After Junior Seau took his own life I had a need to write about it. Instead of doing so here I wrote about it on my School of The Legends wall. I realize most people who would read it here have already read it there but I wanted to make sure I could access it when necessary and the character limits on my sotl wall required that I break it up into 500 character chunks and it continues to move down my wall with every new post I do. So I cut and pasted the whole thing here just to keep it all in one place. The only alterations I made are fixing typos and breaking it into paragraphs. I hope some how some way my words will help someone who reads them.I've been trying to gather my thoughts on Junior Seau's apparent suicide from almost the moment the tragic news broke. I put some of my real time thoughts on my twitter page but I didn't think that was enough so I wanted to expound a little bit here.
First off Seau's passing hit me like a ton of bricks. He was a hero and a role model to a lot of young football fans who grew up wanting to be just like him. He was only 5 years older than me but I was one of those fans who looked up to him as well. He played the game with such a relentlessness and ferocity that he was like the gold standard of effort you wanted to aspire to. More than that it was readily apparent that he LOVED the game. LOVED making plays. LOVED being out there with his teammates. He was out there having fun and that, to me, is what football is all about. And then he was almost just as accomplished off the field in terms of giving back to the community and doing charity work constantly. But the news that he took his own life also hit me for a different reason. Too many of my retired brothers are dying this way and unfortunately my life experience gives me some insight into why.
I am a pretty private person. Most people who interact with me on social media probably don't even realize how little they actually know about me. And that is by design. While other people choose to put every aspect of their life online, Id much rather keep my private life just that. But this is one time I feel compelled to open up a little. You see I have gone through a pretty bad bout of depression myself. And so I have a special appreciation for what Seau may have been going through. And the reason I am speaking up now is because I know that people who haven't gone through the kind of mental health issues that can lead to suicidal thoughts, generally can't relate to that mindset. But it makes perfect sense when you think about it. Few rational people would ever willingly take their own life. But mental health issues can lead you to a very irrational way of seeing the world. As a former player, albeit a lot less accomplished, I also understand that we are unique in some regards when it comes to having these issues. You see as a professional athlete, especially an NFL football player, you overcome many of the obstacles put in front of you by sheer force of will. Not strong enough? You lift harder. Not fast enough? You run more hills. Not skilled enough? You stay after practice and work on your craft. Hurt? You just play through the pain. And so when you are confronted with mood swings or being "in a rut" sometimes you feel like you should be able to just force your way back into being the person that you were or at least "happier". And when that doesn't happen you can find yourself even further down the rabbit hole.
I was raised in a community that mostly stigmatized going to see a mental health professional. Nobody wanted to be labeled crazy and there was this notion that if you had to tell someone else your problems that was a sign of weakness. Even today I had someone tweet me that Seau was "weak" and "took the easy way out" (that person is now permanently blocked). Those kinds of sentiments make people even more reluctant to seek the help that they need. And I know it seems like its easy enough just to tell someone when you are feeling depressed or suicidal but what a lot of people don't realize is that as those issues manifest themselves more and more that person tends to alienate the very people they would usually turn to for help. And even bigger than that at times, because your thinking has become so skewed, you don't trust those people not to turn away from you if you tell them your problems. I know with ex athletes there can also be this sense of shame that with all that we have accomplished in life for others, now we have to ask someone else for help. Also even if you reach out to a friend or family member they may not be able to help you.
I am a Christian but I know now that you can't "pray away" depression. It helps and as a Christian I recommend every believer pray but some times you need more than that. But even finding a psychologist or psychiatrist to talk to can be a daunting task for a guy who is used to going into the training room and getting whatever he needs. You probably need insurance which a lot of retired guys don't have, then you need someone to refer you to a good mental health professional. Failing that you have to go through the phone book and roll the dice. Even then when you find a good person to talk to the wait may be months before you can even see them. And you're talking about a person who has been taught probably as long as he has been playing that complaining is a sign of weakness to go through all of that of their own volition. It would probably be hard for most of us to do even if we didn't have any mental health issues, but when you are struggling with that as well it may be impossible to come to grips with and admit to yourself, if no one else, that you need help. How many times after a person commits suicide or attempts to commit suicide do we hear their family and friends say they had "changed"? Those changes many times aren't intentional and the person who is changing may not even realize it until its already close to being too late. I'm saying all this to say that we HAVE to change the way we all think about mental health issues.
Yes I believe in personal responsibility but sometimes the people around the person going through this issues, maybe even most of the time, can see the signs before that person even notices them. When that happens we have to be more willing to stick around and convince them to seek help rather than taking offense and keeping our distance. We also have to be more encouraging towards people who have these issues to try to dispel the stigma around getting help. That won't change until this attitude that its "weak" to seek help is done away with. This goes for anyone, not just retired players. I saw a recent statistic about how suicide is prevalent with our troops returning home from war. I can promise you those men and women aren't weak. But I worry that many of them though it would be a sign of weakness to admit to another human being that they were going through something that they couldn't deal with alone. Now I know people want to make assumptions about whether concussions and or CTE had anything to do with Seau's suicide.
I don't have the heart to make those kinds of leaps in logic so soon after his death. But I do realize that some folks will use this situation to question why some players, former and current, are still resistant to the new tackling guidelines and fines instituted by the NFL and Roger Goodell. I'll just say this, focusing on that stuff in my mind is the easy way out for the NFL. They don't have to spend any money to change the rules or fine players for "illegal" hits now. What would impress me and I bet other other players would be if they put their money where their mouth is and started funding more healthcare for former players without having to be asked or begged to. Put simply, most of us knew and know playing football comes with health risks, but if our health care costs were taken care of more than 5 years after we were done playing, as it is in other leagues, a lot of guys would be much better off. Many of our health issues, mental and otherwise, don't show up till more than 5 years after we are done playing anyway. But by focusing on fines and "illegal" hits it seems like more of a PR move than anything else. In closing there are two things I will point out that make us distrustful of this "new" approach by the NFL. http://sports.espn.go.com/espnmag/story?id=3644940 One is as recently as 6 years ago the guy who headed up the NFL's position on concussion took the totally opposite position of what the consensus was outside of the NFL community about the danger of concussions and reentering a game. Its hard for most of us to believe that he wasn't just covering for the owners with that BS study and we haven't forgotten. Also http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/23/sports/football/23duerson.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all as much as people have brought up Dave Duerson and his suicide today very few point out that at one time he sat on the disability board for former players that was absolutely notorious for denying benefits to former players, especially those dealing with brain injuries.
But tonight isn't really about all that, for me tonight is about trying to reach out to anyone, and especially former players like myself, who may find themselves having suicidal thoughts or even just "stuck in a rut" they can't seem to get out of. Please seek help. For the people that love them, make them seek help. And make them follow through! You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if nothing else before you do something you can never take back.