I’m going to be a football player. That’s what my son said to my wife and I when asked about his current career aspirations a little over a week ago. When told that he probably needed a backup plan, he said, no, I’m going to be a football player.
Junior Seau was a football player.
For close to thirty years of his life, from high school to being an All-American at USC to a 20-year career in the NFL, he was a football player. If we exclude kickers and other specialists, he is among the top ten all-time in games started in NFL history. Given the position he played, and the passion with which he played, it is possible that he took and delivered just about as many hits as anyone ever.
He was a football player, and hung on as a football player for as long as he could. He went through winning seasons and losing seasons. He always played hard–he played the right way. You can define him in any number of ways, but I think the 2000 season, right in the middle of his career, is a pretty good one to isolate. He had been near the pinnacle when the Chargers went to a Super Bowl. He had been through hard times and then saw the team draft the supposed savior, Ryan Leaf, in 1998. By 2000, that promise had largely been extinguished already, and the team struggled through a 1-15 season, when they went 1-8 in close games. Still, there was Seau, selected as a first team all pro on a team that was a disaster.
Halfway through that impossibly hopeless season, he signed an extension, and said, “‘God willing, you will see Junior Seau be a deep-snapper if he can be. They’re going to have to drag me out of here.” For nine more years, they could not drag him out. He was a football player, even as he transitioned to a veteran influence and more of a supporting role, he was a football player.
The news this week that Junior Seau committed suicide at age 43 sent shockwaves throughout the country. We can be somewhat insulated in our own personal world of sports on the internet. At my son’s practice Wednesday, along the sidelines as we watched, it was a major topic of discussion. This is not typical; I never heard anyone talking Bountygate or other NFL stories that permeate a news cycle, but Seau was at the forefront here in middle America.
The family has decided to have Junior Seau’s brain studied, to see if there were any effects from concussions. Whether it was manifesting itself in behavior or not, I would be surprised if his brain looked like a typical 43-year old brain, just as I would be surprised if a person that hung sheet rock for twenty years had the same fingers of a typical man, or a thirty year trial lawyer had the liver tissue of a typical person. We’ll see just how different, and I’m sure we’ll hear stories about his behavior in recent years. I’m not sure we’ll ever know.
Lots of jobs and choices in life come with risks. The scary part about the brain injury stuff, though, is that the brain is THE organ that comprises our sense of self and identity. It is the most important organ for a football player, even as we marvel at the physical traits. It’s also the most important organ, period. We know that physiological changes can lead to personality changes. I, for one, have seen the effects of Alzheimer’s personally in my family. It is not fun to see someone you know well change.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent months, before this news broke, and had not put it down. Part of me wonders if we were made to play football for 25 to 30 years of life, or even 20. Before 1950, it was rare that players continued football into their thirties. Many stars didn’t pursue careers after college. Professionalism expanded as we entered and then left the 1960′s, the money increased, the size increased, and we are just now seeing those players grow old. Medical technology advanced–we could rebuild knees and shoulders and ankles better than ever. When a knee or elbow blew out, you saw it, you fixed it. There is no Dr. Jobe for the brain.
We’re at a scary spot. Nothing is certain. As a parent, you don’t insist on a 5% confidence interval to make decisions. You don’t ask for thirty years worth of data.
Kurt Warner was on the Dan Patrick Show, and expressed an opinion that you are likely to hear frequently.
“Scares me. They both have the dream, like Dad, to play in the NFL. When you hear things like the bounty and when you undersatnd the size, the speed, the violence of the game, and you couple that with Junior Seau and was that a [ramification] of playing all those years … it’s a scary thing for me.”
Dan said if he had sons, would he want them not to play. “Yes,” Warner said, “there’s no question in my mind.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson said “it is not length of life, but depth of life.” As parents, we can’t control everything, and we certainly want our kids to experience the depths. I’ve been thinking about this a fair amount, after my father passed away unexpectedly. He lived a deep life, even if we thought he would be around longer. But we can’t ultimately control what happens. You can do everything “right” and not control it. Car accidents, disease, unexpected problems, we can’t control it, we can only do our best, and hope that they can live a long life with the depth we provide.
Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated wrote an excellent piece earlier this week, and said “[i]f it remains as dangerous as it is today, I’m installing a basketball hoop.” I’ve got news for Andy, though, you may install a basketball hoop, and they may play every other sport, and you may want them to be a LOOGY instead. They still might be a football player. Boys are drawn to it.
I say this because I may be the parent of a football player.
I can’t say, right now, that I would never let my child play. I can say that I will be vigilant and informed. He begged us to play last fall, and our compromise was that it had to be flag football at his age. He took to it like a fish to water, seemed to embrace the intricacies and strategy of it compared to other sports. He plays other sports, but he begged us to play spring touch 7 on 7 football to get more practice.
My hope is that we make the sport safer, study it more, and that this does not turn into the epidemic that it has the potential to become, as we are just now on the cusp of retired players who played in the 16 game era, in an era when passing and big hits on receivers became more frequent. Rather than say “never”, I want to say, “better.”
Junior Seau was a football player. He was a great player, and a player who had a career that embodied all that is inspiring about the game. If I am the parent of a football player, I just want my son to be something else as well, to find his depth. We may only have so many hits in us, then we need to move on before it’s too late.
[photo via US Presswire]
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