My obit of Junior Seau, which I wrote last week, is in today's Independent; you can link to it here. Had I had more space, and time, I might have tried to dampen the speculation on the causes of his death. I cannot begin to express the shock I felt when I was called late at night and asked to do an interview for the World Service about a football suicide. 'Not another one,' I said. 'Who was it?' and when they said 'Junior Seau' I was speechless. Like the teammate whose quote I used in the obit, I thought of Seau as a sort of superman, and a very affable one too.
We don't know whether or not he was suffering from depression; though the 2010 incident certainly appears to indicate he might have been. And we don't know if that depression was the result of thousands of impacts on and by his head, although it's easy to guess that it may have been a contributing factor. But just as important may have been something many of his teammates suggested, that Seau may have found the transition to life after football difficult. Which seems strange, in the sense that he had his business, his foundation, and his love of surfing to see him through. I tried to suggest, in recounting the story of that first year at USC, when he was academically ineligible to play football, that it may have been the core of his life--but the story itself seemed to say that he learned a lesson from that.
The one thing we have to remember is that lots of people who are not football players kill themselves. Two baseball players, Mike Flanagan and Hideki Irabu, committed suicide in the past year and no one is talking about it being an epidemic within baseball. Flanagan, like Seau an outgoing sportsman reknowned for his affability, apparently found life as a broadcaster unsatisfying. There could be any number of things in Seau's life that felt overpowering to him, or it might have been just a fleeting impulse. In the absence of a note, we will never know, although the texts he sent his ex-wife and his children indicate that it was a pre-meditated decision.
As a football player, Seau was one of the all-time greats. In my all-time NFL team, the three linebackers were Bobby Bell, Dick Butkus, and Lawrence Taylor (I never pick active players). If I were picking that team now I might be tempted to choose four linebackers, as the 3-4 defense is so prevalent today, and make Seau the fourth.I find it hard to measure his impact on some mediocre San Diego teams; his freelancing was phenomenal, because of great instincts allied to speed and power, but it was also a risk/reward strategy which requires the players to always be on top of his game, as we've seen with the guy who might be described as Seau's heir, another Samoan American from USC, Troy Polamalu. When he went to New England he moved inside, and his freelancing was severely curtailed; there are stories of his feuding with coach Pepper Johnson over his willingness to sometimes forget the Patriots' mantra of 'do your job'. But basically, he made that switch very well, playing in a rotation, and was a key part of what came close to being the greatest season in NFL history.
Concussions are the skeleton in the NFL's modern-day closet. They can legislate against big hits on defenseless players, but although that causes some horrible injuries, the concussion problem is a cumulative one, the result of the hits that are part and parcel of the game as played fairly.
When you consider all the fierce collisions Seau's head endured, years of practices as well as games, you have to consider that damage that was likely done. I hope his family does donate his brain to BU (they were having second thoughts after my obit was written) because it will tell us a lot to see what a fully-fit linebacker's brain looked like so soon after his finished playing. But what it will never tell us is why a man who looked so perfectly adjusted to his world, found it too much to be able to cope with it. And how, looking out at the Pacific from his beachside house in Oceanside, at the surf that he loved, he could choose to end his own life.