Back in May 2012, former all-star NFL linebacker Junior Seau tragically took his own life. This came as a shock to everybody as Seau was adored and loved by friends and fans alike. The circumstances of his death at the way-too-young age of 43 also carry many questions surrounding his struggles with depression and its connection to playing football. Researches from the National Institutes of Health sought to answer some of these questions in the report they release that confirmed that Junior Seau suffered from a degenerative brain disease often linked with repeated blows to the head.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE is a neurodegenerative condition that can lead to memory loss, dementia and depression. Seau’s family donated his brain to the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., to find out if he was one of many players whose time in the NFL led to CTE. Seau’s widow, Gina, said that last week, doctors told her that he did.
“It was important to us to get to the bottom of this, the truth,” Gina Seau added, “and now that it has been conclusively determined from every expert that he had obviously had CTE, we just hope it is taken more seriously. You can’t deny it exists, and it is hard to deny there is a link between head trauma and CTE. There’s such strong evidence correlating head trauma and collisions and CTE.” “It’s important that we take steps to help these players. We certainly don’t want to see anything like this happen again to any of our athletes.”
Dr. Russell Lonser, the former chief of surgical neurology at the NIH, said that because of the publicity surrounding Seau’s death, Seau’s brain was “blinded” during research so that nobody doing the diagnosis would know whose brain they were studying.
“The neuropathologists each examined tissue samples from three different unidentified brains. The official, unanimous diagnosis of Mr. Seau’s brain was a ‘multi-focal tauopathy consistent with a diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy,’ the NIH said in its statement. “In addition, there was a very small region in the left frontal lobe of the brain with evidence of scarring that is consistent with a small, old, traumatic brain injury.
“Specifically, the neuropathologists found abnormal, small clusters called neurofibrillary tangles of a protein known as tau within multiple regions of Mr. Seau’s brain. Tau is a normal brain protein that folds into tangled masses in the brain cells of patients with Alzheimer’s disease and a number of other progressive neurological disorders. The regional brain distribution of the tau tangles observed in this case is unique to CTE and distinguishes it from other brain disorders.
“The type of findings seen in Mr. Seau’s brain have been recently reported in autopsies of individuals with exposure to repetitive head injury, including professional and amateur athletes who played contact sports, individuals with multiple concussions, and veterans exposed to blast injury and other trauma.
In the final years of his life, Seau had wild behavioral swings, according to Gina and to 23-year-old son, Tyler, along with signs of irrationality, forgetfulness, insomnia and depression. He hid it well in public, they said, but not when he was with family or close friends.
Gina Seau said that the diagnosis was not a surprise. “We saw changes in his behavior and things that didn’t add up with him, but (CTE) was not something we considered or even were aware of. ,” his ex-wife, Gina, told The Associated Press. “The difference with Junior … from an emotional standpoint [was] how detached he became emotionally,” she said. “It was so obvious to me because early, many, many years ago, he used to be such a phenomenal communicator. If there was a problem in any relationship, whether it was between us or a relationship with one of his coaches or teammates or somewhere in the business world, he would sit down and talk about it.”
Seau’s son Tyler agreed. “He would sometimes lose his temper. He would get irritable over very small things. And he would take it out on not just myself but also other people that he was close to. And I didn’t understand why.”
“He emotionally detached himself and would kind of ‘go away’ for a little bit,” Tyler Seau said. “And then the depression and things like that. It started to progressively get worse.” “I was not surprised after learning a little about CTE that he had it,” Tyler said. “He did play so many years at that level. I was more just kind of angry I didn’t do something more and have the awareness to help him more, and now it is too late.”
In his 20-year NFL career, Seau was never listed as having a concussion on any medical or injury report, but he joins a list of several dozen football players who were found to have CTE. Boston University’s center for study of the disease reported last month that 34 former pro players and nine who played only college football suffered from CTE.
Seau is not the first former NFL player who killed himself and later was found to have had CTE. Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling are the others. Before shooting himself, Duerson, a former Chicago Bears defensive back, left a note asking that his brain be studied for signs of trauma. His family filed a wrongful-death suit against the NFL, claiming the league didn’t do enough to prevent or treat the concussions that severely damaged his brain. Easterling played safety for the Falcons in the 1970s. After his career, he suffered from dementia, depression and insomnia, according to his wife, Mary Ann. He committed suicide last April.
The league is currently a potential defendant in lawsuits filed by more than 4,000 former players, a full third of the number of living former players, according to NFLConcussionLitigation.com. The players claim that the league knew of the dangers of concussions and did not diagnose them, leading to horrific post-football lives for many of its players. The Seau diagnosis, and the way in which Seau ended his life, will be a major blow to the NFL in the court of public opinion.
“We appreciate the Seau family’s cooperation with the National Institutes of Health,” the NFL said in a statement in response to the diagnosis. “The finding underscores the recognized need for additional research to accelerate a fuller understanding of CTE. The NFL, both directly and in partnership with the NIH, Centers for Disease Control and other leading organizations, is committed to supporting a wide range of independent medical and scientific research that will both address CTE and promote the long-term health and safety of athletes at all levels. The NFL clubs have already committed a $30 million research grant to the NIH, and we look forward to making decisions soon with the NFL Players Association on the investment of $100 million for medical research that is committed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. We have work to do, and we’re doing it.”
The players’ union called the NIH report on Seau “tragic.” “The only way we can improve the safety of players, restore the confidence of our fans and secure the future of our game is to insist on the same quality of medical care, informed consent and ethical standards that we expect for ourselves and for our family members,” the NFLPA said in a statement.
“This is why the players have asked for things like independent sideline concussion experts, the certification and credentialing of all professional football medical staff and a fairer workers compensation system in professional football,” it said.
Given how football is played the problem the NFL is going to face is there is really no way to prevent these type of injuries. Helmets only prevent skull fractures. Your brain is very soft. Composed of about 80 percent water and is the consistency of around soft butter. Your brain is housed in a really hard skull surrounded by fluid. When these hits happen on the football field, the head comes to an abrupt stop, but the brain which is suspended within the skull continues in the path of motion where the head and helmet stopped. The brain then strikes that portion of the skull. Every time this happens neurons are being ripped and damaged. Over time these areas can lose function causing emotional, behavioral, and cognitive problems. It is imperative to bring this information to light so that more people understand the dangers of these contact sports and the detrimental effect it can have on their mental health.