Thursday, May 3, 2012

Junior Seau

Today a man fifteen days younger than me put a gun to his chest and ended his life.

Tiaina Baul Seau, Jr. and I never met. He was born in American Samoa, grew up in San Diego, became a four-sport star athlete, and decided to play college football at USC. Seau had to sit out his freshman year because he fell ten points shy of the aggregate minimum SAT score of 700 required to participate in collegiate sports at USC. By all accounts -- and anecdotal evidence from scores of interviews and his short-lived television series Sports Jobs more than bears this out -- Seau was anything but a dumb jock, but the sting of going from exalted status to cheerleader never set well with him. His junior year at USC he was a unanimous first-team All-American. A few months later the San Diego Chargers made him the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft.

I'm a New England guy, a Patriots fan, so except for playoff match-ups, I rarely saw Seau play in games that carried a lot of weight for me personally. Still, in the dozen seasons he played on the left coast, I saw more than a couple handfuls of Chargers games that didn't involve the Pats, plus a lot of highlight clips during the postgame shows, so I was as familiar with his impressive career as any casual sports fan. I vaguely remember him playing a few seasons in our division, for the hapless Dolphins, but after that first season in which he started all but one game (and recorded 133 tackles), he was injured much of the remainder of his contract and the Dolphins finally released him in the offseason of 2006.

A few months after the Dolphins released him, Seau announced (tearfully) his retirement from professional football. I don't begrudge him the tears: it was a game he'd mastered and which had, but for the caprices of competitive sports, treated him well. That combination of love for something outside of yourself, coupled with reciprocal affection from a massive fan base, is hard to walk away from. Plus, I believe on the most fundamental level Seau was lamenting the loss of something that felt to him very much like home.

Fortunately, Seau wasn't homeless for long: four days after he announced his retirement, my beloved New England Patriots offered him a job. And goddamn if he didn't play his heart out in New England, people. That first season, he looked like a man ten years younger than we all knew he was: smart and wise as his age would dictate, but quick and fierce and strong, like a rookie trying to make his bones. It was goddamned gorgeous to watch, and I felt myself, as a fan, experiencing something the word for which I use painfully judiciously: blessed. In November, after the better part of a solid season, it was more than typically painful to watch him jog off the field after he'd made a tackle that broke his arm against the Bears, ending his year. It was more painful still a season later to watch the ass-fucking New York Giants outplay us and, after an absolutely remarkable undefeated season, deny the Pats another Super Bowl title -- thus denying Seau, after such a brilliant career, his first ring.

The rest is mostly incidental. He played another season and change with the Pats, but overall it was a holding-pattern season: Brady was hurt, and the lingering heartache of 2007 tinged everything with faint loathing. In 2009 he played in slightly fewer than half the Patriots' games. In January 2010 he announced his retirement for the second time, but again, incidental.

There's much that I will remember about Seau. As a football player, particularly a linebacker, he was an early version of what is essentially common today. Once upon a time there was Lawrence Taylor, a fearsome giant (and Giant, pun intended) whose speed and strength far exceeded that of anyone who would keep him from the backfield, allowed him to bite a stiff-arm off at the elbow and chew straight through to the ball-carrier. In the 1980s we all thought that was the direction the linebacker position had taken. And then Seau arrived and we realized it was possible to package the closing speed, hands and agility of a Pro-Bowl cornerback in the body of a linebacker. The results bear it out: he put up Hall of Fame numbers, and was the guy offenses schemed to avoid. He was a one-man defense.

He was also charismatic as hell, in his Trilby hat, rolling out that multi-million dollar smile. He was as fierce a competitor as there ever was, but he was also a guy who loved the life he'd made for himself.

But he was also a man who, by virtue of not just his chosen profession but also the position he played on the field, placed his head at or near the impact point hundreds and hundreds of times over the course of a professional career that spanned nearly twenty years. It's staggering to think that we are only just now becoming painfully aware of the real consequences of head trauma. Read my friend Travis' heart-wrenching and thoughtful article here. Or google suicides by former NFL players, and take note of how many of them (Seau included) killed themselves in such a way that they left their brains fully intact, at least presumably so that medical science would have the opportunity to examine their brains and identify the effects their pro-football careers had on the soft tissue buried deep beneath their helmets and skulls.

At the first high school I attended, I played part of one football season (because they didn't offer soccer back then -- the only fall sport I'd ever known, and one poor kids could easily play because the equipment requirements were far less costly than those of peewee football). I gave it up one day when I found myself stretched out on my bed two hours after practice, an ice pack on my swollen and bruised elbow, and my best friend walked into the room and said, "Hey. How's it going?" I looked at him for a full minute before I knew who he was. I was fourteen years old, and in practice that day I'd managed to experience what was almost certainly my first concussion. I only ever knew one way to play sports: all out between the whistles. In my heart of hearts, I still believe that's a worthwhile philosophy, in sports as well as in much of life. But I was ill-equipped to exercise my ethic in that environment (I was undersized at my position, and little did I know that a helmet was more of a suggestion of safety than a guarantee), and the adults who were responsible for making sure I didn't do any lasting harm to myself were ill-suited to that task. The next day I quit the team, and I never regretted it for a moment.

But please don't misunderstand me: I am not suggesting we ban football. Not by the remotest long-shot am I saying that. Nonetheless, something must change, and it must change now, not eventually. A little more than a hundred years ago, after a spate of college football related deaths and serious injuries, President Theodore Roosevelt called the coaches of Harvard, Yale and Princeton (the powerhouses of the early twentieth century) to the White House and encouraged them to reform the game in ways that would minimize the risk to the young men who played the game. The changes that were made -- from such landmark alterations as legalizing the forward pass and eliminating barbaric practices like the flying wedge, to simply enforcing existing rules more harshly -- both revolutionized the game and made it, if not entirely safe, then at least manageably so, and many credit Roosevelt with saving the game of football. That was 1905, and it was college football. In this current multi-billion dollar professional football industry, who will step in and have the stones to save the game and the young men who play it?

Tiaina Baul Seau, Jr. was a tremendous athlete, a fierce competitor, a great teammate, and a gentleman ambassador for not only his sport but the sporting life. If you don't believe me, watch the episode of Sports Jobs in which he's the equipment manager for the Washington Capitals (and does a stint in net -- on skates, no less). Whatever else may be said, whatever may come to light in the days and weeks ahead, Tiaina Baul Seau, Jr. -- Junior Seau, as it seems everyone knew him -- was far too young to reach the end of his rope. Suicide is always a staggering tragedy, but if it proves likely Junior Seau chose to end his life rather than continue to deal with the demons brought to life by a football-battered brain, then shame on everyone who has ever enjoyed watching and/or playing the game. Ask yourself if there is anything worth loving if it kills the ones who make it worthy of your love. Fix the goddamned game. Fix it now.

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