Death of Junior Seau Calls Attention to the Day When the Cheering Stops


Junior Seau, linebacker for both USC and later the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots, was found dead on Wednesday in his home of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The sports world was sent reeling, and fans and media members alike spent the afternoon discussing his life, his career and what we could learn from his death.

Police reports indicated Seau died from a wound to the chest. Comparisons immediately arose to former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson, who died in February 2011, leaving a note stating he wanted his brain donated to the study of football head injuries.

Seau was never listed on an NFL injury report as having a concussion. Yet in recent years his behavior had taken a tragic turn. Two years ago, Seau was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence and shortly after, plunged in his SUV over a cliff after, he said, he fell asleep at the wheel.

As always in sports media and sports fandom, both parties are quick to fill in the gaps in a story that is still being told. There is a rush to attribute Seau’s death to depression and dementia caused by head injuries sustained during his playing days. The fact is, we cannot say for sure if Seau’s career as a hard-hitting player led to this tragedy, and we may never know.

None of this takes away from the real evidence that repeated injury to the brain has consequences. In February we spoke with former Alabama and NFL great Kevin Turner, who suffers from ALS, a debilitating condition associated with multiple concussions. Turner is trying to spend his remaining days raising awareness of the condition and to push for research into a cure.

In the days to come there will be outcry from some who would seek to ban football or so cripple it with ever-tighter rules that it becomes a game of freeze tag. In response others will say the world is a dangerous place and that you can never free yourself from the risk of injury, and that these men knew what they were getting into when they signed up to play.

We should all remember that most football players got their start at a very young age, before they could make decisions for themselves. Those that showed a desire or a talent for the game pursued – or were pushed into – further time on the field, with some making it to the spotlight of places like Bryant-Denny Stadium and on to the NFL.

Those men we’ve cheered for all our lives made sacrifices and learned great lessons on teamwork, discipline and leadership. Many were paid beyond their wildest dreams, and retired at a young age to lives of leisure. But some would now trade all their riches and glory for a single day without pain or depression, or thoughts that the world would be better off without them.

As we sort through the details of Junior Seau’s death, let’s take a moment to remember all the men who have taken the field to our cheers, and to reflect on those who now live outside the spotlight, trying to cope with a life shaped not by glory, but by the things they did to earn it.

Follow Tony on Twitter and Facebook.