked up.” He is talking about the daily wear-and-tear of playing in the NFL, about the contact you see on every play. These are called sub-concussive hits, and when experienced in constant repetition, they have been conclusively linked to CTE.
Kyle Turley, a former Pro Bowl offensive lineman, described the process of receiving sub-concussive hits on the field of play: “You start on your own 5-yard line and drive all the way down the field – 15, 18 plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you’re seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions – boom, boom, boom – lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.”
The implications of CTE coming from normal, regular contact on the field of play are huge, from the leagues populated by 7 and 8-year-olds to the pros. It tells us that despite all we read about rule changes, high-tech helmets and educating players about health and safety, you can make the game safer, but only so much.
The attention paid to NFL concussions has indeed percolated to the youth football level. Dr. Darrell Nesmith knows. He directs the concussion clinic at the Sports Medicine Plus program of Arkansas Children’s Hospital and has annually seen about 300 teen patients since the clinic opened three years ago.
He’s heard growing concern about the consequences and treatment of concussion from parents. “You do hear them talk about it more,” said Nesmith, also an associate professor at UAMS’ College of Medicine. “And it may not even be because of a particularly bad case where the person committed suicide and that sort of thing.” Nesmith added he heard parents bring up the issue out of concern for the concussions sustained by Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson in the last two years.
As more info becomes available to the public, and high-profile cases keep the spotlight on it, is football in peril of losing its massive support in the U.S. and especially the youth? Nesmith doesn’t think so, but says he does hope increased awareness of CTE makes parents ask more questions when they see any change in their children’s behavior following a collision.
Some football fans believe rule changes , combined with increased public awareness about concussions and better tracking of players’ symptoms, can keep the sport thriving.
Other Arkansans, such as sportswriter Scott Faldon, aren’t so optimistic. “CTE is going to destroy football. Players are bigger, stronger, faster but brain is just as fragile,” the Southwest Times Record editor Tweeted on Thursday morning. A growing contingent of thoughtful football fans still love the game and yet see the writing on the wall – or scarring on the brain tissue , as it were. They believe decades from now football will be a fringe sport, similar to boxing in our era, because middle and upper class Americans won’t compete in it at all and won’t watch it beyond a couple big games a year.
If this is football’s fate, then Thursday’s news will be noted as a critical moment in its demise.
It will be remembered that in the prime of his life Junior Seau could take down just about anybody.
That in the world of pro football, he was a game changer.
And that, in death, he still changed the game in a way that ultimately altered American culture forever.