Junior Seau: American footballer beset by inner demons

 

The news that Junior Seau, for 20 seasons a star linebacker in the National Football League, had killed himself at the age of 42 with a gunshot to the chest, shocked America. Few played the game with such high-energy enthusiasm, and few played it with such physicality for so long.

Seau was a popular team-mate, a natural leader and a fixture in the Oceanside, California community where he grew up. The idea that an indestructible gladiator might succumb to inner demons was stunning. "He was a superman," said one ex-team-mate.

There had been hints. In 2010, Seau was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence after an argument with his girlfriend. After being released without charges, he drove his car off a cliff, surviving a 100 foot fall. He claimed he had fallen asleep at the wheel.

Both the timing and manner of his suicide suggested possible causes. It came a few weeks after the suicide of Ray Easterling, a hard-hitting safety for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1970s, and the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit by former NFL players now numbering over 1,100, alleging that the League hid the nature of the seriousness of concussions from its players. Easterling suffered insomnia, depression, violent fits and symptoms of dementia. Seau shot himself in the chest, recalling the similar suicide in 2011 of the former Chicago Bear safety Dave Duerson. Duerson, suffering symptoms similar to Easterling's, had lost his family and his business. He wanted to donate his brain to a research centre at Boston University.

Tiaina Baul Seau, Jr was born in November 1960 in Oceanside, California. His parents were Samoan; one grandfather was a village chief in Pago Pago, where he spent part of his childhood. He starred in American football, basketball, and athletics in high school, and was recruited by the University of Southern California, where he was given the jersey No 55, generally reserved for USC's star linebackers.

Seau's college entrance scores rendered him ineligible for football his freshman year, and he found life without sport difficult. "I was labelled a dumb jock," he said, "and found out who my real friends were. Nobody stuck up for me." As a sophomore he was injured, but in his junior season he was a unanimous All-American, and he decided to leave college and declare for the NFL draft, to support his family. He was taken by his hometown San Diego Chargers with the fifth pick of the draft.

One of the glamour teams of the old American Football League, the Chargers had boasted a history of futility since merging into the NFL – which continued for most of Seau's 13 seasons with them, though in 1994 they reached their first, and only, Super Bowl, losing to the San Francisco 49ers. Seau is the eighth member of that team to have died prematurely; and though the list includes oddities like Doug Miller's being hit by lightning, at least four of the deaths may be attributed to abuse of steroids or recreational drugs. With the Chargers, Seau was selected for the first or second team in the All-Pro 10 times.

In 2003, claiming his play was declining, the Chargers traded Seau to Miami. As if to prove them wrong he had a stellar season, but lost most of the next two years to injury. After being released in 2006 he signed a one-day contract with San Diego and retired a Charger. Six days later he came out of retirement to play for the New England Patriots, after a call from their coach, the defensive mastermind Bill Belichick, who said simply, "I've got a position for you." Playing inside in Belichick's system, his freelancing instincts were curtailed, but in his second season the Patriots went undefeated, standing 18-0 after beating San Diego in the conference championship play-off. But a loss to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl denied Seau his ring.

In each of the next two seasons he came out of retirement to rejoin New England when the Pats were struck with injuries. In 2009 he signed in time to play against Tampa at Wembley Stadium. One of the most approachable of the Patriots, calling everyone "buddy", he talked about missing his daily morning surfing, and discussed Belichick as an equal, rather than with the usual player's deference to a legendary coach.

Seau ran a popular restaurant, and a foundation which has donated more than $4 million to youth charities, and he worked especially with delinquency in the American Samoan community. His girlfriend discovered his body in the bedroom of his seafront house in Oceanside on the morning of 2 May. He is survived by his ex-wife, from whom he was divorced in 2002, and their daughter and two sons. He had sent them all text messages ending in "I love you" before he died. The family has said they will donate his brain for study at Boston University. When asked if Seau had suffered concussions, his sister Gina said, "Of course he had. He always bounced back and kept on playing. He's a warrior... It's not ballet. It's part of the game."

Michael Carlson

Tiaina Baul Seau, Jr, American footballer: born Oceanside, California 28 November 1960; married 1991 Gina Deboer (divorced 2002; two daughters, one son); died Oceanside 2 May 2012.

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