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18 June 2014 Stateside

ITS ALL
IN YOUR
HEAD: LIFE
AFTER THE
GRIDIRON
T
he 911 call came about 9:30am
on Wednesday 2nd May, 2012.
Moments earlier, Junior Seaus
on-again, of-again girlfriend, Megan
Noderer, had returned to the couples
$3.2m (1.9m) Oceanside home from
a workout. She was expecting to fnd
the former all-pro linebacker where she
had left him, in their bedroom.
Instead, Seau was lying on the foor
on his back with a gunshot wound to
his chest. A .357 Magnum revolver lay
next to him. There was no note. Police,
paramedics and two lifeguards from
the beach all responded to Noderers
panicked call to emergency services,
but within hours Oceanside Police
Department publicly announced they
were treating Seaus death as suicide.
Their assertion was made ofcial by the
San Diego County medical examiners
ofce a day later. Seau was 43 when he
died.
There were a lot of questions, Seaus
son, Tyler, told ESPN. A lot of regret. A
lot of pain.
Seau, widely considered an all-time
great, amassed 1,526 tackles, 56.5
sacks and 18 interceptions in his career
with the San Diego Chargers, Miami
Dolphins and New England Patriots
before retiring in 2011. According to
friends, Seaus repeated head blows
and multiple concussions caused him
to sufer from insomnia in the years
preceding his death. As a result, he
often took powerful sleep aids such as
Ambien, otherwise known as zolpidem.
Speaking to ESPN, Gina Seau, Juniors
ex-wife, says: There were so many
found that 90% of those asked
reported sufering concussions while
playing, and nearly 60% reported three
or more. Two in three said that they
sufer continuing symptoms because
of them. Fewer than half of those asked
would recommend that children play
the sport today.
It was the Chiefs former centre Mi-
chael Iron Mike Webster who brought
brain injuries into the national con-
sciousness after being diagnosed with
CTE following his death in 2002. Proven
to be disabled before retiring from the
NFL, Webster sufered from amnesia,
dementia, depression, and acute bone
and muscle pain during his last years.
Speaking to Stateside, Michael Oriard,
who played for the Kansas City Chiefs
during the late 1960s and early 1970s,
says: When CTE was found in Mike
Websters brain that just changed the
game entirely. Now youre dealing with
the players losing themselves. You
think about the depression, the failed
marriages and the terrible business de-
cisions and wonder how much of that
is attributable to brain damage. These
are things we just dont know about.
The league has implemented a
symptoms that we all witnessed every
day. He sufered from mood swings,
depression, and terrible insomnia.
Hundreds of retired NFL players feel
similar pain every morning years after
ending their playing careers. Unlike
the aches and wounds that could be
patched up in time for the next game,
these less visible injuries can develop
mentally, as well as physically.
Brain Research
In 2013 fve brain specialists from the
National Institutes of Health con-
cluded that Seau sufered from chronic
traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a
neurodegenerative disease, in the
years preceding his death. Dr. Russell
Lonser, chairman of the Department
of Neurological Surgery at Ohio State
University, led the study of Seaus brain.
Their research found that the common
symptoms of CTE, impulsivity, forget-
fulness, depression, and sometimes
suicidal ideation, had all afected Seau
due to his career in the NFL.
A Washington Post survey conducted
last year probed into the experiences
of more than 500 retired players. It
There were a lot of
questions. A lot of
regret. A lot of pain.
Mike Webster brought head injuries
into the national consciousness
AMERICAN FOOTBALL
Hundreds of former NFL players sufer from mental
health issues years after their careers end. Two years
on from Junior Seaus suicide, Stateside looks at the
issue that is dividing players and ofcials nationwide.
Words: Ben Topliss
Stateside June 2014 19
number of rule changes in an attempt
to protect players, such as preventing
the ball carrier from leading with his
helmet and requiring that concussed
players be examined and cleared by
an independent neurologist before
returning, but many see this as not
enough.
I think it is more to do with our [the
players] attitudes, says free agent Seth
McKinney, speaking to Stateside. The
league has improved how we approach
concussions and head trauma but I
have known a lot of dazed guys who
have played on purely because there
is this huge culture of playing through
the pain.
For Oriard, the atmosphere is created
by a media that borders on the obses-
sive. He says: It is astonishing to me,
personally, how much attention there
is to sports in America. I actually get
depressed when I think about these
people spending all day long talking
and writing about sports. I remember
when there were three stations on the
television and there was one NFL game
and one college game a week.
Nowadays, there is a generation
of young kids who are preparing for
a life in the limelight in the NFL, on
Sportscentre, on ESPN. Theres this
whole mindset where you dont want
to let the media and your adoring fans
down. It makes these kids push their
bodies to an unhealthy level. Obviously
these players in the NFL can make their
own choices but I dont think a 24 year
old man can know what is like to have
dementia in his 40s.
I played in a completely diferent
atmosphere. When I look at some of
these players and I see how much
pressure theyre under, it makes me
glad I played in a time where it was
only a game. We know that it is more
dangerous for developing brains so
kids that are particularly at risk need to
be protected.
This is a sentiment echoed by Dr. Ha-
keem Shakir, who is in his third year of
residency at the University of Bufalos
Department of Neurosurgery. Ensur-
ing young athletes come of the feld
safely and with their lives still ahead of
them, he told The Bufalo News, should
Former linebacker Seau killed himself in 2012
Players who sufer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)
have experienced a number of mental health problems later in life
AMERICAN FOOTBALL
AMERICAN FOOTBALL
be the top priority.
According to Shakir, the NFL should
introduce similar ruling to that of the
National Collegiate Athletic Associa-
tion (NCAA), which, through its Sports
Medicine Handbook, requires partici-
pating institutions to have concussion
management plans.
The league, in response, often decline
to comment on the subject, at least of-
fcially. Jef Miller, NFL senior vice presi-
dent of health and safety policy, said
in 2013 that (due to the rule changes)
there were 228 diagnosed concussions
during that seasons preseason and
regular-season practices and games
combined, which is a decrease from
261 in 2012.
Regardless, young players can only
look forward to an incredibly short ca-
reer in the NFL. According to research
by CNN, the average NFL career lasts
only 3.52 seasons. The average age of
retired players is 28, with 75% ending
up bankrupt, divorced or unemployed
within fve years of leaving the league.
Remarkably, NFL players can only ex-
pect an average life span of 53-59.
The problem is reaching your peak
of achievement at 20 or 22, and so
there is the tremendous emotional and
psychological burden of life afterwards
being a letdown, says McKinney. Even
if you do make it, and have a long ca-
reer, it is going to be over by the time
youre in your early 30s. You still have
to live half of your life. You do have to
plan for the future. These things are
obvious but whether or not someone
will listen to you when you tell them is
another question.
George Koonce was one former
player who struggled to adapt to life
outside of the game. In 2003 the for-
mer NFL linebacker crashed his Chevy
Suburban at 75mph in an attempt to
end his life. Whatever happened that
day was going to happen. I didnt really
care, Koonce, speaking to ESPN, said
of the incident. The tunnel vision and
unwavering devotion a football career
demanded left me utterly unprepared
for anything else.
Koonce spent most of his life focus-
ing on the next play, the next quarter,
the next half, the next game, the
next ofseason. When all of that was
suddenly and unceremoniously taken
away, a huge hole emerged in his life.
Hed watch entire TV series in a day, just
to pass the time. His agent, who had
spoken to Koonce at least three times
a day since signing out of college,
wouldnt even return his calls.
Help is at hand
It is not all doom and gloom, of course,
and there are some that thrive after a
spell in the NFL. Former Broncos WR
Rod Smith opened a cofee business
after his 13-year career came to an end
and has gone on to generate more
than $13m (7.7m) in sales since 2006.
Smith, who credits his success due to
the fact he came into the league as
an undrafted free agent, told ESPN: I
never wanted to end up as a homeless
guy who once played in the NFL.
There are initiatives in place which
help players transition to a normal life,
such as the Business Entrepreneurial
Program, which is held at the world-
renowned Wharton School of Business.
There, former players can share stories
of depression, denial, fnancial hard-
ship, loss of self-esteem and loneliness
with their peers and are taught skills
that will help them set up their own
companies.
Also available to former players are
12 transition coaches. These coaches,
who used to play themselves, work
with retirees from the NFL, covering
topics such as career transition, mental
health, suicide intervention, confict
resolution and relationship manage-
ment skills.
One of the big issues is the emo-
tional attachment you have through-
out your years playing football, the
locker room camaraderie and environ-
ment that is built and developed, says
former NFL linebacker Dwight Hollier,
who is now the leagues director of
transition and clinical services.
Theres a natural support system.
When you retire or leave the game, you
dont have that same support system
around you. In some ways, this is about
trying to recreate that.
Dad, are you OK? Hunter Seau, Jun-
iors son, asked.
It was 3am and the then 11-year-
old had got up to let out Rock, a pit
bull-mastif mix. Noticing his fathers
light was still on, Hunter looked into
his room. Seau was wide awake and
sat staring at the television. The TV,
however, wasnt switched on. Seau was
staring at an empty screen.
Yes son, he replied. Im fne.
A month later his father would be
dead. Had Seau had the right help, his
death could have been prevented. The
initiatives put in place by the NFL and
other authorities aim to prevent such
tragic cases as Seaus happening again.
He loved the game, Gina says. But I
know he didnt love the end of his life.
Read our breakdown of
player injuries in the NFL
exclusively on stateside.com
The NFL has introduced rule changes in an attempt to protect players
Stateside June 2014 21
George Koonce has made $13m (7.7m) since ending his 13-year playing career