May 2, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; A detailed view of a hat left at the impromptu memorial in front of Seau's Restaurant at the Mission Valley Shopping Center after the news of the death of the San Diego Chargers former linebacker Junior Seau. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE
Whether head injuries played a factor in the tragic death of the future Hall of Fame linebacker or not, adjusting to life after football is never easy, and sometimes the pain that goes unspoken never truly goes away.
I'm not a professional football player. I never had any shot at being one. At 5'6 with no speed, no strength and an overall lack of discernable skill, that was pretty evident from the time I stepped on a field in high school. Some people's dreams end a lot sooner than others.
What I did do was play hard. I threw my body around in every sport, with no regard for the toll it would take on me physically. My shoulder is still reeling from a rotator cuff tear from baseball when I was 16, and my ankles wouldn't be able to support even 150 pounds at this point.
It's no surprise that my head took the most damage.
That's what makes news like Junior Seau's death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest so scary.
Even without college ball or a decade-plus of professional football, that very well could have been me.
I suffered at least three concussions in two years of high school football. I missed more than a quarter of my sophomore year of high school due to illness and depression. I've repressed or experienced memory loss for much of those two years. What I do remember is foggy, at best, and thanks to a severe bout of insomnia, much of it drifts in and out of what can be perceived as an inability to decipher between dream and reality.
At the time, I thought it was a puberty thing, adolescence, adjusting to being a teenager. The typical emo-filled angst that causes kids to fire up Taking Back Sunday albums. I internalized a lot of it, didn't share what I was feeling with my friends or parents, and even when they tried to help, I brushed them off. This was my battle. I was weak for even feeling the way I did, and I didn't want to admit that.
Naturally, I thought about ending it -- a lot.
Much of the research that has been done by Boston University and other fine institutions on head injuries in the last few years hadn't come to light yet, and it wasn't until a couple years ago that I made the connection to my concussions. It all lined up too well. It could all be traced back to the first one in which I lost consciousness.
It's very well possible that Junior Seau's suicide was influenced by head trauma. We don't know for sure, but we can speculate. We do know that others have experienced pain and strife after their playing days are over, and that -- even removing head injuries from the conversation -- the sheer impact of defining one's self as a football player, ending a career and giving everything you have for the game can leave you drained and lost afterward.
That's a scary moment for anyone, and the broken down bodies of this era's gladiators evoke the character Willy Lohman from Death Of A Salesman. From a 2008 NPR article:
We never really learn what Willy sells; mostly, he tries to sell himself. He is 63 and loves his sons, Biff and Happy. They find him foolish, a small-timer trapped in big dreams. Willy loves his wife, Linda, though he has sought companionship on the road.
Willy is ashamed: He's not selling things like he used to. He hears people laughing behind his back. He's disgraced that he can't pay an insurance bill because his wife had to repair their refrigerator.
He tries to hide his anxieties — and his hurts — with jokes and bluster, but his wife, Linda, has noticed that he's had a lot of driving accidents. One day, she goes into the basement, and finds a little rubber hose leading from a gas pipe.
Lohman was a pretty good salesman. He worked hard, he provided for his family and he did his best. When his career passed him by after 30 years in the business, he was alone and forgotten. But at the end of the day, he was still a human being. And at the end of the play, he was dead, after a suicide in which he crashed his car to allow his family to collect on the insurance money.
Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back -- that's an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you're finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.
And just like Willy, Seau crashed his car in what was initially thought to be a suicide attempt in 2010, but was later mentioned as a case of falling asleep at the wheel.
We don't know if concussions have anything to do with Junior Seau's death, but we do know that adjusting to life after football isn't easy.
And, personally, I know that concussions changed my life.
The mood disorder, bipolar, the memory loss, insomnia, the depression, the ups and downs, the constant feeling that I'm always this close to losing it all. I know now that my brain is damaged, and I never took even one iota of the beating that a man like Seau or Dave Duerson did.
But even years after the initial diagnosis and hundreds of doctor's appointments, therapy sessions and pills later, I still thought about crashing my own car during a severe bout in March of 2011, leading to a brief hospital stay.
The problems never go away, and finding peace isn't as easy as "asking for help" or "reaching out."
As with much of science, you have to define the question before you start a search for the answer.
If anything comes out of the tragic loss of Junior Seau, hopefully we'll be one step closer to finding some answers. Plenty more questions have certainly been raised.