For as long as I can remember, journalists and commentators have applied war metaphors to football: the players are warriors, the coaches generals, the gridiron a battlefield.
Ever since I returned from Iraq, I've bristled at these comparisons. NFL stars play a game; Marines and soldiers make life-and-death decisions in the service of their country. Pro football players are paid handsomely, and though they work incredibly hard to maintain their place in an unforgiving work environment, they can also enjoy the pleasures of trainers, masseurs, dietitians and -- notably for a young man in harm's way -- nubile young women in VIP rooms. I rode in a tank on 685 kilometers of unfriendly Iraqi highway from the Kuwaiti border to Baghdad over the course of a bloody, sleepless month without a shower, and for this I resented the comparison to a professional athlete.
Junior Seau's death by self-inflicted gunshot shook the world of professional football this week. It was the third and most shocking suicide by a former NFL player in 15 months, and the immediate echoes of Dave Duerson -- who shot himself in the chest in order to preserve his brain specifically for Boston University's research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) -- opened a window of dark speculation that a career in the NFL is even more damaging and dangerous than we already knew it to be.
Even taking into account Seau's plunge off a cliff in his SUV in 2010 -- which the linebacker claimed was accidental -- the news came as a shock. In the split second it took to squeeze the trigger, Seau robbed his family, his community and his fans of the tenacious spirit and warm heart that endeared him to millions over a pro career spanning two decades and into retirement, where he was a popular figure throughout San Diego's sunny sprawl and particularly in his hometown of Oceanside, the place he ended his life.
Oceanside lacks the charm of most beachside towns in southern California: dingy tattoo parlors, barbershops, bars that cater to people with a paycheck to burn. Hop on the choked artery of I-5 going north, and the next exit is for Camp Pendleton, where the 1st Marine Division has its headquarters. Take that exit, and you enter winding roads that hug the coastal hills, roads that bear the names Vandegrift and Basilone, Marine heroes who lived and died before there was anything called traumatic brain injury (TBI). Stay on I-5, and you drive through an undeveloped stretch of pristine coastline used to train young Americans in the art of war.
It's been a long time since I served -- long enough, perhaps, for some perspective. I was on active duty from 2000 until 2004: one tour in Iraq and a small medal. I left the service voluntarily, knowing that I could never match the surreal experience of leading a tank platoon in the invasion of a sovereign country. (If you want an approximate football equivalent, I was the captain of a special teams unit on an NFL playoff team one year.) I called it quits before my profession and relative lack of skill got me maimed or killed. Perhaps its's cowardly, but recognizing that you're ill-suited for a career that wantonly kills its disciples is the first step to living longer.
There have been three NFL suicides in the last year-plus; there are 18 veteran suicide attempts every day. Just as the NFL is coming to grips with its concussion problem and the ensuing link to CTE and suicide, so too is the military struggling to overcome the tough-guy attitude that caused it to overlook concussions and TBIs following the detonation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), a hallmark of service in Afghanistan and Iraq that is now inextricably linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and veteran suicide.
The human brain, we're learning, is a delicate and complicated organ. It doesn't suffer well the abuse that we honor on holidays or cheer on Sundays, and those who endure it the longest enter a civilian world that feels simplistic, lacking the violence and drama and import that they've been trained to cherish.
Just as bad, the newness of our awareness to these maladies creates a ripple effect: because there are so few studies about football's link to CTE and TBIs' link to PTSD, doctors can only play a guessing game with which pills to prescribe -- a dangerous gamble when your patient is leaving for a 180-day deployment with unlimited access to firearms. (The number of active-duty soldiers on sedatives and anti-depressants has increased eightfold since 2005.)
I had many weaknesses as a Marine. I lacked physical strength, overvalued my individualism, and cared too little for the small details that make the Corps an elite force. But I excelled in one arena: I didn't need sleep. I was alert in warm, dull classrooms after lunch; on watch in the small hours of the night; when I screamed at Sergeant Melville for nodding off at night during a road march that had stretched into a fifth day.
I still don't sleep, not the way normal people do. I prize the dark hours by myself; it's then that the memories are best and worst. I don't drink alone; I enjoy this whiskey with ghosts. The alcohol gives the ugly past a nostalgic, sepia tone. With the right medication, it was not so long ago that I was young and strong and full of purpose, that every day had meaning and consequence, that stakes were high, that I demanded the best of myself just as surely as I needed the utmost from the savage young men beside me.
Sometimes, there's a thin line between cherishing life you have and missing what's gone forever. Junior Seau's death is a terrible, tragic loss; I can only hope that someone compares him to a soldier.