On May 2, 2012 — five years ago today — Los Angeles Chargers legend Junior Seau was felled by the sport that had once lifted him up to a near mythical stature among those that love and follow the game of football. Years of undocumented concussions from repeated blows to the head — the hard cost of rising to the top of your profession in what amounts to a combat sport — led to Junior Seau pointing a shotgun into his chest and pulling the trigger; ending his life, but intentionally preserving his brain for science.
In doing so, Seau helped bring issues that the NFL and other contact sports hoped would remain cloaked in darkness out into the light and forced leagues to answer tough questions about head injuries in their sports. As a result, a renewed focus has been placed on more effective safety protocols, CTE awareness, and a hyper-sensitivity towards concussion-related issues across the spectrum of sports.
While there is still a long way to go and a lot more to be learned about CTE and how it can be prevented, Seau’s death signaled a significant change in the way the NFL and its players view concussions.
The hardest part of diagnosing a concussion — and thereby preventing CTE in active players — is getting buy-in from the players themselves and making sure they do what’s in their best interest long-term.
Seau, and countless other before him did not, and tried to “man up” even when they were probably concussed in order to keep playing the game and prove their toughness to their teammates.
NPR’s Morning Edition examined Seau’s situation in 2015 with football analyst Jim Trotter, who discussed the problematic mindset that ultimately contributed to Seau’s condition.
“He would have the trainer come to his house 5 in the morning to treat him before the trainer would go into the office because Junior didn’t want to go in the training room in front of his teammates. He felt that if players saw him in the training room, they would think it was OK for them to be in there and to miss practice or to miss games.
In his 20 years in the NFL, this is a guy that had over 1,400 tackles, and not once was he ever diagnosed with a concussion. And yet in talking to his ex-wife and others, they will tell you he had many concussions. In fact, he would it say to her. He would call her after the game. She’d be at home. And she’d be like hey, what happened on this play? Why weren’t you there? And he’d say oh, I just had a concussion.”
While players still exhibit that mentality and attempt to stay out on the field even when they’ve suffered a blow to the head, the NFL has taken measures to try and take the decision out of players’ hands, as hard as that may be to do.
Before the 2015 season, the NFL gave ‘concussion spotters’ the ability to stop the game and remove any player they believe might have suffered a concussion on a hit to the head. That player is then taken in for evaluation and is unable to return to game action until he’s cleared by medical professionals.
While not foolproof — as we saw in the case of Case Keenum in 2015 — these measures helped lead to an increase in concussion diagnoses in 2015. The number fell once again in 2016, but hopefully not because of a lack of diagnoses, but because of better protocols and less violent hits to the head knocking players out of the game.
For the most part, players are working to embrace this as well, some even shooting a campaign title ‘be man enough to admit when you’re hurt’ aimed at curbing that mentality.
Aside from Junior Seau’s inexorable link with concussions, he’s always remembered as being one of the games best and a fan-favorite on the field.
While it’s hard to glorify the number of tackles he made and the high level of intensity he competed with as it ultimately resulted in his death, fans and former players alike still marvel at the way Junior Seau played the game.
As a result, he was inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame in 2015. His daughter, Sydney Seau, gave a beautiful speech on his behalf and left the crowd with tears in their eyes and fond memories of Junior Seau fresh in their minds amidst the grief of the enormous loss of a man who did so much for the game.