I didn't know Junior Seau the way his former teammates did or even some other members of the media. Come to think of it, whenever we spoke we were either rushing off a field, standing among a sea of reporters or talking via satellite, not exactly ways to build a personal bond. Still his suicide last week really stuck with me and it goes way beyond Seau himself.
We may never know why he took his life but I can't help but wonder what would have happened if he had just reached out for help instead of that gun.
In 9 and a half years at ESPN, I met a lot of former athletes. One question I'm pretty sure I always asked them at some point was about how they were adjusting to life away from the game. I can't think of a single one that didn't mention missing the "routine." That's probably not even a strong enough word for it. I mean this is a schedule of life that's been ingrained in most of them since childhood, at the very least from high school on. Imagine after all those years it's gone. How lost would you feel? I miss a couple days of my morning workouts or flip flop the time I'm on air for a week and it's like the life's been sucked out of me.
So if I'm aware of how big an adjustment leaving can be for these guys, don't you think the leagues they play for are aware too? A better question: what can they do about it?
The NFL and other pro sports leagues do their best to welcome the rookies in. From financial planning to warning guys about people who see them as prey, at the very least leagues offer advice and resources to their newest. What about the veterans? Why aren't there more resources for athletes who are leaving behind the only life they've ever known? There are no more OTAs or 2 a days, no play books to learn or team meetings to attend. The sport that's loomed larger than anything else in their lives, even family sometimes, is now just something they used to do to earn a living. I have to believe even the strongest man out there feels the impact of that.
I'm not saying this was the case for Seau. Again, I didn't really know him. I have heard speculation from some guys who did and we've all seen athletes struggle to varying degrees after leaving their sports behind. So why not help them make the transition? During collective bargaining we heard some talk about taking care of the veterans from a financial health standpoint and even physical health. What about mental health?
Yes it may be a taboo topic, but I'm going there. In a world full of strong men both physically and mentally, some may need help coping and that doesn't make them weak. Now as a gender, men seem to have a harder time asking for help than women. (Don't argue, just think about the pre-GPS days and who was more willing to ask for directions. Enough said.) So take that generalized male trait, add the machismo that goes with playing a sport like football and asking for help is not going to come easily. Help that is needed. Help leagues need to encourage, make accessible and destigmatize.
I know there's been lot of talk about how concussions may have played a role in this. They may have, I'm not a doctor. My dad was and the brain was his specialty so I can't help but think of what he used to say about the impact of head trauma, quite simply "the brain doesn't like to get messed with." My understanding is that Junior Seau's family is still considering donating his brain to be looked at as it relates to concussions in the NFL. While it may not be an easy decision, if it can help any of Seau's football peers, perhaps his family can find some peace in that.
As for his football family, the decision seems easier. Under Commissioner Roger Goodell the NFL has done a lot to protect its players from harm on the field, seems like it may be time now to try and do the same even when they're off it for good.