Seau's suicide forces hard questions on head injuries

He is not the first football player to have committed suicide, and experts worry that it may be linked to repeated concussions.

Winslow Townson/AP/File
Junior Seau as a New England Patriots linebacker smiles during NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., in this July 2007 file photo.

Dave Duerson made it easy to understand why he was ending his tortured life.

Before the former Chicago Bears star fired a bullet into his chest last year, he left word with his family to have his brain examined for damage he believed was caused by repeated blows to the head from his hell-bent style on the football field.

Junior Seau was an even bigger star in the NFL, and yet he ended his life Wednesday in much the same way as Duerson and former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling: self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

Now friends wonder if the San Diego icon hoped his death might leave a greater legacy than any of his amazing feats on the gridiron.

Former player Kyle Turley, who is dealing with his own mental issues and has already agreed to donate his brain for research after his death, has no doubt that Seau wanted to make sure his brain could be studied for the telltale signs of football-related trauma. That's why, Turley believes, his friend shot himself in the chest instead of the head.

"Knowing Junior as I did, he was a very strong kid," Turley told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

"Somewhere, the wires got crossed and he unfortunately decided to end his life. But in his last moment — and I will without a doubt believe this until the day I die — Junior Seau ended his life in a valiant way."

Seau's death was ruled a suicide by the San Diego County medical examiner's office after an autopsy Thursday. Officials were awaiting a decision by the family on whether to turn over Seau's brain to unidentified outside researchers for study. A more in-depth investigative report could take up to 90 days.

Seau, 43, was one of the NFL's most rugged players, a fierce-hitting linebacker selected for the Pro Bowl a dozen years in a row. He played for three teams over two decades, far longer than the average football career, before finally retiring for good at age 40.

Three years later, he decided to end his life. There were signs of trouble away from the field: a divorce, a domestic violence charge involving his girlfriend, though he was never formally charged.

Hours before the domestic violence arrest, his car plunged over a 100-foot cliff in what some speculated was an attempt to kill himself. Seau survived with only minor injuries and insisted that he had simply fallen asleep at the wheel.

Seau never indicated publicly he was having trouble with life after the NFL because of all those blows to the head, and his family said he seemed happy.

That's a far cry from Easterling, who died last month at age 62. He suffered from dementia and led a lawsuit filed by a number of prominent retired players, claiming the league didn't do enough to deal with concussion-related injuries.

Notably, Seau didn't join that lawsuit. Also, it's not known if he wanted Boston University, which has been conducting research into football-related head trauma, to study his brain for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease that can be caused by multiple concussions and only detected after death.

The school said in a statement it was "saddened by the tragic death of Junior Seau," but declined to discuss his case without family approval.

Thomas Demetrio, an attorney for the Duerson family, said it would be "pure speculation" to say that Seau had the same motivation for ending his life as the former Bears safety.

"Dave made it easy," Demetrio said. "He left notes. He sent texts to his family letting them know he wanted his brain studied. I don't know that we have a good answer for why Junior did it."

But if Seau was dealing with CTE or a similar condition, that would make it easier to comprehend what sort of jumbled thoughts the former player might've had running through his mind. Demetrio hopes that Seau's family will allow his brain to be studied by the Boston University team.

"We know that CTE affects your judgment. We know it affects the control of your emotions. We know that it affects your suicidal tendencies," the attorney said.

Others also were struck by the method of death that Seau chose.

"Junior, as we know, put the gun to his chest," said Shawn Mitchell, a longtime San Diego Chargers chaplain and pastor at a church in Oceanside, Calif., the beach community where Seau lived and died.

"He was a very big man. If any man could take a bullet and live through it, it would be Junior Seau. He chose to do it that way."

Seau surely had troubles in his life. Beyond those that were readily apparent to the public, there were plenty of whispers that he played so long largely because he needed the money, that his divorce took a heavy toll on his finances.

Turley isn't buying it. Seau, he said, came from humble beginnings and wasn't driven by money. Even if most of his earnings went to alimony and child support, it shouldn't have been enough to drive him over the edge.

"You can talk about the divorce, say he was failing financially. Whatever," Turley said. "A lot of people are dealing with that and they don't kill themselves. This is a person who had more reason to live than not. It just doesn't make sense."

He is convinced that another factor was in play, a hidden killer that Seau couldn't make sense of and no one else could see.

"There are myriad factors that create a downward spiral of depression," Turley said. "But every one of these cases is exactly the same as far as the brain is concerned. There's a very visual disruption in the brain areas that control impulses, depression, anxiety and all those other things that contribute to this occurring."

Demetrio said the more players who allow their brains to be studied, the better. Seau's death might help others in the NFL think of the ramifications of head injuries on the field, he said.

"For the benefit of the players playing the game today, starting in peewee football all the way up, the more evidence that can be compiled," Demetrio said, "the safer the game will be."

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