In 2009, his 20th and final season in the NFL, Junior Seau discovered a new obsession that would help ease his transition into retirement. A friend presented him a ukulele, and Seau instantly fell in love with its breezy, Hawaiian sounds. Never mind that he couldn’t carry a tune or that he didn’t know all of the words to any songs. And it certainly didn’t matter that after two decades as one of the greatest defensive players in pro football history, he possessed “linebacker hands.” His massive fingers were arthritic, misshapen, swollen and scarred, thanks to having been stomped on in piles, again and again, by teammates and opponents wearing cleats.
No matter how good or how bad the music was that Seau made, the ukulele gave him a sense of peace, connecting him with his family’s island roots in American Samoa and transporting him back to a time where his life was simple, back to his days as a kid growing up in a one-car garage on Zeiss Street in Oceanside, fueled by an impossible dream.
Seau's widow Gina talks about life with Junior. (Also see Seau video playlist under Chargers)
Seau took his ukulele everywhere, and he played it around the clock. On the balcony of his Oceanside home, overlooking the Pacific, waving to people as they walked by on The Strand. On his sectional sofa with his 125-pound dog at the hospital for his first grandchild, a girl named Kale’a, to be born to his son Tyler.
“What Samoan plays country songs on a ukulele?” teased his daughter, Sydney, 19. “He wouldn’t let it go. It never ended. He was so tone deaf. He’d say, ‘Syd, I could’ve made it so big.’ And I’d say, ‘Dad, you’re horrible!’ ”
“The man could not sing,” said his son Jake, 16. “He couldn’t hit the notes. But he loved it. In the middle of my lacrosse games, I’d look up into the stands, and there he’d be, relaxing back into the bleachers, legs spread wide open, wearing flip flops, board shorts and tank tops. I’d laugh to myself, ‘It’s winter, Dad.’ He’d just be strumming away, lost in his own little world.”
When Seau put a .357-caliber Magnum up against his chest and shot a bullet through his heart on the morning of May 2, his family and friends didn’t find a suicide note. Instead, they found a suicide song. On the kitchen counter of his home, Seau, 43, left a piece of paper, on which he’d scribbled the lyrics to his favorite country song, “Who I Ain’t.” Co-written by his friend Jamie Paulin, a Nashville-based songwriter, the song is about a man who once had it all, but ended up making a mess of his life and is so filled with regrets that he can’t forgive himself.
I never made a deal with the devil, but I broke promises to the Lord.
I’ve tried to be the man I should, but sometimes I fall short.
I’m not a man of anger; I never meant to hurt no one.
But there are things in my life, I’m sad to say I’ve done.
Cuz I broke the hearts of angels, cursed my fellow man
Turned from the Bible with a bottle in my hand.
My only hope for forgiveness, when the good Lord calls my name
Is that He knows who I am and who I ain’t.
I haven’t been to church on Sunday since I was in Sunday school
I used to blame Saturday nights but I wore out that excuse
I’m sitting in the twilight of my younger years
When I think about the man I was, it brings the man I am to tears.
Cuz I broke the hearts of angels, cursed my fellow man
Turned from the Bible with a bottle in my hand
My only hope for forgiveness, when the good Lord calls my name
Is that He knows who I am and who I ain’t.
The picture of retirement for NFL players isn’t pretty.
Within 12 to 24 months of retiring, three out of four NFL players will be one or more of the following: alcohol or drug addicted; divorced; or financially distressed/bankrupt.
Junior Seau was all three.
Junior Seau: The real story
Part 1: Song of sorrow.
Part 2: Bitter endgame.
About this series
Over the past five months, author and journalist Jill Lieber Steeg conducted dozens of interviews with Junior Seau’s family, friends, past and present NFL owners, general managers, coaches, public relations staff, teammates and players, foundation board members, business and financial associates, and other sources, including gambling, concussion and mental health experts.
Interviews took place in person in San Diego, Oceanside and Las Vegas, and by phone and email. Additional reporting came from a review of legal documents, including divorce papers, child support claims, the John W. Gillette, Jr. grand theft and forgery case, a domestic violence complaint, 911 call transcripts and Seau’s autopsy report.
Video: U-T TV's Scott Kaplan interviews author Jill Lieber Steeg
Additional coverage: Junior Seau | 1969-2012
Instead of a life of leisure, playing golf, enjoying the beach or playing with children or grandchildren, NFL players’ transition into retirement brings up difficult issues and uncomfortable feelings: identity crisis, loss of structure, loss of purpose, isolation, denial, anxiety and depression.
Seau was experiencing all of those things.
The suicide rate for NFL players is six times the national average, according to GamesOver.org, a not-for-profit organization that provides transitional resources to benefit retired professional athletes.
On May 2, only 29 months after he’d officially retired from his spectacular NFL career, Seau ended his life.
“Every NFL player has trouble transitioning into the real world. You’re lying if you say you don’t,” said John Lynch Jr., a nine-time NFL Pro Bowler who was Seau’s offseason workout partner. “Superstars like Junior have the most trouble. They’re incredibly blessed with talent, and they have an incredible amount of passion and all-out love. They’re so dang competitive.
“When you retire from the NFL, you’re a young man, by real-world standards. You’ve got a lot of life to live, and suddenly, you’re hit with the realization: ‘I’ll never have that again.’ There’s no way to replicate football — its physicality, its euphoria, the adulation, the outlet for your energy and passion. …
“People ask why retiring from the NFL is so hard. All of sudden, you find yourself wondering, ‘What’s my purpose in life?’ You have to be centered and grounded. You need great faith and family systems. You’d better have rocks around you if you want to get through the transition from the NFL into the real world without becoming a statistic.”
“Junior’s tragic death sheds a light on life after football and the vacuum that it is,” said former Chargers special teams star Hank Bauer, the team’s longtime radio analyst. “Sadly, it’s the only thing that will impetus change.”
Who Junior Seau was seemed absolutely clear. He was the most beloved athlete in San Diego history, the most iconic Samoan athlete ever and the most physically gifted San Diego Chargers player of all time.
Who he became, a person he never wanted or meant to be, now seems clear, as well: the very opposite of that bright, outgoing, successful man, someone who in the end was isolated, depressed and desperate.
The reasons are harder to fathom, although the list of potential factors seems long: alcoholism, perhaps, gambling problems, years of prescription-drug use. Certainly the toll of celebrity. A mix of common human flaws of the sort one might encounter in any divorced father. An obsessive perfectionism that drove him his whole life but in the end left him feeling like a failure. And the real possibility of brain trauma from decades of football.
About the author
Jill Lieber Steeg is an award-winning feature writer and investigative reporter with nearly three decades of experience covering sports for Sports Illustrated and USA Today.
She wrote the first national profile of Junior Seau for the cover of the 1993 Sports Illustrated NFL Special Preview Issue.
Sports Illustrated won the National Magazine Award for Excellence for her coverage of the gambling scandal of Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose in 1989 and the banishment from baseball of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner in 1990, and his subsequent reinstatement.
A San Diego resident, Steeg has co-authored two memoirs, teaming with three-time Olympic gold medalist beach volleyball icon Misty May-Treanor (“Misty: Digging Deep in Volleyball and Life”) and San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott (“Total Impact: Straight Talk from Pro Football’s Hardest Hitter.”)
At his best, Seau had a million-watt smile and a heart of gold. He exuded warmth, compassion and humility, treating everybody equally and refusing to pull superstar rank, offering those in need the shirt off his back plus $20.
He relished his role as the pied piper of Oceanside, whether surfing the waves with Camp Pendleton Marines or training side-by-side in the sand with local high school football players. He was the life of the party, forever creating memorable moments for family, friends and fans, always striving to top the last Junior Seau Foundation fundraiser, the last birthday celebration or the last bar-hopping escapade.
He made sure everybody he came in contact with felt special, wrote sweet notes to his wife Gina almost every day of their marriage and wasn’t too macho to text his closest male friends, often out of the blue, with the words: BUDDEE or LOVE YOU or YOU ARE EVERYTHING TO ME.
View the Video U-T TV Gina Seau 9-14-12
“I would leave a better man having spent the day with Junior Seau,” said his friend Mark Walczak, a former NFL tight end/long snapper and ex-Chargers teammate.
“He was that light in life,” said Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott, Seau’s fellow USC alum. “He had that rare ability to make you laugh, that rare ability to hug you, that rare ability to make you feel as if you were his buddy. That’s all he wanted. He just wanted to be your buddy. How many people live their life wanting to be people’s buddies?”
On the field, Seau was everything an NFL player should be. Number 55 was the heart of the Chargers defense from 1990 to 2002, sacrificing his body and refusing to bench himself if he suffered an injury. He insisted on receiving medical treatment away from his teammates so as not to appear weak or vulnerable, and even went so far in the mid-1990s as to install an NFL-caliber training room in his La Jolla house. He was selected to 12 consecutive Pro Bowls, the most of any Chargers player and tied for the third-longest in NFL history, and he was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s.
The fifth of six children born to Tiaina Sr., and Luisa Seau, who moved from American Samoa in 1964, Junior willed himself into becoming one of the best football players ever. Growing up in his family’s tiny east Oceanside bungalow, his three brothers slept in the one-car garage, with its leaky roof and lack of insulation, their mattresses squeezed between a dishwasher, cleaning supplies and piles of Polynesian straw mats. A portable heater warmed the damp coastal air, and a large boom box blaring Motown hits, or as Seau called them, “garage tunes,” kept the boys lively. Whenever his two sisters bragged that their bedroom had carpeting, Seau proudly pointed out that the boys’ bedroom had the largest door in the whole house.
Seau loved living in the garage, and it provided the foundation for the person he was driven to become. It was his very own “old school” gymnasium. Gritty. No frills. And most importantly, open 24/7/365.
Before dawn each day, Seau would sneak out of bed, while his brothers were still sleeping, and standing in front of a full-length mirror, he’d lift dumbbells until his body was soaked in sweat and his muscles quivered. At dusk each night, he’d get down on the cement floor and knock out hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups. Then, he’d race out to the backyard, leap up into a large maple tree, grab hold of a sturdy limb, and pump out dozens of pull-ups.
In between those workouts, he’d work on boosting his brain power by playing games of chess with himself and against others. He’d heard that it was the only game that activated both the right and left sides of the brain, so he used chess to improve his memory, concentration, problem-solving skills, logical thinking and forethought.
Late at night, when his brothers were asleep, Seau would lie in bed, wide awake, envisioning his future. He understood that he was blessed with special athletic gifts, and he promised himself that he would be the person who’d pull the entire family up from poverty, that he’d be the gateway to a better life.
How would he achieve this dream? By playing in the NFL, Seau would tell himself, for his hometown San Diego Chargers.
He dreamed big. He set outrageous goals. He identified his purpose in life. He wasn’t afraid to take risks. He hated to ask for help. He refused to back down. He never, ever gave up. And most important, he always listened to his heart.
That attitude was born in the one-car garage on Zeiss Street.
“He’s the best football player that I’ve ever seen,” said former Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, who worked in the NFL for 38 years, took his teams to the Super Bowl seven times and selected Seau with the fifth overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft. “There was nobody ever like Junior in physical stature. He was strong, fast, quick, athletic. He could’ve played any position. He was a very emotional guy, which was a positive for the team. I’ve never known a guy who came to practice so happy, so pumped up, so ready to go. He raised everybody’s enthusiasm. As a player, he had no holes. He was the real deal.”
‘Go out and make happy’
Off the field, Seau embraced being a role model, using his superstar status to improve the lives of others, creating the Junior Seau Foundation in 1992 and pumping more than $4 million into organizations providing services for children and young adults. That included awarding hundreds of scholarships totaling more than $1 million through his Scholars of Excellence program to college-bound students throughout San Diego County.
For 17 years, he played Santa Claus at Christmas time, taking 250 kids shopping at the Target in Mission Valley to buy gifts for family and friends in his Shop With A Jock program. Every Thanksgiving, he hosted dinner at Seau’s The Restaurant in Mission Valley, footing the bill for 700 residents of homeless shelters, victims of domestic violence, military families and families from nonprofit agencies.
For his philanthropic efforts, Seau was selected as the NFL’s Man of the Year in 1994 and honored by President George W. Bush at the White House with the Volunteer Service Award as part of the Asian Pacific Heritage Month celebration in May 2005.
Raised in a home where his parents spoke no English and his family clung to their Samoan customs, Seau consistently was taught about the importance of family, faith, a blue-collar work ethic and being kind to others. His father worked on the assembly line at a rubber company and later became a custodian at El Camino High School, and his mother worked in the Camp Pendleton Marine commissary and in a laundromat. The boys dressed in wraparound Polynesian skirts called lava-lavas. The girls wore brightly colored, floor-length dresses, or muumuus. Tiaina Sr. taught his sons the Samoan Slap Dance, and Luisa instructed the girls in the hula. Trying to maintain a traditional Samoan lifestyle in the middle of a gang-ridden neighborhood was a feat, and it didn’t always work to the Seau children’s advantage. For one, they lacked language skills. Junior didn’t speak English well until the end of elementary school.
“I can’t blame my parents for pushing their language over English,” Seau told me in a series of interviews for a Sports Illustrated cover story I wrote for the 1993 NFL preview issue (“Hard Charger: San Diego’s Junior Seau is at the Crest of a New Wave”). “They didn’t understand that you can’t bring the Samoan culture here and live it. If you want to be something in America, you have to convert to American ways.”
Seau’s parents also made Christianity an integral part of their children’s lives. Twice daily, Tiaina Sr., a deacon in the First Samoan Congregational Church in Vista, led the family in prayer, all of them worshipping together on the Polynesian straw mats covering their living room. He also conducted Bible studies and led the children in singalongs of hymns, banging out melodies on the family’s old piano.
“Dad taught us about morals, values and goals. Having a tight-knit family was important to him. The one question he always asked us was: ‘How do we protect the Seau name?’”
Meanwhile, Luisa provided her own words of wisdom, which she first impressed upon Junior at an early age as he was leaving the Zeiss Street house on his way to the school bus. “You go out and make happy,” she counseled him. Throughout Junior’s life, at various milestone moments, Luisa always repeated her mantra. Make happy.
Ever the dutiful Samoan son, Seau forever was trying to make his parents proud, striving to surpass one amazing athletic performance with the next. He felt especially close to his mother, a large woman with a huge smile, an open heart and a zest for life. He respected and feared his father, a stubborn, rigid man with an impenetrable outer shell. He’d rewarded Junior for his victories at Oceanside High School with a few extra dollars in his weekly lunch money. He’d punished him for losses by giving him the silent treatment.
“There were a lot of spankings — with sticks, shoes, whatever was laying around,” Junior’s older brother Savai’i told me. “If we ever thought about going to the right after he told us to go to the left, we got our whippings.”
When Seau only scored 690 on the SAT, 10 points short of the NCAA’s mandatory score for freshman eligibility that forced him to sit out his first year at USC, Tiaina Sr. became so angry at Junior for embarrassing the Seau name that he refused to drive him to college. Instead, an uncle dropped him off in Los Angeles, with Seau hauling his clothes in a single garbage bag. Always a good student at Oceanside High School, Seau was humiliated by his low SAT score, and he later made a point of apologizing, in person, to his coaches, teachers and principal for having let them down.
“Everything I’d worked for, everything my family stood for, was gone,” Seau told me. “I was labeled a dumb jock. I went from being a four-sport star (at Oceanside High) to an ordinary student at USC. I found out who my true friends were. Nobody stuck up for me — not our relatives, best friends or neighbors. There’s a lot of jealousy among Samoans, not wanting others to get ahead in life, and my parents got an earful at church: ‘We told you he was never going to make it.’”
The setback was only temporary. Seau would soon push himself to go from promising player to superstar athlete to community icon.
“He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” said Bette Hoffman, the former longtime executive director of the Junior Seau Foundation who considered him a son. “He didn’t grow up with a lot of advantages. Everything he is, everything he was, he created.
"He taught himself to be a Hall of Fame football player. He taught himself to be a leader. He taught himself to be a public speaker. He taught himself to run a restaurant. He taught himself to run a foundation. He did it all by himself.”
Two very different Juniors
In the five months since his death, through countless hours of interviews with those close to Seau, portraits of two distinctly different men have emerged. Interestingly, many of those interviewed say that they’d known since Seau’s days with the Chargers, in the early- to mid-1990s, about his striking dichotomy — some even refer to the phenomenon as “The Good Junior and The Bad Junior.”
The fact that there were two very different Seaus seems to have been downplayed, brushed under the rug and kept out of the public eye by many of those closest to him over the past two decades. Was it done to protect his legacy? Or, selfishly, to allow others to continue enjoying the ride? Probably both. But more than anything, Seau’s story seems defined by a tragic lack of understanding. In the years before his suicide, people around Seau simply weren’t equipped to know what an NFL linebacker headed for catastrophe looked like.
Seau, who had very few deeply meaningful relationships over the years, once said that he felt unworthy of being loved and often felt extremely lonely. He never was diagnosed with clinical depression, never received medical treatment for it, and never took anti-depressants. But he showed signs of such extreme lows in the late 1990s that his ex-wife Gina said she and their three children would have to retreat to the other end of the house to get away from him and his low moods.
Though he put his philanthropic energies into educating and empowering young people in San Diego through his foundation, he was tormented by his lack of personal relationships with his own four children. He contributed to as little as 5 percent of the parenting time to his three children with Gina, according to child support documents she filed in San Diego County Superior Court, and he was estranged at various points throughout the years from his oldest child Tyler, born out of wedlock to his former high school sweetheart Melissa Waldrop.
Although his NFL contracts could have been worth as much as $57.6 million, he had fallen into financial distress due to a series of poor business decisions, a costly divorce, and a large extended family he felt beholden to support.
“His public persona was up here and his personal persona was down here,” said ex-Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke
The man who once was so focused and disciplined about his training regimen that he established “The Breakfast Club,” rallying his Chargers teammates to join him in lifting weights at 5:30 a.m. each day at the team’s facility, made undisciplined, unhealthy and unwise lifestyle choices off the field. He drank heavily, at least five or six days a week, according to some of his friends. He gambled excessively, in Las Vegas and San Diego-area casinos, on the golf course and in local San Diego card games. He had an insatiable appetite for women, especially those in their 20s, stringing together a series of casual-sex relationships with young girlfriends (his pals jokingly referred them as “Junior’s harem”), and he never was able to remain completely faithful to any one woman.
Unable to sleep more than three or four hours a night dating to his first years with Chargers in the early to mid-1990s, Seau often relied on a variety of prescription and nonprescription sleeping aids, including zolpidem, which belongs to a class of medications called sedation-hypnotics with the brand name Ambien. Gina said Seau used Ambien, Nyquil and antihistamines to sleep. He never was medically treated for his inability to sleep or his long-term insomnia.
According to the autopsy and toxicology reports released Aug. 20 by the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office, zolpidem was found in Seau’s system (0.14 mg/liter) and in a prescription bottle (10 mg) in his Oceanside home. Zolpidem/Ambien should be used with caution in patients who have depression. According to RxList.com, depressed patients have reported a worsening of the symptoms of depression, which includes suicidal thoughts and actions. In addition, patients using zolpidem/Ambien should not consume alcohol — it can increase the effects of the drug on the body, worsening its effects on thinking and behavior.
The man who was considered to be Superman, strong, powerful and larger than life, both on and off the field, was gripped by so much panic and anxiety that he was afraid to ever be by himself, especially at night. He was never treated for panic or anxiety disorders.
“His public persona was up here and his personal persona was down here,” said ex-Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke, a former board member of his foundation. “He was a soul that struggled.
“But wait a minute, we’re all flawed. Every one of us has a spiritual hole that we try to fill up. Most people live desperate lives, desperate for meaning, searching for value, looking for self-worth. There isn’t an answer to his suicide. It’s a complicated puzzle.
“He was a scared, little, hurting Samoan boy inside. He wanted to live up to all of the expectations, but he couldn’t. Nobody could.”
Former NFL offensive guard Aaron Taylor, Seau’s ex-Chargers teammate said Seau’s exterior “alpha male” persona made his suicide all the more visceral to his friends and fans.
“We all asked ourselves, ‘How does a guy like that, with all of that, go out like that?’” Taylor said.
“Clearly, there was another side to his story. Junior had an amazing ability to deal with physical pain and physical confrontation, but off the field he was unable to deal with emotion, sadness, anxiety, loneliness and fear.”
“It was very hard to have a phone conversation with him. You’d talk about something, and he’d drift off, or he’d just get up and walk away from the phone. In person, he just didn’t seem focused."
By late 2009 or early 2010, around the time of his retirement from the NFL, many of his closest confidants said they witnessed forgetful, erratic, aggressive, and at times, surprising behavior from Seau that they didn’t think too much of back then, but since his May 2 suicide can’t get out of their heads.
He once had a photographic memory, and never had a documented concussion in his 13 seasons with the Chargers. But he began showing signs of short-term memory loss, diminished concentration, a lack of impulse control and an inability to process numbers. He could snap without warning, becoming verbally and physically abusive to friends, family and loved ones. While some of those symptoms are associated with depression, insomnia and anxiety, they also are associated with traumatic brain injury (TBI) occurring through concussions.
“Junior was the most forgetful person,” said Hoffman, formerly the executive director of the foundation and now a trustee of his estate. “He lost his car keys so many times, I was always calling Angelo Damante at Mercedes-Benz of Escondido to have extras made. I’d run to the Oceanside DMV because he kept misplacing his wallet. When I booked him for (a former local sports talk radio show) ‘The Scott & B.R. Show,’ I’d have to call him every few minutes to remind him when he was supposed to go on the air.”
Added Gina: “His keeping appointments had gotten progressively worse. The kids and I would call him three, four, or five times a day to remind him about their games or events. We’d say, ‘Don’t forget about tonight.’ He’d say, ‘Where is it?’ And we’d say, ‘We’ve told you 50 times. Go back into your text messages and look.’ He was not that bad in the early 1990s.
“It got to the point where you couldn’t tell him the day before an event and expect him to remember. For example, he wouldn’t show up for Sydney’s volleyball game, which was at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Afterward, she’d say, ‘Did you call Dad?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, I told him about it last night at 10:30 p.m.’ She’d say, ‘Mom, you know you have to call him 10 minutes before the game if you expect him to remember.’”
Ted Davenport, Seau’s business partner in Ruby Tuesday Southern California LLC, said: “Something was going on in his brain. I noticed the change in 2009, when he was playing with New England. You couldn’t keep up a long conversation with him anymore. We used to be able to talk numbers, but it had gotten to the point where he just couldn’t do it.
“It was very hard to have a phone conversation with him. You’d talk about something, and he’d drift off, or he’d just get up and walk away from the phone. In person, he just didn’t seem focused. He’d lost his focus. He was forgetful. He’d say, ‘I’ll call you right back,’ and hang up the phone, then two days later, I’d call him and say, ‘You were supposed to call me back,’ and he didn’t remember having had the conversation with me.”
Although he never was diagnosed with concussions during his NFL career, Gina now wonders if his depression, insomnia, anxiety and changes in behavior might have been accentuated by concussions. In recent years, she said, he often complained of headaches — and that he took “headache medicine” for them.
“I know he had concussions, but he always said he felt fine,” said Gina, who has several of his old football helmets, which are scratched, gouged and dented. “After games where he’d been knocked around, dazed and was seeing stars, I worried about him. Now, they say to wake up the players who’ve had concussions, every hour that first night afterward. I wished I’d known it then.”
The initial autopsy of Seau’s brain by the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office did not list concussions or brain injury as a contributing cause of death. But because of his puzzling behavior over the past two and a half years, Seau’s four children made the decision to donate his brain tissue to the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for further study.
Seau’s suicide reignited the national debate over head injuries in former NFL players. Only 13 days before, on April 19, Ray Easterling, a safety for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1970s, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He and his wife Mary Ann were the lead plaintiffs in the first class-action lawsuit filed against the NFL, in August 2011, over its handling of concussion-related injuries; they were seeking damages for seven players. Easterling had experienced symptoms of traumatic brain injury for almost 20 years, including depression, insomnia and short-term memory loss, before being diagnosed with dementia a month before his death at 62.
In February 2011, former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson, 50, who had complained to his family of his deteriorating mental state, shot himself in the chest to spare his brain, leaving a suicide note with the instructions, “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.”
Today, 113 lawsuits involving more than 3,000 former players and their families have consolidated into a master complaint, filed in Philadelphia, charging the NFL and official helmet maker Riddell of concealing information linking football-related injuries to long-term brain damage. In what is being called “the biggest sports lawsuit ever,” the former players allege that the “NFL exacerbated the health risk by promoting the game’s violence” and “deliberately and fraudulently” misled players about the link between concussions and long-term brain injuries.
One of the leading researchers in the field is Dr. Ann McKee, chief neuropathologist and co-director of The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University’s Medical School. She has found chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease that can be caused by concussions, in more than 70 athletes, nearly 80 percent of those she has examined. That includes 18 of 19 NFL players, including Duerson, and three NHL players. Symptoms of CTE include memory loss, impaired judgment, depression, and eventually, progressive dementia.
In late July, Easterling’s widow, Mary Ann, released her husband’s autopsy report, in which the medical examiner found that his brain had signs “consistent with the findings of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).”
In September, the NFL awarded a $30 million grant to the NIH for research on brain injuries and other medical issues related to athletics. This grant occurred despite the league repeatedly seeking to have the class-action lawsuit dismissed, as well as repeatedly denying allegations made by the former players involved in the litigation.
According to Tyler, the NIH, which received his father’s brain tissue in July, has estimated that it would take three to six months for researchers to complete their studies. Since their father’s death, the four Seau children have become more educated about the subject of traumatic brain injuries in football and more astute about the symptoms of CTE. Knowing what he now knows, Tyler believes researchers likely will find some evidence of CTE in his father’s brain tissue.
“Prior to my father’s death, we didn’t know about any kinds of signs or symptoms for traumatic brain injury, because we were very uneducated,” Tyler said. “But now, in hindsight, we know that my Dad had every single one of them.
“He forgot things every single day. He’d meet people multiple times but couldn’t remember their names. He couldn’t make rational decisions, especially in business. He was so frugal with money, and for him to continue to gamble over and over again doesn’t make sense. He was emotionally disconnected. He had sleeping disorders. He had a quick on and off switch — one minute he’d be happy, the next he’d be angry; one moment he’d be the life of the party, the next he’d clear the dance floor and say, ‘Let’s all go home.’
“I want my father’s brain studied to help future NFL players. That’s important to me, my sister and my brothers. But I also want his brain studied to find out why he was who he was at the end of his life. By the time he died, my father had multiple personalities, he was bipolar, and he was severely depressed. He was not my father.”
Next week: A life unravels.