Junior Seau, Curtis Martin, and what we know

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Junior Seau was officially diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease this week, leaving the rest of us to connect the dots between the way he died and what it says about the game he played. Let's start with Curtis Martin.

Curtis Martin told the truth about how little the game meant to him for most of his life. "When I'm in situations like this," he said as he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in August, "especially when I'm being honored for something that I've achieved in football, it always makes me feel a little awkward and out of place because I've just never really been able to identify with the love and the passion that a lot of my colleagues and a lot of the other alumni of the Hall of Fame have."

This wasn't just a childhood thing. "I can remember draft day like it was yesterday," he told the crowd in Canton. "The phone rings and it's Bill Parcells. I answer the phone and say hello, and Parcells says, Curtis, we want to know if you're interested in being a New England Patriot? I said, yes, yes, sir. And we hang up the phone. As soon as we hang up the phone I turn around to everyone and I said, oh, my gosh, I do not want to play football."

"No, you're laughing, but this is the truth. I turned around and said I don't want to play football. I don't even know that I like football enough to try to make a career out of it. My pastor at the time was a guy by the name of Leroy Joseph, and I'm so glad he was there to talk some sense into me. He says, Curtis, look at it this way, man. He said maybe football is just something that God is giving you to do all those wonderful things that you say you want to do for other people. I tell you, it was like a light bulb came on in my head. That became my connection with football."

And in a literal way, football saved Curtis Martin. "By the time I was 15, growing up in the environment that I was in, I had so many brushes with death. I remember one distinct time a guy had a gun to my head, a loaded gun to my head, pulled the trigger seven times. God's honest truth, the bullet didn't come out. He wasn't pointing the gun at me and pulled the trigger and a bullet came out. I was too young to even recognize that God was saving my life."

He adds: "You get to by the time I'm in high school. By this time I'm a full‑fledged product of my environment. I've done a lot of things that I'm not proud of. But my mother comes to me and she says, Curt, listen. Your grandmother's gone. My sister's gone. You've had so many brushes with death yourself, I'm just going to tell you this, Curt, I want you to do something after school. It doesn't matter what it is. It could be football, baseball, basketball, join the glee club, join the band, whatever it may be. Just do something so you're not in this neighborhood 24 hours a day, just take up two extra hours of your time. She said, because if something happens to you, they might as well kill me too, because you're the only thing that I'm living for."

"And at the same time my gym teacher was the head football coach. His name is Mark Wittgartner, he's here. He comes up to me while we're in school, and he says, son, I want you to play for our football team. I said, well, I don't really have an interest, Coach."

"He said, well, listen, if you don't do something with your life, from what I hear about you, you're going to end up dead or in jail pretty soon."

"With him in one ear and my mother in the other ear, football became the default that I fell into. And Coach Mark Wittgartner, you have no idea what you were saying to me, but I believe what you said could have been the possible thing that saved my life. I think you were right."

And then football changed him: "Even though I didn't initially like playing football or anything, as I played, I began to understand that football was shaping me as a man. It was like I was learning about life through football. It was the first time in my life that I ever committed to something and stuck to it. It was the first time that I worked hard to really give my all toward something because I didn't want to squander the opportunity that I had."

"I'll never forget. I was injured one day, and it was really bad. I go to him and I say, Coach Parcells was like my consiglieri, isn't that what they call it in the mob? So I would always call him when I was making big decisions. So I call him, I said, 'Coach, my knee is really killing me. I don't know that I can play with it.'"

"He said, 'Curtis, well, listen, I'm a big fan of you taking care of your body first.' But he said, 'I've always believed one thing, Curtis.'

"I said 'What's that, Coach?'"

"You know that voice Parcells has. 'You should never come out of the huddle because you never know who is going in the huddle.' And that was something that stuck with me."

"That's one of the lessons that the NFL taught me," Martin said. "You're always replaceable. There is someone always right on your heels. And every year, I tell you, there was someone. I'm not being modest, there was someone on that team had that had more ability, was quicker, stronger, faster and I just outworked everyone."

As he continued later in the speech, "Earlier this week, I was asked if I would allow my child to play football. I said, well, football's getting bigger, stronger, faster, tougher. I don't know. I would probably be reluctant. But if my kid can learn what I learned from this game, I think it's worth the risk."

"It's not necessarily what you achieve in life that matters most," Martin concludes toward the end. "But it's who you become in the process of those achievements that really matters." Football truly made Curtis Martin a better man. Or at least, this is how Curtis Martin sees it.

Back in August it was pretty much impossible to watch the speech from that Beloved Hall Of Fame Warrior without remembering Junior Seau, the Beloved Future Hall of Fame Warrior who shot himself in the chest back in May.

This week we found out what we always sorta knew: Seau's brain was degenerating thanks to years of head trauma incurred in the NFL, which left him suffering from "chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to dementia, memory loss and depression."

We know more about the consequences of concussions than ever, and still don't really know anything. We know CTE is bad and prevalent among retired NFL players, and sure there's someone like Seau, but he's an extreme example. The question is how many players don't kill themselves after they leave football, and instead just live 20 or 30 years quietly soaking in their own misery. We have no idea. Because football players aren't always honest about depression or dementia, because the symptoms look different in different people, and because the vast majority of football players aren't rich and famous enough to do anything but disappear when they leave the game. We're all sort of guessing.

Then only certainty is that even now, with millions of fans wringing their hands over this stuff, the game's more batshit insane any of us realize. As Martin told us in Canton:

So we're playing the Raiders and I get hit down field. I pop up, but I realize everything is black. I'm like, oh, my gosh. I'm kind of knocked out. So I'm trying to hold on to people. I finally make my way back to the huddle. I'm standing in the huddle for a while, and I just have my hands on my hip. The guy turns around and he says, what are you doing? And I like looked again. I was in the Raiders huddle. I thought that I was just‑‑ I thought that it was just black because I hadn't come to yet. But I was in the Raiders huddle.

"It was a Jets game," an NFL Films producer once remembered in a profile of the Sabol family this year. "Curtis Martin takes a handoff and runs to the sideline. A defender comes up, and they collide right in front of me. I thought they were both dead. Two people that big, that fast, hitting each other full speed -- I thought I’d witnessed a murder. Then they jump up and run back, and I saw it 30 more times in the next hour, and I realized that what you see from the stands is nothing. That’s what we want to show people: what it’s really like."

The leading CTE researchers at Boston University tell research subjects that concussions include, "Any time you hit your head and had any side effects of any kind beyond pain. Disorientation, dizziness, blurred vision, nausea, that feeling of 'having your bell rung.' Even if for only a few seconds." And that happens 30 times an hour in an NFL game.

This article about Junior Seau and CTE is mostly about Curtis Martin because there's no better football success story than Martin's. The game literally saved his life, football coaches taught him how to be a man, and it all ended at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And no sane football fan can read his triumphant acceptance speech without wincing in 10 different places.

This summer, 49ers tight end Delanie Walker told ESPN that football had saved him from crime and drugs and poverty just like it did for Martin. "I know I'm probably gonna have some problems when I get older," he said. "I've already broken my jaw in two places. I got metal plates in my face. I just had surgery on my knees, surgery on my shoulder twice. I'm losing cartilage in my knees."

"I can't do anything else," he added. "If they was to say, 'You keep playing football, when you 60 you might have heart failure, you might not remember your kids,' that's just something I have to chance. Because without this, my kid ain't be in the situation he's in now. I didn't want him growing up the way I grew up. He's in private school, dresses good, has whatever he wants." People like Curtis Martin and Delanie Walker help rationalize this for us -- Curtis Martin's grateful for football, and Delanie Walker has no regrets, and it saved their lives in a real, tangible way. It's worth it for them, we can tell ourselves.

Besides, we don't know enough to prove anything about what exactly football does to the brain, how many people it happens to, or whether we can ever prevent it.

But we know enough to know.

Reading the Seau news Thursday morning and knowing for sure now that football helped ruin his brain, I couldn't help thinking back to Curtis Martin's Hall of Fame speech in August -- how it immediately made me think of Seau and how we definitely knew all this then. We know it now, too, and it will all continue. This isn't a big hit problem or an equipment problem. It's a 30 times-an-hour problem, or whatever the number really is. Dementia or depression or whatever the effects really are. It may be worth it to NFL players, and it was probably worth it to Seau for his 20 year career, but among sane people who read about these tragedies every year, there's really no question that football won't be worth it to us for very much longer. Nobody can prove this exactly, and we'll all watch the playoffs this weekend and the Super Bowl next month, but deep down, we all know.

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Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

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