Skip to main content

Junior Seau was hurting and didn't know how to say it

By Donald McPherson, Special to CNN
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri May 11, 2012
Don Pherson says his friend Junior Seau (above) was in pain but didn't know how to ask for help.
Don Pherson says his friend Junior Seau (above) was in pain but didn't know how to ask for help.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Don McPherson: Football's Junior Seau, who committed suicide, to be memorialized today
  • He says research shows punishing head injury, living with pain leads some to suicide
  • He says he has his own scars from football; Junior's death a sobering reminder of toll
  • McPherson: Junior knew there were signs he was in trouble, didn't know how to get help

Editor's note: Don McPherson is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, a feminist and social justice educator. Follow him on Twitter, @donmcpherson.

(CNN) -- I heard on the news that Junior Seau passed away. Seau, 43, ended his life last Wednesday. He did so as purposefully and violently as he played the game of football. Today, a public memorial is planned for him at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

Junior, like my former teammate Andre Waters and friend Dave Duerson, both of whom also committed suicide, played the game as they were taught, with reckless abandon. These guys didn't just tackle opponents; they ran through them, never applying the brakes before collision. And they did what all great athletes do: They learned to play with pain.

ESPN analyst Marcellus Wiley, a former teammate of Seau with the San Diego Chargers, said of Junior that "he never let you see his pain." He also said that Junior would not get treatment with his teammates but would do so privately, so he was seen only at full strength.

Donald McPherson
Donald McPherson

The recent spate of suicides committed by former players has the NFL and the entire sports world examining the cumulative impact of concussions over the span of a career and a lifetime. The emerging research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has helped identify at least one culprit in the uncharacteristically fatal behavior of men who lived by the creed, "never give up."

But inherent in that creed is a zero sum mentality that teaches us all to "play with pain." This also means that we learned to live with pain. Together with CTE, this is a lethal combination that can be very difficult to see, unless we change our lens.

'Paddle-Out' honors Junior Seau
Seau's teammate: 'Concussions common'
Junior Seau's last interview

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

When I received the news about Junior, I had just walked out of my daughter's second-grade classroom.

A few dads were helping with a craft for Mother's Day. While in class, I complained to another dad about the painful decision of saving my back or my knees while assisting children with their cutting and gluing. I knew the source of my physical pain, and it is a constant reminder of a proud football career.

I accept that I gave my body to the game I love and every day I experience the consequences. That has long been the lament of former athletes: bad knees, bad back and nagging body aches are the battle scars of weekend warriors.

During the drive home from school, I thought of the scars that riddle my body and mind. And, for the first time in the discussion of the life expectancy of NFL players, I saw myself. Junior is the 19th player that I played with or knew personally from college and professional football who is dead, all before 50. He is the fifth to commit suicide.

Then I thought of Cover 8.

In 1986, when I was a quarterback at Syracuse University, we installed a defensive formation called Cover 8. It moved the free safety, a position usually 18 yards away from the line of scrimmage, to just half that distance. The purpose was to stop the quarterback (me).

Our free safety was Marcus Paul, now assistant strength coach for Super Bowl champs the New York Giants. For 20 days, we purposely and violently ran through each other several times a day. Each collision brought admiration, respect and a hardening of our resolve. We knew we were making each other better. If we survived each other, no opponent could pose a greater challenge.

We played for another 10 years, but we still laugh about the ringing in the ears and the workman-like way we went at each other that spring, conditioning ourselves to raise our threshold for pain.

We were young men demonstrating the rules of masculinity and sports. Ignore pain, leave it on the field and never back down. As a businessman, I know the merits of those qualities that transferred from my athletic career. But I wonder (and fear) as a man and as a person about what other physical and emotional qualities transferred? At what costs? And when will I find out?

Women are twice as likely to attempt suicide but men are four times more successful. We both suffer from mental illness and seemingly insurmountable stress. But men are also less likely to show signs or ask for help. This leads to the "if you can't fix it, force it" approach that is evident in most violent acts committed by men.

Sadly, there were signs with Junior, Andre, Dave and all the other players who have committed suicide. And, they knew it. What they didn't know was how to tell us. And, we didn't know how to see it in them.

We assumed that they were like most players who find it hard to adjust to life outside the locker room, without the game. It's easy to see them as warriors without a war.

It's harder to see them as men without capacity to say, "I hurt and I need help."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Don McPherson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT