This is normally the space where every morning you and I take a trip around the Internet. We call it our daily links post, mostly because we hate puns, and therefore we’re not fun people. However, on this morning after the death of Junior Seau yesterday in a suspected suicide, I’m having a hard time caring about more bountygate reaction, and Vince Young’s tryout with the Bills.
Until last fall when I dedicated my blogging energy here at theScore.com solely to GLS, I had a second blogging home. Yes, it’s permissible here to be a fan of more than one sport, and as a Canadian its an act of treason to not watch hockey whenever possible. So I wrote about hockey for Houses of the Hockey (now Backhand Shelf), which means that the shock of seeing an athlete gone far too soon unfortunately isn’t a new feeling.
Last summer the NHL mourned the deaths of Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, and Derek Boogaard, all of whom battled either depression or head trauma (or both) as enforcers. Reacting in the immediate hours following such a tragic event like those deaths or Seau’s yesterday is often unwise, because it’s too difficult to resist the urge to instantly make the leap and connect the mental bruising of a highly physical sport to the growth of whatever demons existed inside the mind of the former Charger.
But read the thoughts of those who knew Seau the person, and not just Seau the football player, and it will quickly become apparent that there was a drastic change during his brief life after football.
Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter had the pleasure of being in Seau’s inner circle. When he was a young, green reporter just starting out, the linebacker reached out to Trotter and said “if you need anything, call me” before offering his number.
Seau established his foundation in the early 90′s, and its goal was to support struggling families. Reducing his efforts to a number doesn’t feel right, because they’re immeasurable. But it’s estimated that Seau’s foundation in San Diego has contributed $4 million to the community. When his playing days ended that led Trotter to state the obvious to Seau, saying that his legacy off the field will eventually dwarf what he did on the field.
In return, the reporter who had become Seau’s friend received only a hollow stare.
“I walked away wondering if he truly understood how many lives he had touched with his generosity,” Trotter wrote. “He still seemed to measure his happiness (self worth?) by how people viewed him as a player.”
There are haunting similarities between Seau’s death, and Dave Duerson’s suicide a short time ago, and between Seau, Duerson, and Ray Easterling, the league has seen three retired players end their lives far too soon over just the last 15 months. We now know that both Duerson and Easterling suffered from depression, and Duerson had a degenerative brain condition. But for now, the only connection between them and Seau are the circumstances in their final hours and minutes.
We don’t know if head trauma played a role in Seau’s death. We’ll likely know soon enough, but right now concluding that the physicality of football ultimately killed another football hero is premature. We can, however, feel safe making an observation about Seau and the difficulty of adjusting to post-football life.
Seau played professional football for two decades, and far beyond that as a kid growing up in San Diego. He announced his intention to retire only just two years ago, although he never formally and officially retired. That alone is the ultimate message.
Physically, a player can walk away from the NFL, but for some–especially gladiators like Seau–the mental escape is far more difficult. Lorenzo Neal, Seau’s former teammate who retired in 2009, described the darkness that can descend:
“When you’re out, it’s not the crash that kills you, it’s the sudden stop,” Neal said. “The first year was tough. You watch the game that you’ve been part of for so long . . . and it’s gone. . . . You’ve been put on a pedestal, and it’s taken from you, your time has expired — your shelf life. And people don’t understand.”
We’re beginning to understand now.