Wednesday, May 2, 2012

I can't believe Junior's gone...

I am writing this post with a heavy heart after hearing the devastating news today that Junior Seau, arguably one of the best linebackers to ever play in the NFL, committed suicide with a single gunshot wound to the chest.  I am always saddened to hear of a death in the NFL family, but this one is particularly hard because there is a personal connection and it hits uncomfortably close to home.

As an undergraduate student at UCLA, I interned with a company called Nine, Inc.  Headquartered in Beverly Hills, the company was owned and operated by NFL quarterback Rodney Peete.  I remember sitting in the office with the other new interns for our first meeting when Rodney's wife, Holly Robinson Peete, walked in looking radiant at five-and-a-half months pregnant with their twins (who would've known back then that we'd both be raising sons with autism).  I had been a fan of Holly's since her 21 Jump Street days - the fact that Rodney played football was a bonus because I'd always loved the sport.  

Nine, Inc. produced high-profile fundraising and sporting events including a celebrity-studded Super Bowl fashion event called Passion for Fashion.  The work was hard and I didn't get paid squat (well, nothing at the beginning, but I hustled to make ends meet because it was worth it).  There were perks.  We flew to Philly one time to produce the Eagles' Christmas party.  I'd fly to Miami to help out with preparations for Super Bowl events.  I hobbled all over San Diego on crutches after I broke my foot the week before Super Bowl in 1998.  We'd help other teammates of Rodney's produce their charity events.  They were fun times of which I have many memories.  After nearly two years of hustlin', the only reason I left Nine, Inc. was because I was starting law school.

Rodney and I often razzed each other about the fact that we were from different 'hoods.  You see, Rodney was the former star quarterback at USC, my crosstown nemesis.  We joked though that all the interns in the office were from UCLA, so he must've known where to recruit the smart ones.  Much to my chagrin, we'd be over at USC all the time but we'd run into some of their greats - Ronnie Lott, Marcus Allen, Junior Seau.  Then it was on and crackin' - always good times.

Rodney and his former 'SC teammates would work together on projects for the 'SC Legends campaign and golf tournaments.  One of those golf tournaments belonged to the one, the only Junior Seau.  The event was held at the La Costa Resort in Carlsbad so it almost felt like we were camping out or on vacation.  Every evening, Junior's family, namely Cousin Randall, would be cooking up something good outside while mama Seau was inside.  My favorite Randall dish was his crab potato salad.  I ate so much I got sick.  This family was wonderful.  So inviting, so supporting.  Everyone's a cousin.  It didn't take much to become a part of the crew.  After 3 or 4 days at La Costa, everybody felt like family.

With the crew hanging before a Chargers/Eagles game - both Junior and Rodney were playing.  We were tailgating with Randall.  He can cook y'all...

My memories of Junior are pretty awesome.  Tailgating with his fam prior to a game, getting hugs from Junior and teammates after the game, then fun times at Junior's restaurant for an event.  I had my first cigar in Junior Seau's restaurant sitting next to Newy Scruggs.  The fun we had made all the hard work we did to make the events memorable was worth it.

Junior and Rodney were brothers.  They loved each other.  I know Rodney is devastated right now.  Sending him many virtual hugs.

Junior was always so kinda.  His right hand girl B who ran is organization was THE woman.  She took care of what was happening, she made sure Junior was where he needed to be.  B took care of Junior and his family.  She was an adopted relative in their clan.  B is my girl - we been friends since the beginning of all this.  Hearing the news today, she was the first person I thought about - I had to know she was ok.

Gunshot wound to the chest.  Dear God, I thought.  CTE.  It's becoming a bad word in the NFL.  We've seen this before.  Two other former players have committed suicide recently.  Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest and left instructions to have his brain examined.  Junior seemingly committed suicide in the same manner.  Another player, a man spearheading one of the concussion lawsuits, recently took his own life.  Often times when the autopsies are complete, the results will show these men suffered from CTE.  Football and CTE are the common denominators in these cases of young retired pro-athletes killing themselves.

I hyperventilated as I called my husband yesterday to tell him about Junior.  It took me a while to say the words, then the waterworks flowed.  Ryan was silent.  Just very quite.  Surely taking it all in, trying to come up with the right words to comfort me when he still needed to figure out where his strength was going to come from.  I can imagine he contemplated something like this happening to him.  I know I did.

I haven't seen Junior in many years.  I was saddened to hear a while back that he and his beautiful wife were divorcing.  In 2010, I remember hoping that Junior didn't intentionally drive off of that cliff.  A suicide attempt?  No way, not the Junior I knew.

Then this.  That one shot.  Another NFL player dead.  A player surrounded by a loving, supportive family.  The same guy who called everybody "buddy."  The same guy who always had a smile on his face who could give you that kind of hug that said "I got you,"  He's gone.

The first thing I thought about when I heard about this today is CTE.   What is CTE,? you might ask.  Well...

What is CTE?

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head. CTE has been known to affect boxers since the 1920s. However, recent reports have been published of neuropathologically confirmed CTE in retired professional football players and other athletes who have a history of repetitive brain trauma. This trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. These changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement. The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.

As I go through that last list, I think about all of the ones I can check off because my husband is experiencing them.  The depression is a big one.  Memory loss is the biggest problem.  At 36, my husband can't remember to do more than one thing a day unless it's written down for him.  It's scary.  We are recognizing the symptoms, and that's scary.

On Football Wives, we addressed injuries and were often criticized for "complaining" because our husbands chose to play the game and were compensated well for it.  Yes, they chose the game.  But I think it's hard for anyone to truly contemplate the long-term effects and life after the game.  I've always said for the fans, football is just a game.  Spectators want to see the hard hits and collisions.  For us, it's the rest of our lives.  We'll be dealing with the repercussions of the game for decades to come (if we're given decades - the average life span of a former NFL player is 55).  Problem is, the insurance will eventually run out.  With a host of pre-existing conditions, we'll hopefully find Ryan coverage.  The thought is scary.

In discussing the risks of the game, I had another football wife whose husband played with Ryan briefly say that since Ryan chose to play, Ryan chose to die.  I have a hard time believing that.  When Ryan was a rookie he wasn't given any mortality stats.  He wasn't invited to the rookie symposium we hear about so much because undrafted rookies are anticipated to play in the league for 7 years.  In football, you can't be soft.  You can't be injured.  You can't need help.  It was get out there and play, even if you're concussed, hurt, etc., or you will loose your job.  And so they did because they had to earn a living and were able to do so doing what they loved.  I think only recently players and the league are really contemplating the toll this game takes.  

I am going to assume here that if someone had a magic ball and told Junior Seau that when he hit 43, he would commit suicide, I bet he'd trade it all - all the money, all the fame, all the accolades - to be here with his family.  It's just a game in the end, and is it worth risking your life?   I know most players will tell you they'd do it all over again.  I understand that.  But I think it's time we start taking care of these players once they get out of the league, both physically and mentally.  

I have been screaming about CTE for a while now, mostly after seeing cognitive issues in Ryan.  I've heard from other wives who immediately thought CTE too when they heard about Junior.  I've heard it talked about on all the sports channels today.  So is it time to vow to do something about it?  How many more have to die before we start taking the mental health of former players seriously?

It's time for the NFL and the NFLPA to provide long term services to NFL players and their families.  Counselors and therapists should be provided free of charge if players are having problems.  We know this is a difficult sport that takes its toll on the players.  Don't help them out for a couple of years - they need to be helped out for LIFE!  The effects of football don't magically stop after 5 years - they keep going, and I dare say get worse.

It's time to provide football wives with the tools to help in this terribly difficult transition.  Our husbands are often depressed and in denial and we're their first line of defense with no resources to help.  It's time.  Enough is enough.  The NFL knows this is a rough sport, and it's time for the NFL to take care of these players, all of them, for as long as necessary.

Rest in peace Junior Seau...

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