Thursday, 3 May 2012

R.I.P. Junior Seau (1969-2012)

Unbelievable, tragic news that Junior Seau took his own life at his residence in Oceanside, California.  Junior was one of the greats, a guaranteed Hall of Famer, a stalwart linebacker, fiery team leader and local hero of my favourite team.

He had a long, distinguished career that threatened to verge on the farcical near its end, with its series of retirements and comebacks.  Brett Favre had nothing on Junior.  I put these down to his love of the game, the unbelievable sums of money involved, and desperate teams looking for a veteran difference-maker on their defence.  His last two seasons, he came out of retirement at the request of the Patriots, who needed reinforcements due to injuries on their linebacker corps.

If Junior gave the impression that he loved the game too much and he dreaded not playing, his post-retirement career seemed to bear that out.  He never formally announced his retirement or had a ceremony at Qualcomm Stadium, which would have been fitting.  He also was involved in a troubling series of events in 2011 when he was arrested by police for a domestic assault investigation involving his girlfriend.  Following his release from the police station early the next morning, he drove his vehicle off a cliff on the way home and suffered minor injuries.  He stated that he fell asleep at the wheel, but the investigation cast doubt on this and there was speculation that this may have been an attempt on his own life.

This served as background story when the news broke and leaks mentioned that he had shot himself in the chest, in an eerily similar manner to Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bears safety and member of the 1986 Super Bowl champions.  Mr. Duerson had a distinguished career, and a troubling post-career marked with erratic behaviour, financial and marital setbacks, and trouble with depression and addiction, all of which were out of keeping with the person his loved ones knew as a bright, accomplished young man.  Mr. Duerson had left a message for his family to ensure that his brain be examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  Examination showed that he did indeed suffer from this degenerative disease.

The symptoms of this disease, which affects boxers and other athletes or patients who have suffered repetitive blows to the head and concussions, include the inability to concentrate, loss of impulse control, mood swings, depression and increased aggression.  These mirror to a great degree the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.  The literature describes the rapid onset of these symptoms, and how the patient is bewildered and frustrated by these episodes and loss of control.  It is almost understanble how might Mr. Duerson, and potentially Mr. Seau, have reacted to this erosion of their faculties.

Some people view suicide as a sign of weakness, a fundamental abdication of someone's duty to endure in the face of adversity.  Some of Mr. Seau's former teammates voiced how they wished he would have asked for help, or how they should have checked in with him and found out if he needed anything.  There's the unspoken rebuke that he committed a selfish act that hurts others in his circle, notably his children and his parents.  His mother's reaction was heartbreaking to watch.

What everyone must remember is that suicide for the victim is a rational choice.  They are suffering from a chemical imbalance which causes them great pain, and in their condition the logical response is to put an end to the suffering.  They are in a dark place and feel that their loved ones will be better off without them.

An analogy can be drawn to Aaron Ralston, who while on a hike in Utah became trapped in a canyon with his arm pinned under a boulder.  He described how, after days of despair, he realized that he could free himself and survive his ordeal by cutting his own arm off, which he did.  When questioned later about how crestfallen he might have been when he made the decision, he replied that, quite the opposite, he felt great relief and almost elation, that there was a way out for him.  In his singular circumstances, this made sense to him.  We should possibly understand suicide in the same way, that in their medical condition, victims choose what is from their perspective an appropriate option.  If there was instead an appendage that they could cut off to free themselves as Mr. Ralston did, they would, but they don't have even that terrible choice to make.

There is some worth to the discussion regarding whether Mr. Seau's friends might have helped him by finding out about his state of mind.  There are very effective therapies that might have abated the neurochemical deficits he was suffering from.  We can hope that those who learn of this tragedy will become more familiar with the signs of depression which lead to suicide and can recognize the symptoms, in themselves and their loved ones, and that they can avail themselves of medical assistance in time.

Mr. Seau's brain will possibly be examined for CTE.  There is no word as of yet whether he left instructions regarding this or even a suicide note.  If he is found to have been suffering from CTE, it will increase awareness of the disease, which may help save former athletes who find themselves going down the same dark lonely road.

It may also conquer the old-guard that exists in football and hockey, and who refer to efforts to reduce concussions and head injuries, and to make the sport safer, as the 'sissification' or 'pansification' of the game.  We know of Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and his repeated fines for illegal hits to the head, and his response that he is doing nothing wrong, and hitting the way he has been taught all his life.  We know of the New Orleans Saints bounty program, where coaches and players offered up cash for teammates who could cause injuries to opponents during a game.  We find out how the tin-eared Reggie Bush reacts to the suspensions incurred by his former teammates by tweeting that football might as well be played two-hand touch instead of tackle now.  Mr. Bush needs to work on his timing, and not just when he's trying to run the ball between the tackles.

In hockey, we have a horde of former goons and muckers and 'physical' players, who had a career because of their ability to intimidate and obstruct more talented players' efforts to score goals and actually play hockey, now being employed by broadcasters to comment on the sport.  To a man, they defend a game defined by 'toughness' and fighting and 'defensive' hockey, and 'getting your man', which means holding and hooking him so he doesn't skate free.  They laud 'finishing your checks', which means hitting your opponent even after they no longer have the puck, in clear violation of how the rule is written.   These gentlemen, the Don Cherrys and the P.J. Stocks and the Mike Milburys and Nick Kypreos, hold power and sway the discussion to a degree completely out of proportion to their contributions or importance to the game while they played.

These reactionaries, who cling to the way the game was played in the past as if it's immutable and handed down by a deity, and view any attempts to reduce violent collisions and blows to the head as a pernicious attack on the game, the flag and very fabric of society, must be cast aside.  They cannot be allowed to refuse to see the evidence, medical or otherwise, or refuse to accept that players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever, and that the old way of doing things is no longer sustainable.  Football and hockey introduced the forward pass in their distant pasts when the game had become bogged down by defensive play and violent play was being viewed as a viable tactic in response, to levels intolerable by society at large.  These modifications were met by howls of outrage from the closed-minded back then also, with dire predictions of doom and that the sport would not survive such revolutionary changes.

The best tribute we can pay Junior Seau is by saving the game he loved from itself.  The NFL, to its credit, is taking the first stumbling steps in that direction.

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