Junior Seau’s Brilliant DisguiseFriday, May 4th, 2012
An expression of kindness. One that can light up a room. Influence the tone of a conversation. Brighten someone’s day.
Or mask the pain that would ultimately manifest itself in the most unfathomable of ways.
I could spot Junior Seau’s smile 100 yards away when I’d roam the field during pre-game, gathering last minute tidbits for a CBS or ESPN broadcast. There were some players I knew better than to approach, they were already in their “zone.” Junior wasn’t one of them.
A laid back, “Heyyyyyy, girl… how you doin?” would be the standard salutation, as though Seau was more inclined to crush a wave with his surfboard than an opposing quarterback. I recall 2003 being a particularly important season for Junior, because after 13 years and a dozen straight Pro Bowls with his hometown Chargers, he was unceremoniously shipped to the Dolphins for a conditional draft pick.
Seau was determined to re-establish himself, yet he was navigating uncharted waters in South Florida. “My whole career, I was the one in the box, THE pass rusher” he told me before a mid-September Jets game. “But here, they’re asking me to backpedal more and move in space and cover the receivers.”
Make no mistake, though, Seau wasn’t complaining. His eyes were brimming with anticipation, his face illuminated by a Cheshire cat grin as we sat on the visitors bench at the Meadowlands. While Junior was always in peak physical condition, he had shed 14 pounds so his 6’3″ frame could better withstand Miami’s grueling humidity. He was sub-245 for the first time since his freshman year at USC. “It’s so foreign to play catch-up,” he said. “New coaches, new scheme, new teammates. So, Day One, I took out my notebook, I’ve written everything down, focused on my technique. It’s been great learning new things.”
Seau wasn’t the premiere sack artist for the ’03 Dolphins, that responsibility was divvied up between Jason Taylor and Wale Ogunleye. But at age 34, on a linebacker corps featuring Pro Bowler Zach Thomas, Seau tallied 96 tackles. Old dog. New tricks. It can happen.
We’ve been hearing former teammates in San Diego, Miami and New England praise Seau’s insane work ethic. His epic pre-game and halftime rants. The infectious spirit that could reduce the Energizer Bunny to a slug. And Seau’s disdain for ever revealing he was hurt.
Which may very well be how we got here.
Depression is a disease. One frequently accompanied by feelings of shame, particularly among men, because society still struggles to differentiate between sadness and a condition that often requires medication to treat effectively. In severe cases, thought processes are so distorted, the only thing in focus is despair. It is incomprehensible that there’s anything positive in life to latch onto or anyone who cares enough to listen and help. Meld the ball and chain of depression with a prideful man like Seau, and it’s no wonder he didn’t confide in friends or loved ones about his inner demons.
I’ve seen “suicide” and “selfish” linked quite a bit on social media since Wednesday, the day Seau took his life at his Oceanside, California, home. He had a Hall of Fame career, money, a nice house, an incredible foundation to help at-risk youth. How could things have possibly been bad enough for him to abandon his family, in particular, his three teenage children? Some have argued they, personally, have “been on the edge,” but came to their senses and stepped away.
I’ve always abhorred the sentiment that money, fame and big, fancy material objects erase problems. The human psyche doesn’t play favorites with rich folk. You can still feel lonely or confused with a million in the bank. Coping with a failed marriage isn’t any easier if your Wikipedia page says “perennial All-Star.” Whether you make minimum wage or seven figures, chances are, if you get fired for declining performance, you’re gonna feel pretty crappy about yourself and, quite possibly, insecure. Problems are relative.
And if you claim to have been in Junior Seau’s shoes, yet you’re alive to tweet about it, then you have not been… there. You know why? Because somehow, you were able to channel enough intestinal fortitude to step down off that ledge, flush the pills down the toilet, set aside the object that may have taken you from us. Or, perhaps subconsciously, you left a subtle clue that led someone to intervene before it was too late. You found and grasped onto the essential survival tool that, for whatever reason, eluded Junior Seau.
Seau texted his ex-wife and each of his children, “I love you,” before firing a bullet through his chest. And yet, there was a disconnect. He didn’t have the presence of mind to understand they loved him, too, and needed him in their lives. He lacked the faculties to anticipate a gut-wrenching press conference where a broken woman would cry out for answers to complete strangers, begging to be taken so her son could live. That is the devil known as depression. I know. I watched someone very close to me go through it.
Seau didn’t leave a suicide note and so we are forced to assemble a puzzle without all the pieces. We’ll never know whether his driving off a cliff in 2010 was a distress flare. It happened the same day he was arrested for suspicion of domestic violence. Junior insisted he fell asleep at the wheel.
Seau’s family will donate Junior’s brain to science, hoping for closure and information that may save others from suffering the same fate. It will likely be sent to Boston University’s School of Medicine, the institute that examined Dave Duerson’s brain last year, upon his request, after the former Bears safety also died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Researchers found signs of a degenerative disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is linked to repetitive concussions. It would be easy enough to assume 20 years worth of “Say Ow” hits may have afflicted number 55 the same way. But we simply cannot rush to judgment.
Junior Seau, with his 1,524 tackles, 56½ sacks and 18 interceptions, was one of the most gifted, most punishing linebackers ever to stalk the gridiron. When he is Hall of Fame-eligible in 2014, he’ll be a unanimous first ballot lock. But I find myself conflicted over whether Seau’s bust in Canton should feature his ever-present grin. On one hand, it was the trademark that embodied his zest for life, his kindness, his compassion.
But it was also the mask that fooled us all.