Junior Seau’s apparent suicide this week was all the more haunting because there was speculation a year ago that the linebacker, a certain Hall-of-Famer, showed signs of being affected by the thousands of hits to the head he suffered in his 20 years in the National Football League. After finishing out his career with the Patriots, Seau was arrested in 2010 on suspicion of domestic violence. Hours after being released without charges, his car went off a cliff. He said he fell asleep at the wheel. The incident fit an all-too-familiar pattern of decline: Increasingly, deceased football players are being diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease that often results in early dementia and depression.
Dr. Robert Cantu, of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, raised the possibility that Seau might be suffering from the disease during an interview with the Buffalo News a year ago, after the retired player’s car accident. Now, the sport of football must find out for sure. Seau may well have spared his brain for that purpose. He is the second NFL star to apparently commit suicide by shooting himself in the chest. The first, Dave Duerson, left a note saying he wanted his brain donated for research. It turned out he had CTE. No such note from Seau has been found, but one San Diego TV station quoted a friend as saying Seau recently told him he wanted to donate his brain to science.
Seau lit a fire under teammates with his endless energy and was celebrated off the field in San Diego, where he spent most of his career, for his support of youth causes. If he is found to have had CTE, his death at 43 will become the most dramatic example of the toll of his sport. ESPN reported that Seau was never listed on an NFL injury report with a concussion, but his ex-wife Gina told the Associated Press, “Of course he had” concussions. “He always bounced back and kept on playing. He’s a warrior . . . It’s not ballet.”
Former New England Revolution soccer star Taylor Twellman, who suffered a career-ending concussion and was a neighbor of Seau’s, recalled on a local radio show how they shared stories about their head injuries. Twellman said Seau told him, “Buddy, buddy, I can’t tell you how many concussions I’ve had.” Football is not ballet. But Seau’s suicide should keep the NFL on the tip of its toes, doing everything it can to stem this rising tide of dementia, depression, and premature death.