SAN DIEGO, CA - NOVEMBER 17: Linebacker Junior Seau #55 of the San Diego Chargers stands on the field before the NFL game against the San Francisco 49ers at Qualcomm Stadium on November 17, 2002 in San Diego, California. According to reports May 2, 2012, Seau, 43, was found dead in his home in Oceanside, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Unlike almost anyone else who appears on our televisions, athletes live in unscripted, uncertain chaos while they do. And when a beloved athlete dies ... it's just a little bit different.
Your favorite musicians play in front of you what they spent weeks obsessing over in a trailer rolling through the interstate. The things that actors do, the things that make them your favorite actors, happened on the 11th take. Your favorite politicians, if anyone still has any, craft their bills and strategies and arguments hundreds of miles and thousands of walls away from you.
The process of the athlete is reversed: the certain, scripted, rote activities happen far away, leaving nothing for you to witness but the organic. The point guard will not take a request to reach into his catalog and play a jam off his first season, and the quarterback does not hold his notes in his hand when he takes the stage: they're laminated and strapped to his arm, lest they become as crumpled and ruined as he is about to be.
That's the strangest thing about all of it. Sports are the doings of imaginary things, like carrying an inflatable leather token -- that's what it is, an idea with stitches -- across a painted line to gather a commodity that can't be eaten or worn or held in one's hand. And somehow it's in this arena, and not any of those others, that we witness human beings actually living like human beings: in ceaseless uncertainty, reaching unscripted conclusions.
And that is how real, interpersonal connections happen through a television screen. And maybe that's the only way it happens. They know us like a seagull might know a grain of sand, usually no more than peripherally aware of us, so it's certainly a one-sided connection. It is, though, a connection.
I won't speak for you, but it's this unusual quality that delivers me the extra punch in the gut. I watched Junior Seau when I was 9 years old, and I watched him when I was 27. Of course, I would make a habit of spotting him on the field in the first place because he was great and famous, and because he gave the networks plenty of reasons to show him again in slow motion. And then one day I stopped, or more accurately should have stopped, and realized that across most of my life, I had watched this person do work, act without a finished script, and live the real, uncertain life of a human being.
I can say that of few people: family members, a few friends, and people like Junior Seau.
The sorrow is still distant. My heart isn't shattered, because I didn't truly know him, and human beings don't really tend to work that way. It's just that my gap between knowing it's sad and feeling the sadness is a little bit smaller.
An athlete's death is not necessarily more or less sad, or significant, or what have you, than an actor's or musician's or senator's or weatherman's. It's just that over the last 100 or so years, humanity has suddenly found itself in this odd position of seeing people on a screen who aren't really there, and deciding how to feel about these not-people. The rest of these not-people act, entertain us, tell us jokes, give us things to think about, and do all sorts of meaningful things, but they still don't arrive in our living rooms as people in real conflict. Only athletes do.
My general feeling is that you shouldn't be made to feel simple or stupid for feeling sorrow over just about anyone's death, but if you catch any guff from someone for mourning Junior Seau, Man You've Never Met, would you please tell them I told them to go eat shit? Mourn for every occasion and reason you so choose. Your reasons, of course, might not necessarily be mine: that for two decades, I watched a man swim through chaos and find the shore, only to dive back in seven days later.
Goodbye, Mr. Seau. I'm not on terms to call you Junior, because I didn't know you. But I saw you. Not the polished, greatest 3 percent of you. I saw you.