I used to call our son, “Seau.” His favourite player was Junior Seau of the San Diego Chargers.
Michael, in his pre-teen years, liked the Chargers because I liked the Bills and, because there was no team in Hawaii, there seemed no team geographically further away from Buffalo than San Diego. He liked Seau because, unlike previous great linebackers who ruled the middle of the field with a brooding presence, Seau played with joy and exuberance. In his Chargers’ lightning bolt helmet and lightning bolt jersey, he chased down the bad guys from sideline to sideline like a superhero – Shazam!
In his career, Seau was 10 times all-NFL. He played for 20 years, which would prove both good and bad for Seau. In 2015, when he is first eligible, he will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After he retired, he suffered immense behavioural swings, his former wife said. He was often irrational and forgetful and had trouble sleeping. “He emotionally detached himself and would kind of ‘go away’ for a little bit,” his son said. “And then the depression and things like that. It started to progressively get worse.”
Last year at age 43, Seau committed suicide. Some days ago, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., reported that in an autopsy on his brain abnormalities were found consistent with a form of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. The findings are similar to those shown in autopsies of others with exposure to repetitive head injuries, the report said.
This news came and went, lost in Super Bowl frenzy. In this week before the week , there’s a second chance to consider Seau’s story, one that will likely prove more significant and lasting than that of this year’s champion, whoever it will be.
Seau was a player’s player. He loved to play. He loved the team and his teammates. He wanted to win. He didn’t shy away from the tough stuff. He wanted to get involved in every play and, strong enough to fend off blockers and fast enough to run down ball-carriers, he was competitive enough and determined enough to try.
He was a coach’s player. Until his body broke down in his final seasons, he was someone his coaches could count on – in big games, playoff games, every play, every year. He had the talent to be an inspiration and the work-ethic to be a model.
He was a franchise’s player. On the field and off, he lived with a smile on his face. He wasn’t trouble. He didn’t hide away from the fans. He loved the game the way they loved the game and he showed it in everything he did. He got involved in the local community. He got paid lots of money and had a restaurant in San Diego, but first of all and above all, fans knew, he was a player .
He was a league’s player. He played for two decades. He played on a great team, and on very good, good, mediocre and lousy teams. He played as a star when he was a star, and as a back-up when age and injury had diminished him. He played all-out in every circumstance and situation he faced. He didn’t play crazy. He didn’t head-hunt or run through a brick wall for the sake of running through a brick wall. “He played the game the way it was meant to be played,” John Elway said last year when notified of Seau’s death.
And for football, that is the problem. Seau did play the game the way it was meant to be played, the way players, coaches, owners and a league have meant it to be played; the way Seau surely wanted to play it too. In the end, he committed suicide. In the end, he had CTE.
The NFL now penalizes head-on-head hits. Its in-game analysts usually note how deserved the penalties are. Occasionally, but not often, they point out how dangerous they are and how they need to be taken out of the game. In these playoff weekends, in hours of game coverage and more hours of commentary, about a great player and immensely disturbing news, almost nothing was said about Seau and the NIH’s findings.
If I was an NFL player, the news about Seau would bother me more than that about any of the earlier brain-injured players. Seau was who I want to be. If I was the NFL, I would be more worried.