The news should have been a total shock. A great American athlete, a feared and revered defensive superstar of the National Football League who walked off the field for the last time just over two years ago, was dead.
He was just 43.
And it was an apparent suicide, no less -- a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.
But while the Twittersphere and Facebookland erupted in the usual rituals of 21st Century celebrity death, with TMZ racing to report the grim news that Junior Seau had passed, inspiring thousands of re-tweeted RIPs and sad reminiscing about his glory days in the middle of the San Diego Chargers' defense, there seemed to be one element sorely missing.
And when people are no longer surprised at the sudden death of a 40-something icon of pro football, then something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
It was just 18 years ago that linebacker Seau helped lead his Chargers to the highest altitude in American sports, the Super Bowl, where they came within one Steve Young hot hand of winning San Diego's first and only world championship. And so you might assume that Seau is the first veteran of that team to perish, maybe the second.
But in fact, Seau is the 8th member of the 1994 Super Bowl Chargers to die. They left us in a variety of fashions -- a couple died in freak accidents, several died from heart conditions, and two of the deaths appeared to be linked to substance abuse or drunk driving. Yes, the case of the 1994 Chargers is a bit unusual, not only by a matter of degree,.
The fact of the matter is this. The average American lives to be 75. The average pro football player lives to be 55. And statistics suggest that the longer a player stays in the game, the more likely he is to die at a young age.
And increasingly we're learning that even those who manage to live into old age pay a steep price for their years of gridiron glory. I discovered this, somewhat unexpectedly, when I set about last year to report an e-book called Give It To Steve! about one of the most remarkable games in pro football history, the so-called "Blizzard Bowl" in which the Philadelphia Eagles slogged through a snowstorm at Shine Park to win the 1948 NFL championship, the franchise's first.
I found out that three Eagles' Hall of Famers from their golden post-World War II era -- Steve Van Buren, who rushed for the only touchdown in the 1948 contest; the late wide receiver Pete Pihos, and legendary two-way star Chuck "Concrete Charlie" Bednarik -- had been accepted into the NFL's 88 Plan, for ex-players suffering from dementia, so often caused by too many blows to the head.
Pihos' daughter and ex-wife -- they had divorced because of his increasingly erratic behavior -- are still reeling from the football great's 10-year battle with dementia, which ended with his death in the summer of 2011. Donna Pihos-Howell said she cried when a doctor showed her the results of her ex-husband's tests. "The bones in his neck were like steps -- they were jagged, jagged steps, not straight like they would be in a normal person's MRI," she said. The doctors said it was likely from the blows to the head that Pihos took while leading the Birds to two titles.
In January, I went with a son-in-law to visit the 91-year-old Van Buren in a nursing home in Lancaster County. The running back whose slashing style revolutionized the NFL in the 1940s is still a fighter, but his family looks at Van Buren's brother Ebert -- whose NFL career was much shorter and who still works as a Louisiana psychologist in his mid-80s. They wonder if things -- Van Buren's lifelong addiction to the horse track that began when his playing days ended, the memory loss that started in middle age -- could have been different if he hadn't played so many seasons, the last few shot up on Novocain, and taken so many hits to the head.
Junior Seau was going to be different, or so it seemed. It was harder for the American Samoa native than most to leave the sport, hanging on for a remarkable 20 seasons. But when he did, he had not only his three kids but a restaurant, a clothing line, and lot of charitable work to keep him occupied. But almost immediately after his last stint with the New England Patriots, it seemed like things were going quickly off track.
Less than a year after his last game, after a violent fight with his girlfriend, Seau drove his SUV off an 100-foot cliff at a Southern California beach -- and lived. He insisted that he had fallen asleep at the wheel. But then Wednesday morning, his girlfriend discovered him dead of gunshot wound.
He reportedly did not leave a suicide note. But many instantly speculated that Seau left a clue by shooting himself in the chest. It was just 14 months ago that the former All-Pro safety of the Chicago Bears, Dave Duerson, killed himself in exactly the same fashion -- right after texting his family that he wanted researchers at Boston University to examine his brain.
Those tests confirmed that Duerson suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE> -- the brain disease that is typically caused by multiple concussions and which is linked to dementia, depression, addictive behavior, and suicide. We may never know exactly why Seau committed suicide, or if it had anything to do with his two decades of pro football. But it's enough to know that other NFL legends were diagnosed with CTE after they died, or that scores of former NFL players have filed lawsuits over the last year claiming the league did not do enough to protect them.
Some folks say that these players knew what they were getting into, that they understood they were risking their future health for glory and riches in the present, and that there's nothing that can be done about this problem short of closing down the National Football League.
But the evidence is a lot more damning toward the NFL. Lawyers have found the NFL knew more about head injuries and concussions than it told players and the public as early as the 1920s, even before the likes of Van Buren and Pihos strapped on a leather helmet. Indeed critics believed the league went out of its way to downplay the health risks up until a couple of years ago.
But much more importantly, there is much that the NFL can do right now. One expert at BU that I spoke with earlier this year said that coaches at every level of the game could greatly reduce full-contact practices, since the risk of brain injury increases with the cumulative number of hits. For the same reasons, the NFL could surrender its scheme to increase the number of regular season games to 18. Others have urged the league to put neurologists on the sidelines of games, to make an independent assessment of whether a player should stay in a game. The league should do all of these things... and more.
"Depression & suicide are serious matters and we as current and former NFL players should demand better treatment. Lack of info... no more!!!"the retired Dallas Cowboys great Emmett Smith wrote on Twitter as word spread of Seau's death.
The league needs to tackle its inconvenient truth -- that for the remarkable athletes who've made their game into a $9-billion-a-year enterprise, the NFL is fast becoming the No Future League. When your players are dying 20 years before everyone else, when the suicide of a beloved and successful athlete in his 40s becomes a familiar headline, you do not have a public-relations problem. You have a full-blown crisis that is undermining the very essence of your sport.
Fixing this won't be easy. Football is an addiction, for the American fan and for the people who play the game. There was one thing I learned about Seau that really struck me. Even as his playing career inevitably ground to a halt, he refused to formally announce his retirement. Junior Seau lived as a pro football player -- and he died as one.
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