Junior Seau's death shines bigger spotlight on head trauma to NFL players
Retired linebacker was in pain, either emotionally or physically, a pain he apparently hid from family, friends and former teammates.
Seattle Times staff columnist
After he got the news of Junior Seau's death, Steve Young's first inclination was to call every friend he'd ever played with, just to see how they were doing — really doing.
At that moment, he wanted to hear some reassurance in their voices, wanted to know that the toll that football seems to be taking on so many of his brothers hadn't been levied on them. And he hoped they would be honest with him.
"You just want to make sure," Young, the San Francisco 49ers' Hall of Fame quarterback, said by telephone from Salt Lake City.
The shock of Seau's apparent suicide last week sent more waves of anxiety, fear and sadness through the ranks of professional football.
Seau was beloved. He was fun-loving. He was passionate. Knowing the joy with which he played, there was little doubt playing football was what he was meant to do.
But it seemed life after the game was becoming more difficult for Seau. He was in pain, either emotionally or physically, a pain he apparently hid from family, friends and former teammates.
"I've got to tell you, his death has gotten our attention," Young said, "just because we probably are generally, as a group, much less likely to seek any help. That's the nature of how we played and how we do it."
Young suffered seven diagnosed concussions during his career. He probably had several more that he ignored or didn't recognize. He was a football player, and football players are predisposed to ignore pain. They learn early that pain is an inevitable by-product of their game.
After his seventh concussion in 1999, a hit that was played and replayed on national television, Young was forced to retire. Even then he left the game reluctantly, but his heart lost its battle with his head.
Young understands the unwritten code of silence that was part of his game.
"If the death of Junior kind of plays out the way we kind of expect, he's a guy that acts like everything's OK, completely," Young said. "And obviously it's not, and that's a problem. That's alarming for everybody."
On Sunday mornings, for decades, I stood in hotel lobbies and watched the Seahawks' players climb on board buses heading for stadiums. It's too dramatic to think they were heading off to war.
They wouldn't be in the line of fire, but they were going into combat. And every time I watched, I knew that some of them wouldn't come back whole. Football is dangerous to your health.
To its credit, the NFL is paying attention. Players' safety is being addressed more seriously. Rules are changing. There is a better understanding of the nature of concussions.
Still, the league has to do a better job of taking care of its former players. They have to protect players such as former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who committed suicide last year. Let them know there is help available when they feel they can't cope.
"I think the important thing to understand, globally, is that the game got more dangerous when players quit tackling with their arms," Young said. "The league's trying to do something about that. They're fining players, and I can promise you now that the players see the wisdom in that. They're trying to avoid some of the head injuries.
"But it is concerning, especially that there's these micro-concussions that you never actually feel. I think a lot of us are wondering, 'What is that?' That's especially concerning for linebackers and running backs, I would suspect, because of the nature of the job."
Recently I talked with ex-Seahawk defensive lineman Joe Tafoya, who like every former player still is passionately in love with the game and appreciates all that it did for him. But he joked that he hoped his son would pursue a career in golf.
"It is in the NFL's best interest to make the game safer from a business perspective, if they can," Young said. "But on some level, it's just the nature of football. It's such a great game and you want to preserve it. This has kind of been brewing, and with the unfortunate death of Junior, I think that will get the discussion really going.
"I can appreciate (Tafoya's) perspective. I really can. Look, there are risks in all things. There's risks in playing soccer. And football's a great game. But we have to figure out how to play the game."
This great game has to do a better job of protecting players during their careers and for the rest of their lives.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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