The suicide of the legendary San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau is all too familiar. I didn’t know Seau, but I knew versions of his story in the lives of athletes who have been trying to find their way once playing the game became no longer an option.
Seau played the game with a fury. As a Denver Broncos fan, I know this well as he followed Broncos quarterback John Elway like he was Elway’s shadow. He stalked him into bad passes and rushed decisions. Seau’s teammates and those who worked with him raved about his energy, his leadership, his charisma, his childlike enthusiasm for the game. It never wavered from his first season to his 20th.
But like most professional athletes, there comes a time when the phones stop ringing. The offers stop coming in, the starting role is no longer on the table. It marks a moment of deep reflection and deep fear. Who will I be without the game that I love and a passion I cannot express?
I had the good fortune of playing major-league baseball for nine seasons and after I chose to leave the game, I found out that I had to take each day on its own because nothing would ever be quite like the life I had when I played. I could not just summarize a day in a win or a loss, I could not get the instant feedback a bad route or a hanging curveball could give. It took patience. It took understanding of the human factor in every situation. It took time to see how to find a new passion or a new way to share the game I loved.
Although the work ethic, the leadership, and the camaraderie gained while being committed to the game may translate to having a basis for success in other endeavors, nothing measures up to playing a sport that embodies you. You hear ad nauseam about your time in the game being the “best years of your life,” as if there is no joy to be found after your spikes go neatly inside a box in your basement. What in the world do you have to look forward to?
The frenetic and colliding nature of football does not fit very well outside of the stadium. You can’t chat with your kids like you would when trash-talking the running back you just flattened. You can’t address your spouse in a disagreement like you would when you want to straighten out that young linebacker’s lack of attention to detail after a blown coverage in the AFC Championship. You have to relearn how to engage people in a way appropriate for society after years of reinforcing habits that allow you to survive in the NFL.
And so often, a player does not arrive at his new destination willingly. No one truly rides into the sunset in the NFL, even if they were the greatest player who retired after scoring the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. There is real tangible emptiness, real self-doubt, real anger, real pain that accompanies one’s departure. Your health has been compromised, your family may not know you, your debt may have mounted to an unsustainable level once the paychecks stop coming in. And whatever it is you are doing next is not playing football.
Like many players, Seau became a divorce statistic. One that is much larger than a “live happily ever after” statistic. When leaving the game, most players have spent countless hours and years denying their emotions to be able to perform: I am not hurt; I am not tired; I do not have doubt; I do not need drugs; I do not feel empty. NFL warriors don’t embrace vulnerability. Accepting those feelings is like having one foot out the career door, but counter to the culture, it is the key to having a reciprocal relationship with a spouse or a child.
In fact, most players have to first figure out the relationship they have with themselves before even beginning to learn how to share a new postcareer dynamic with someone else. They have been absentee often as the game travel and commitments mount. Then at a young age, they have to re-engage their relationships as they fight a broken body and a feeling of being discarded when they were not ready.
Ready or not, a career in sports ends. Just like that. Poof. In the wind, relying on the memory of fans or your own memory to live on, which may or may not be compromised from the many blows to the head you have taken. You profoundly know something is missing, but you can’t quite place it. A vicious circle ends viciously.
Seau was suffering in the most devastating way. Internally. Then he had no hope left; he saw no options. He weighed what he was leaving behind and could not make a calculation that left himself alive in the end. The epitome of extreme, irreversibly so, and in the wake, few seem to have any inkling of how conditions got so terminal for him so abruptly.
But it probably began some time earlier in the toll the game takes out your body. In the overlooking of nagging twinges, or maybe even depression. All of which are enemies to success on the field, and enemies to your life when you don’t address them.
Seau’s family has elected to donate his brain for study. Maybe that is the connection of his shooting himself in the chest. He may have wanted to preserve his brain for study as he fought the pain.
He marked the eighth player to be lost from the 1994 AFC Champions. Young men with time on their side—but time means nothing if you are trapped in a loop of pain so intense that you would rather trade it in for an unknown peace. Even when it hurts the love ones you leave behind.
Despite all this, playing sports is also a great love—you commit, it holds you forever, and you always find yourself looking back at those days of magic when you cannot compete anymore. It’s difficult not to make that sequence a prison sentence for your future, especially when you both physically and emotionally are tormented in deafening silence.
Something is truly broken in how players end up after a life in professional sports. For many, a child’s game, a child’s love, ends in a premature or elected death. An innocent love turns into a death sentence. One that we never see coming.