Professional football should come with a warning label. Like cigarettes, football can be hazardous to your health ... and all too frequently lately it can be fatal.
If the sad truth of Junior Seau's tragic death yesterday is that it came by his own hand, as Oceanside, Calif., police believe was the case, he is only the latest example of the ravages of a sport whose concussive demands seem to be regularly destroying its own.
Only a week ago, Ray Easterling, a former defensive back with the Atlanta Falcons, took his life in similar fashion -- with a handgun that lay by his side when his wife found his body inside their home in Richmond, Va. Seau was found similarly in a bedroom overlooking the Pacific Ocean by his girlfriend yesterday morning.
Like ex-Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who took his life a year ago, Seau apparently shot himself in the chest. In Duerson's case a note he left made clear he had done so to preserve his brain for study by a Boston University medical team tying head trauma in sports to the presence of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a protein buildup in the brain causing progressive degenerative deterioration.
The accumulation of tau protein kills certain parts of the brain related to impulse control and results in dementia, early onset Alzheimer's, memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression. Often it leads to suicide.
Easterling was the lead plaintiff in the first of what has become an avalanche of lawsuits filed by more than 1,000 retired NFL players against the league, charging it with knowingly and willingly ignoring information tying concussions with long-term brain damage. According to the Easterling lawsuit filed last August, the NFL "continuously and vehemently denied that it knew, should have known or believed that there is any relationship between NFL players suffering concussions while playing ... and long-term problems such as headaches, dizziness, dementia and/or Alzheimer's disease that many retired players have experienced."
Easterling, 62, allegedly suffered bouts of depression, insomnia and other symptoms linked to repeated head trauma for 20 years before being diagnosed a year ago with dementia. Seau was 43 when he took his life, barely three years after the end of a 20-year NFL career in which he was a 12-time Pro Bowl selection and the definition of the often misused term "first ballot Hall of Famer.''
"He felt like his brain was falling off," Easterling's wife, Mary Ann, told foxsports.com after his death. "He was losing control."
Now we have Seau, a gentle bear of a man known in San Diego not only for his exemplary playing career but also for his charitable foundation begun 20 years ago and for a popular restaurant that bore his name. He had, it would seem, everything to live for, but ended up alone and despairing in his final minutes after having texted his ex-wife, Gina DeBoer, and their three children individually "I love you'' the previous day.
None thought much of it beyond appreciating that expression, but late yesterday DeBoer responded to the tragedy on her Facebook page with one word: "lost."
There is so much pain in that one word and in Seau's passing. Anyone who knew him quickly recognized his passion for football and life, a man easily approachable and openly kind, even to strangers.
Now he is gone in a haze very likely caused by the savagery of the game he loved. Pro football and the men who run it have much to think about this morning beyond grief. They have to think about where their game is headed.
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