Junior Seau's Death, And Football's Finite Religion

FOXBORO, MA - AUGUST 19: Junior Seau #55 of the New England Patriots smiles from the sidelines as his team plays the Arizona Cardinals during their pre season game on August19, 2006 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. According to reports May 2, 2012, Seau, 43, was found dead in his home in Oceanside, California. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Junior Seau committed suicide in San Diego on Wednesday, and in the wake of a tragedy, we're left with more questions than ever about concussions, depression and the NFL.

"Junior ... He transcended the football field." This was a former teammate, Marcellus Wiley, fighting through tears on ESPN Radio Wednesday afternoon. "To watch that guy, maybe all week couldn't walk. Sprained something, broke something. Doctor says 4-6 weeks, he says, 'I'll be there for you on Sunday.' Then Sunday came, one o'clock, you saw him in the midst of all that adversity, say, 'I'm gonna do this for us.'" Wednesday, Junior Seau shot himself with a handgun and died alone in his bedroom.

"To see that guy bleed," Wiley continues. "To see that guy go through all those ills, just so you guys had a chance. To see that come out of a person ... "

The host cuts in here. "Sacrifice. You're talking about sacrifice. It's one of the things that's resonated about Christianity through the centuries. ... Sacrificing of themselves for the greater good."

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Seau's death comes at a tense time for the NFL. The league's facing several class action lawsuits related to its handling of concussions and their side effects. Worse, we're just two weeks removed from Ray Easterling, a plaintiff in one of those lawsuits, committing suicide. As USA Today reported:

After his playing days were over, Easterling started to suffer the consequences of the years of bruising hits, his wife said. He suffered from depression and insomnia, and as his dementia progressed he lost the ability to focus, organize his thoughts and relate to people.

He was part of a group of seven former players who sued the NFL in Philadelphia in August, claiming that the league failed to properly treat players for concussion and tried to conceal for decades any links between football and brain injuries.

There have been others, too. Terry Long was a 42 year old former Pittsburgh Steeler who drank himself to death with anti-freeze in 2005. A medical examiner concluded he was suffering "chronic traumatic encephalopathy", or CTE, a condition related to concussions and head trauma.


RELATED: What We Know About CTE And Brain Injuries To Athletes

There was also Andre Waters, the former-Eagles safety who shot in himself in the head at 44 years old. A forensic pathologist concluded his brain resembled that of an 85-year-old man. As the doctor told the New York Times, if he'd lived, within 10 or 15 years, "Andre Waters would have been fully incapacitated."

Last year, there was Dave Duerson, the ex-Bear who took his own life at 50 years old. He shot himself in the chest instead of the head, and left a note telling family members to submit his brain for research into CTE and its side-effects. Wednesday, Seau shot himself in the chest, too.

There's been extensive research into the connections between depression, dementia and concussions, and while nobody's uncovered conclusive proof, the anecdotal evidence keeps piling up.

We don't know whether Seau was suffering from CTE, and we won't for a while. In the interim, there will be plenty who connect the dots themselves, and that's fair enough. But it doesn't really matter because Seau's suicide shines a light on the problem regardless.

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"I know I'm going to have my day when something is going to happen, whether it be short-term memory loss or whatever." This is Dominc Raiola, a current Detroit Lion, commenting on the health concerns for football players a few months ago. "Those things are going to come. It's common knowledge people are going to suffer. Memory loss is going to come. I am ready for it. It's worth it; totally worth it. This is the best job in the world and I wouldn't trade it for anything."

The NFL will adopt safety measures, sure. They can only ignore the connections for so long. As the years pass, evidence mounts, and the league's liability becomes undeniable, football will gradually look very different. But you can only change it so much before it becomes a completely different sport. That's where perspectives like those of Raiola become the biggest problem with football.

Plenty of players would echo his sentiment, and in fairness, plenty of them walk away without any reason to regret it. Not everyone who plays in the NFL spends the rest of their life drowning in depression and dementia. Look at Marcellus Wiley, Seau's former teammate and a successful NFL analyst in retirement.

But then look at Wiley's fond memories of how Seau played through pain, ignored doctors and was always there for the team. That's when you get a sense for the fundamental insanity that defines football in 21st Century.

We're beginning to understand the dangers inherent to football, but understanding isn't the problem; the problem is that players love football precisely because of the dangers that define it. The sacrifices that have been proven to cut lives short are the sacrifices that allow players to live forever in the minds of teammates and fans. And if football players understand the risks better in 2012, we still haven't gotten much indication that they want any changes.

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"Football is a religion" is something people say to describe the way our obsession with the game, but that's using religion more like "tradition." Look at the players and coaches who define their lives between the lines, sacrificing their bodies and minds ... That's where "football is a religion" begins to make more sense.

"You know what this game's all about?" Seau asked Peter King in 2000. "Respect. The respect you can earn only between those white lines."

It reminds me of something I read on religion back in college, from a German philosopher named Friedrich Schleiermacher. He said religion was founded in emotion. Not doing, not knowing, but a feeling that brought a "sense and taste for the infinite in the finite."

Understanding what makes professional athletes tick probably goes back to that idea. Where the game gives players a taste of "the infinite" in an otherwise finite life. Whether it's respect, money, fame ... Between those white lines, football provides a gateway to transcendence on a weekly basis. Until one day it doesn't.

Because football is a religion that ends. And when it's over, all the weekly highs are replaced with the reality of whatever physical or psychological pain comes next. A lot of players are willing to pay that price if they have to. Others have already paid. And that was one of the reasons Wednesday's news was so hard to process.

Seau's death is gut-wrenching regardless of how it happened, but sitting there Wednesday, it was impossible to ignore the context hanging over everything. Where I found myself thinking about football and looking at the other suicides and all the class action suits, knowing deep down that even if Seau's death isn't tied to brain trauma, it's only a matter of time before another player's will be.

Once you realize that, and you remember even the best precautions won't prevent concussions and head trauma among today's players, loving football feels almost as insane as playing it. At least for today.

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"Too many athletes are living in a tiny window," Seau told Sports Illustrated in 1993. "They have no vision for themselves — what they can be outside of football and what they can mean to a community. They just don't know any better. My hopes and dreams are unlimited."

"The guy's a buzz saw," Howie Long gushed in that SI piece. "His RPMs are on redline all the time, but mentally he's under control, and that's unusual for a young player." Twenty years later Junior Seau lost control mentally. In 2012, it's not that unusual for an old player.

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