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Mental health of retired NFL players needs attention

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The death of Junior Seau was a tragedy, but perhaps some good can come of it.

That former Patriots linebacker Junior Seau took his own life is a tragedy for the thousands who adored him, his friends, his former teammates, and his family, especially his three teenage children.

When someone who seemingly had it all ends his or her life, the immediate reaction is to ask why.

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Was it because of football? Did Seau have advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy because of repeated blows to the head from a 20-year NFL career and probably another 10 as an amateur?

Did he find life without football and all its ingrained schedules and rituals unfulfilling? Did he find himself devoid of purpose without the game?

Did Seau, so lovable and gregarious on the outside to teammates, coaches, and fans, suffer from depression away from the spotlight, the demons only amplified by the seemingly endless hours that come with retirement?

Did Seau suffer from some other hidden physical problems that no one knew about?

Maybe it’s a combination of those things. Or maybe it’s none of them.

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Frankly, it doesn’t matter.

Regardless of why it happened, Seau’s death at the age of 43 - 28 months since the last time he appeared on an NFL field, at Gillette Stadium - probably could have been prevented if he had reached out to someone, or if someone had reached out for him.

If Seau just would have talked to a mental health professional, he may have received the emotional and, if necessary, medicinal aid to help him see that life was worth living.

I’m not going to be naive and state that all suicides are preventable. They’re not. But a majority can be, if help is interjected.

Apparently, Seau didn’t receive any help. Not even after he drove his car off a cliff in 2010.

If any good is to come of it, Seau’s death needs to serve as a wakeup call to the NFL and the NFL Players Association that something drastic needs to be done about the post-retirement transition that players have to make back into society.

Seau’s case is obviously the extreme. But there are scores of former players who have trouble adjusting to normal life once they leave the field. It’s the rare player who walks off the field and into a successful life after football.

With the new collective bargaining agreement, both sides have taken much better steps toward caring for retired players with health and financial problems.

But there is little being done in the realm of mental health, and that’s where the biggest battle is being waged after football players are done.

Nolan Harrison, senior director of former players for the NFLPA, sent out a message Friday offering assistance through the University of Michigan Depression Center if someone reaches out to the NFLPA. The Player Care Foundation, an independent group funded by the NFL, NFLPA, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the NFL Alumni Association, has a partnership with the Morehouse School of Medicine to conduct mental health conferences and offer assistance for former players.

It’s all voluntary.

That needs to end.

The time has come for mandatory mental health care for former NFL players upon their retirement.

“I think it has to be mandatory, because no player, not one, is going to volunteer to go on his own,’’ said former Chargers linebacker Gary Plummer, who was a teammate of Seau’s and played 15 years between the USFL and NFL before his retirement in 1997. “It’s not going to happen.’’

Plummer knows the benefit of counseling first-hand. He first got it during his divorce, and continued on.

“Absolutely it helped me,’’ Plummer said. “It helped me through some very, very dark days. This has brought all of it back to the surface. That’s literally why I’m driving up to the counselor’s office right now. All those old feelings are back.’’

Those feelings are ones of helplessness that many former players experience after they leave the game. Some deal with it better than others. Some, like Plummer and former Patriots receiver Troy Brown, go into broadcasting, where the routine is similar and they stay in touch with the game.

Just two weeks before Seau’s suicide, former defensive tackle Trevor Pryce wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times that put the plight of the ex-player into perspective.

“Once you’re out of the circle, you’re out,’’ he wrote. “So besides my family and a couple of my high school buddies, I don’t have many friends. ‘Early retirement’ sounds wonderful . . . Boy, was I wrong.’’

Isolation. Boredom. Not knowing where to fit or who you are without an NFL jersey on your back. That’s the reality for ex-NFL players.

Most people retire after age 60. NFL players are done, if they’re lucky, in their 30s. Depression has to be high for many former players, at least initially. How could it not, considering the life they’ve lived the previous 20-plus years?

“They don’t even give you an apple and a road map to find your way home when you leave the game,’’ Plummer said. “It’s just, ‘You’re done.’

“You’re living your childhood dream, and to see it end is crushing. Even if you’ve played 15 years, or 20 years like Junior did. Your life is regimented in terms of the season, obviously, and how you prepare. That is done for you.

“Even the offseason is scripted because there’s a routine in preparing for a season. When you retire, there’s none of that. It’s gone. And it’s so final.

“You’re going from 100 m.p.h. to a complete stop. You condition your body, your brain, to live this life and suddenly it’s over. It’s a tough transition for anyone.’’

Older players actually worked summers because NFL pay wasn’t enough, so they were somewhat trained for life after football.

Now, the game is so popular, the money is so great, that the final curtain on a player’s career drops harder than ever - physically, monetarily, and emotionally.

Brown acknowledged that he was fearful of retirement for years because of how he saw former teammates struggle with it.

“Just talking to other players, it’s been a challenge to go back to life,’’ he said. “For a lot of us, me, I’ve played since the second grade. It was part of my life for a really long time.

“The same routine, over and over and over again every fall. It was part of me for 30 years, and I guess it’s kind of hard to break that cycle for a lot of people.’’

That’s why help has to be interjected. No NFL player is going to walk into a psychologist’s office and say, “I need help.’’ They’ve been conditioned to just tape up whatever ails them and get back out there.

“Seeing that counselor, for me, it was difficult to make that decision because you’re a middle linebacker in the NFL, you’re not supposed to have feelings,’’ Plummer said. “You’re supposed to be this macho tough guy.

“Being tough is the most revered characteristic in the NFL. I think it’s that way for a lot of men in general in life but magnified by about a thousand as a football player.

“That’s what Junior was dealing with. And showing weakness at any level makes you vulnerable. It makes you not be that invincible person that you created in your own mind.

“Believe me, to play on Sunday after you’ve had surgery on Tuesday, it’s not normal, yet guys do it all the time. I can’t even begin to tell you the pain that guys play with.

“So now you’re done and now you’re a ‘normal’ human being and you’re just supposed to, what, become normal - whatever that is? Nah, you’re still a tough guy. Nothing can get to you.

“And because of that, Junior didn’t reach out. He had hundreds of friends that asked him about how he was doing after driving off the cliff. I asked him.

“Not only did I ask him, but then I took him off to the side and said, ‘No, really, Junebug, how are you?’ ‘Oh, I’m fine. Everything’s great.’

“I don’t want to put it in a negative light because he was too macho, it’s just who you become. It’s your new reality.’’

NFL players need a new reality when they step away from the field. It doesn’t come from voluntary symposiums or 1-800 numbers. It comes from making it normal that every player knows when he leaves the game he’s going to talk to somebody, whether he believes he needs it or not. It has to be mandatory.

Brown knows counseling is available, and knows the stigma that comes with it. However, he is also fearful of what might happen, even to himself, if he doesn’t pick up the phone when he needs it.

“The league can put that out all they want to,’’ he said, “but getting those guys to go . . .

“I know how a lot of people feel about counseling. They either think they don’t need it, or they just think it’s stupid.

“For a lot of us, it’s a mentality for not just football players but especially for a man. It’s a touchy subject, man. I don’t know what Junior’s deal was, but it’s still a touchy subject to deal with.

“I never had those kinds of thoughts before about ending my life or anything like that. We all go through difficult situations sometimes, but I never, ever had any thoughts of doing that.

“Will it start one day? That’s the scary part of it for me. I’m sure [former players who committed suicide] were just as happy as I am at some point after football. But at what point does that start to turn? I don’t know.

“I just hope that if it ever comes time for that with me, I have the courage to tell somebody or talk to somebody. I don’t know.’’

Please, NFL and NFLPA, do something to take that decision out of those players’ hands. Make counseling as normal as the arrival of their pension checks.

Many didn’t see the warning signs with Seau’s car crash. Let Seau’s death be the call to action so other former players don’t feel they need to suffer the same fate.

SEE YOU IN COURT?

Bounty suspensions could be a messy case

Did you think the Saints’ bounty scandal was closed with the suspension of four players last week?

Not even close.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended linebacker Jonathan Vilma (16 games), end Will Smith (four), linebacker Scott Fujita (three), and tackle Anthony Hargrove (eight) for their roles in the pay-for-injury program masterminded by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. (Fujita is now with the Browns, Hargrove with the Packers.) It would be a surprise if those suspensions are actually served this season.

All of the players have appealed or will appeal them. The suspensions could be shortened - perhaps as part of a deal not to file suit against the league in a court of law - or kept in full.

In the meantime, the NFLPA has filed a grievance against the NFL with independent arbitrator Stephen Burbank that challenges the authority of Goodell, under the new collective bargaining agreement, to suspend the players. The NFLPA maintains that the authority to punish players rests with Burbank, not Goodell.

The significant thing is that the NFLPA has decided to push back hard against Goodell.

This is likely just the first of many steps.

If the players don’t get satisfaction from Goodell or Burbank, the next step would be to take it into court and seek injunctions.

Vilma has hired attorney Peter Ginsberg to represent him. Ginsberg represented Vikings defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams in the StarCaps case in which they disputed their failed drug tests in 2008. The case wasn’t decided, in the NFL’s favor, until February 2011.

The circumstances are different, but it could get just as messy in court.

ETC.

Nickel package

1. The Patriots now have 11 receivers, with the addition of Jabar Gaffney and the subtraction of Tiquan Underwood. They kept six last season, and considering the addition of tight end Daniel Fells and the possibility of a fullback, that might be heavy. The locks are Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. Gaffney and Matthew Slater are near-certainties. That leaves (in order) Donté Stallworth, Chad Ochocinco, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Anthony Gonzalez, Britt Davis, and seventh-round pick Jeremy Ebert fighting for two spots maximum.

2. People really blew the Spygate comments of Ravens coach John Harbaugh out of proportion. Real big shock. He was talking about the perception of some people that the Patriots’ titles are stained by it. It didn’t come out right. It happens. Even Tedy Bruschi said he could see Harbaugh’s point once the coach clarified his remarks.

3. While I wasn’t crazy about the Dolphins taking Ryan Tannehill eighth overall, they wisely got a quarterback in the first round. Miami doesn’t have to rush him, but I had this thought: What if the Dolphins have a losing record this season? Will owner Stephen Ross retain general manager Jeff Ireland no matter what? Because if Ireland isn’t back for 2013, then coach Joe Philbin is likely out under a new GM. What then for Tannehill?

4. Huge blow for the Ravens to lose Terrell Suggs, likely for the season, with an Achilles’ tendon injury. Certainly good for the Patriots. I have been penciling in Andre Carter to return to the Patriots when healthy, but the Ravens could have interest now.

5. I don’t care how any rookies look at mini-camps. Wake me up when the pads are on.

Short yardage

Tom Brady will again serve as honorary chairman for the Best Buddies Challenge/Hyannis Port June 1-2. Best Buddies International creates opportunities for friendship, employment, and leadership training for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “Once you feel the commitment that so many parents make and so many of the buddies make to these programs, it’s hard not to be involved,’’ Brady said. The Tom Brady Football Challenge will take place at Harvard Stadium June 1 and will feature Brady and many of his teammates. For free tickets, go to hpchallenge2012.org/tickets. On Saturday, cyclists will ride 100 miles from Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum to Hyannis Port. To register and/or donate, visit the website . . . Kicker Long Ding, who played at Dean and then Norwich University in Vermont, is among a handful of New Englanders in rookie minicamps the next two weeks. Ding, invited to try out with the Jaguars, arrived in this country from his native China at 19 to attend the New Hampton (N.H.) School. “I got a call from my high school coach, and we had a family meeting with my parents,’’ said Ding of the decision to leave home. “My father said, ‘Go to America.’ Kind of my decision, but my father supports me to go to America.’’ Linebacker Shawn Loiseau (Shrewsbury/Merrimack) signed with the Texans. Tight end/long snapper Taylor Allen (Westborough/Endicott) and kicker Dave Teggart (Northborough/UConn) were invited to try out with the Jaguars and Bears, respectively.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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