Junior Seau is dead. And no matter how anyone tries to rationalize, deny, misdirect, caution, or convince you to the contrary, there is no mistake to be made. Football killed him.
Of course, that is not what the coroner’s report will reflect, but as the body count starts to pile up, the evidence is as undeniable as the existence of dinosaurs.
Dave Duerson. John Mackey. Mike Webster. Kenny McKinley. Andre Waters. Terry Long. Tom McHale. Justin Strzelczyk. John Grimsley.
All retired NFL players. All dead of either their own hand or severe mental disease brought on by repeated brain injuries. Of this group, only Mackey lived past the age of 50; although the last 20 years of his life were spent suffering from severe dementia so debilitating that he could not care for his most basic needs.
Now Junior Seau’s name is added to the most tragic list in sports.
One week ago, seemingly out of nowhere, the certain future Hall of Fame linebacker took a loaded handgun, pointed it at his own chest and ended his own life.
Since then, his friends and family have universally said that Seau showed no signs whatsoever of depression or despair. In fact, he was even on the sidelines at the USC spring game strumming a ukulele while smiling ear-to-ear less than three weeks earlier.
Looks certainly can be deceiving.
Exactly what ultimately pushed Junior Seau to end his own life we will never know, but it is now apparent that the incident where he drove his car off of a cliff in 2010 (after having been arrested earlier in the day after a reported domestic violence incident) was not the harmless accident that he had claimed, but rather an eardrum-piercing shriek for help.
Tragically, Seau never got the assistance he needed. And now, incomprehensibly, it’s too late. And while he may be the new face of concussion-related calamity, Junior Seau is not the first, nor will be the last to suffer a similar fate.
Shane Dronett had it all. An All-American defensive lineman for the University of Texas in the early 1990s, Dronett was the second round selection of the Denver Broncos in the 1992 NFL Draft. Outgoing and gregarious, teammates considered him an affable locker room prankster and dedicated and loving family man.
For 10 years, first with the Broncos and then with the Falcons, Dronett was a typical hard-nosed NFL defensive lineman. His run-stopping ability was instrumental in the Falcons reaching Super Bowl XXXIII after the 1998 NFL season. By the time Dronett retired in 2002 after repeated knee and shoulder injuries, he had a career to be proud of.
Immediately after calling it a career in the NFL, Dronett was a happy, dedicated family man, volunteering at his daughters’ schools and even paining their fingernails. Dronett’s daughter Hayley, now 17, called him “just the best dad in the world.”
And then, three years after retirement, Dronett’s life began to fall apart.
“He woke up in the middle of the night and started screaming and told everyone to run out of the house,” Dronett’s wife, Chris, told CNN last year. “He thought that someone was blowing up our house. It was very frightening.”
From there, it was one bizarre incident after another.
While ordering at a local fast-food restaurant, unprovoked, Dronett lost his temper in the blink of an eye and punched the cash register employee in the face.
One time, when Chris and Hayley were in Utah on a ski trip, Shane called them more than 100 times wondering where they were. Every time Chris tried to calm her husband down, he would go off on a paranoid rage, insisting that he was being followed by someone trying to do him harm.
On January 21, 2009, Shane pointed a loaded gun at Chris when she encountered her husband in the hallway of their suburban Atlanta home. Fearing for her life, Chris instinctively ran outside as fast as she could.
Upon reaching the front door, Chris heard the deafening shot that would change her life forever. Instead of shooting his wife, Shane Dronett turned the gun on himself, committing suicide at the age of 38.
“What we know is that by definition, a lineman will have their head hit almost every play of every game and every practice,” according to Dr. Robert Stern, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University. “The estimates are around 1,000 or more hits for a lineman every season.”
Stern and his team have been studying deceased athlete’s brains since 2008 to try to establish a link between contact sports and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a terrifying disease associated with repeated head traumas. CTE has been shown to cause paranoia, dementia, slowed muscle movements, poor judgment, confusion, and unprovoked aggression.
Their findings have been both enlightening and sobering. Dronett, like Mackey, Webster, Waters, Duerson, Long, McHale, Strzelczyk, and Grimsley, was found to have been suffering from CTE.
“There were times when he’d be slow getting up and kind of try to shake it off and get back in there,” Chris Dronett continued. “He would have headaches and he would say ‘I wish someone would split my head open with an ax and relieve the pressure,’ but it wasn’t even an option to come out (of the game).”
Currently there are more than 50 cases with almost 1,800 former players, their families, and their estates, suing the NFL alleging the league’s non-action concerning concussions put them at an unneeded and undisclosed risk. Hall of Fame players such as Tony Dorsett and Joe Delamielleure are among the plaintiffs.
How does the NFL respond? It appears at least one tactic is propaganda.
The timing of an email sent by league headquarters to roughly 3,200 pre-1993 NFL players this week was both alarming and telling. The league, amidst a flurry of litigation, sent out a study conducted by an arm of the Centers for Disease Control indicating that NFL players that played at least five years from 1959-1988 actually lived somewhat significantlylonger than Americans that did not play in the NFL during that time.
Why is this alarming? Because the data, especially if unchallenged, indicates that the NFL will continue to virtually ignore the Junior Seau’s, Dave Duerson’s and Shane Dronett’s, point to their study, and contend everything is hunky-dory.
Why is this telling? Because the NFL does nothing without a purpose. Because the new face of post-concussion syndrome was on everyone’s television set just one week ago with his years of his life superimposed over the image of the smiling man in a San Diego Chargers uniform, no sign of outward torment to be found.
The study revealed that players that were in the league for at least any five seasons between 1959 and 1988 had a lower risk of cancer-related deaths and heart disease than the general population. An interesting bit of information, but has little to do with the conversation their alumni and general public is having regarding head injuries today.
But the message was loud and clear: The CDC says you guys live longer, so there’s nothing to see here. Please move along.
Of course, football has to be made safer. Unfortunately, there are no good solutions right now that do not involve fundamentally changing the game. Proposals including the elimination of kickoffs have been floated as test balloons out to the public and have been quickly dismissed as too radical. But the inherent problem of how to reduce violence in a violent endeavor cannot be solved without exploring every option that is conceivable. Not every proposal will be a proverbial touchdown; but nothing should be left off the table during the discussion.
Surely, the lords of the game have a difficult job to do. They are charged with the most delicate balance of all; trying to maintain football’s popularity while protecting the people that have made it just that.
In the meantime, the rest of us will be on pins and needles wondering who the next superstar will be to decide that there is no escaping the demons within him. Because for him, it is already too late.