Junior Seau was not the first league alumnus whose downward spiral bottomed out with suicide. Yet no victim was more high profile and less associated with the growing, frightening and potentially game-altering plague of concussions.
Tragedy of Junior Seau's death raises concussion issue to NFL
Bountygate in New Orleans, two adulated players (Peyton Manning, Tim Tebow) switching teams, one franchise (the Minnesota Vikings) on the verge of switching cities, two storied squads (the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins) getting their knuckles rapped for salary cap violations, and a compelling draft awash in trades.
Whew. The March/April stretch of the NFL off-season proved breathless, with its constant flow of bold-headline news. Surely May would bring some respite, a chance to recharge.
But, no. A single shotgun blast on the second day shattered the lull.
Junior Seau, a sports icon in San Diego, where he played linebacker for the Chargers for 13 seasons, was found dead with a self-inflicted gun shot wound to the chest at the age of 43.
Seau was not the first league alumnus whose downwards spiral bottomed out with suicide.
Yet no victim was more high profile, more contemporary and less associated with the growing, frightening and potentially game-altering plague of concussions.
Suddenly, the debate changed. Those who have complained about football getting soft, who have held out for a game with helmet-first hitting and treating head injuries with the same gravity as a sprained ankle, are seeing the light.
The toll of former players who have dealt with unwanted mementos from their careers rises at an alarming rate.
One case study: Ray Easterling. The Atlanta Falcons drafted him 31 years ago in the ninth round, a no-risk investment that usually meant being waived before the first training camp adjourns.
Easterling lasted eight seasons as a safety, owing to his daredevil approach, with no concern for his own safety.
Relics from Easterling's playing days decorate the two room basement in the Easterlings' brick ranch home. His No 32 jersey, behind glass. Team portraits. Framed photographs of his tackles, many leading with the head. His helmet, with its thin padding, prevalent in his era. Various game balls, including one with an eerie message: "Paid The Price."
Mary Ann Easterling, while showing the "man cave" to a visitor, said it would remain intact for now.
In fact, she pledged to remain in the house - only nine days after finding Easterling's body there, along with a just-fired handgun.
Easterling's 23-year ordeal is over, a deterioration during which he flipped from a sharp, perceptive people person to being forgetful, argumentative and anti-social. Not until last year was a diagnosis reached: dementia, caused by progressive brain damage from blows to the head.
Easterling's death resonated slightly through NFL Nation. He was no star, and he belonged to a previous generation.
Seau's death two weeks later sent out a shudder the size of a tidal wave.
A certain Hall of Famer, he was never reported to have suffered a concussion. Maybe it was just the accumulation of hits to the head, concussions or not, that doomed Seau.
And it will doom the NFL if it does not continue apace with safety measures for current employees while stepping it up for retirees.
The league must better protect woozy players by erring on the side of caution in holding them out.
When they leave the sport, it must provide every test available to project their health, determine if short- or long-term care is needed and provide it.
The impact of a single shotgun blast will echo for years, ultimately drowning out all those other off-season developments.
As superbly as Seau played, his legacy will forever be defined by his death - and the good that might result from it.
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