Junior Seau apparently committed suicide today. That's what the police suspect, anyway, so it's what we'll have to go on for now, too. Seau was one of my favorite players growing up, and I surmise that's a sentiment I share with lots of people my age. I'm deeply saddened today.
I would love to say that I'm in disbelief, that this news cannot be believed. But with every former NFL player who dies confused, addled and far too early—only to be diagnosed with CTE after his death—it just starts to feel like a pattern, a broken record that we're tired of hearing but can't do anything about.
Let's get some critically important facts out of the way right now: We don't know what prompted Seau's apparent suicide. We don't know if he had CTE. We don't know if his decision to shoot himself in the chest was related to Dave Duerson's similar suicide, which was done to preserve his brain for CTE.
We do know that people without CTE or other brain injury can be suicidal. We do know that former football players are as susceptible to suicidal depression as anybody else, even with perfectly functioning brains.
Indeed, all we know about Junior Seau is that he's dead today.
But that fact alone terrifies me.
I'm 30 years old. I played three years of organized football—two in high school, one in college—and I played on the line all three years. I probably suffered two concussions during that time (one in a bike crash, which is not a football thing but is certainly a brain thing) and spent hundreds of days in the meantime taking the regular amount of contact to the head one gets in practice.
I also don't regret one minute of my involvement with the sport in any way, shape or form. Sure, my right knee creaks, and I got knocked around a lot for very little playing time in return. But it was a blast and every coach I had did the best he could to make sure his players were well taken care of. You will never, ever hear me say I wish I had never played football.
In the ensuing years, however, I've found myself to be less mentally clear than I used to be. I've always prided myself on my vocabulary, but there are days when I use a word in conversation that's not even close to what I meant, and it takes me a few seconds to figure out what went wrong.
Sometimes I wander. Sometimes I lose track of as much as an hour of time. I don't know what causes all this—I've always been absent-minded, even in elementary school—but these lapses feel odd.
Maybe it's just aging. Maybe everyone starts doing this in their late 20s. I don't know. I do know that when I hear reports of former football players gradually losing their faculties, I worry badly and deeply.
I'm not suicidal in any way and never have been. This isn't a cry for help. I know where to find help and so should you.
But I also worry that so few of these football players who die young and with suicidal ideations are doing it as young as I am now. What happens when I'm 40? 50? Is something worse coming? Am I in the clear? How can I not know whether I'm in the clear? These are the things I worry about, and these are things that, frankly, a lot of people should worry about.
By sheer numbers, the amount of former organized football players is extraordinarily high.
There are over 16,000 high school football teams in the country, according to MaxPreps.com, and assuming a conservative estimate of 15 seniors graduating from each team each year, we can assume that there are nearly 10 million men who have played at least high school ball in just the last 40 years. It's probably even more, but let's just round up and use that number.
There aren't that many men going through what guys like former Eagle Andre Waters, former Falcon Ray Easterling or former Steeler Mike Brewster did. It would be a national disaster if there were.
So the logical conclusion is that playing football, by itself, is not a harbinger of bad things happening to your brain. Indeed, it's not hard to find people with even long NFL careers who are leading long, happy lives after retirement. This is complicated stuff and nobody understands it fully. Not the doctors at Boston University conducting the groundbreaking CTE study, not the people suffering from CTE, not you and certainly not me.
But I think I know enough to worry.
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