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.
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.
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.
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.