Football and Death

The death of Junior Seau, while unfortunate, did not come as a shock to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t “see it coming” or anything like that. I’d never met Seau before and had no insight into his motivations for taking his life.

However, I do know a little about the game of football — primarily as a fan of the game for over 35 years.  I don’t pretend to be an X’s and O’s guy, but I think I have a different perspective on the game than the average fan.

I have 3 sons, each of whom has played years of football.  My oldest started playing when he was 12, almost a year after I began raising him and over his mother’s objections.  She felt the game was too violent – especially on a young man’s body.  After his first year playing in Rec Football, his younger brothers, then 11 and 7, both lobbied to play.  My wife’s objections were not as pronounced this time around, and with a bit of reluctance, she relented.

Brandon, our oldest, went on to play football in college at one of the better DIII football programs in the country.  He was oft injured, suffered a labrum tear in the shoulder his junior season that required surgery, but battled back to help his team reach the DIII semi-finals his senior year.  His blocked field goal in overtime allowed his team to advance past the second round in the DIII playoffs.

Our middle son, Alec, plays for a Bowl Championship Subdivision school.  As he enters his senior season, he too has overcome the physical demands and injuries associated with playing football – also having significant shoulder surgery following his junior season. 

Our youngest son decided this past football season that he no longer wanted to play.  He was entering his junior year in high school and decided instead to run cross country.  While I had issues with his decision, it had more to do with the timing of it than anything else.  He had a blast running cross country and never once regretted leaving football behind him.

The difference between Brandon and Alec is that Brandon is now done with playing football.  His final game came in the DIII semifinals against the eventual champion.  Alec has no idea when his final game will come.  He has the opportunity to continue beyond college, depending on his health and performance, and play in the NFL.

One thing is certain – his last game will be played sometime in the next 20 years.  Most likely it will happen much sooner.  The average playing career of an NFL player is roughly 3 seasons.  Given those odds, his playing days will be over by the time he is 26.  The other certainty is that nothing is certain.  Probably the most physically gifted athlete I’ve ever watched play the game was Bo Jackson.  Had he stayed healthy, he would have had a Hall of Fame career – had he stayed healthy. 

Jackson’s injury was a “freak” accident.  It may have been exacerbated by playing football, but it was certainly not a “normal” football injury.  Concussions on the other hand are.

Unlike the infamous Theisman leg break, concussions are not seen.  There is speculation, with additional study and research warranted that concussions, related brain injuries, as well as above average Body Mass Index numbers contribute to the shortened life span of NFL football players. 

Hard current data apparently is hard to come by, but older studies and prevailing numbers used suggest that the average life span of an NFL player is between 53 to 59 years and less than this for linemen!  This is a full 20 years short of life expectancy for the average man. 
A 1994 study of 7,000 former players by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found linemen had a 52 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population. While U.S. life expectancy is 77.6 years, recent studies suggest the average for NFL players is 55, 52 for linemen. Source
[F]ormer pro football players from the region coaxed to this Bellevue medical clinic for a series of heart screening tests conducted by Denver cardiologist Jeffrey Boone and funded by an alliance of NFL organizations — taking part in an innovative program considered overdue for a violent sport characterized by startling low life-expectancy rates, depending on playing position, of 53 to 59. Source
Given all this, when I heard former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, in the wake of the Seau suicide, suggest that the violence of the game has made him wish his children would not play football, I fully understood where he was coming from.

“They both have the dream, like dad, to play in the NFL…That’s their goal. And when you hear things like the bounties, when you know certain things having played the game, and then obviously when you understand the size, the speed, the violence of the game, and then you couple that with situations like Junior Seau — was that a ramification of all the years playing? And things that go with that. It scares me as a dad.”

Asked if he would prefer that his sons not play football, Warner answered, “Yes, I would. Can’t make that choice for them if they want to, but there’s no question in my mind.” Source

There is the physical toll the game brings to the body and the mind, but there is a psychological price that is paid as well. 

Mike Golic, a one-time NFL lineman, now co-host of ESPN’s Mike and Mike show described his final playing days in the NFL and what the transition was like for him into a world of uncertainty.

In the context of the discussion of Seau’s suicide, you can understand, concussions aside, depression can be common for people that have spent the majority of their lives devoted to playing the game of football, then in most cases without warning, to have to do something else. 

Former NFL running back Eddie George, interviewed in the days after Junior Seau’s suicide described his depression after leaving the league:

“It’s hard. It’s hard to find your life purpose, that next passion,” George said in an exclusive interview with SportsRadio 610 over the weekend. “There were moments when I had to seek counseling. I recommend to anybody coming out of the game to seek counseling to get that support to help you find your next venture or find who you are.

“It didn’t matter how much money I had in the bank account, what I had accomplished, it didn’t matter I had businesses. Nothing fulfilled my life like suiting up every Sunday and playing with the guys and in front of thousands of people cheering my name. That’s the ultimate high.” Source

Or former NFL great Trevor Price, who wrote an article for the NY Times two weeks prior to Seau’s death, describing what it’s like to be away from football:

During my 14 years in the N.F.L., my favorite day was Monday. As long as I wasn’t preparing for surgery or being released, Mondays were special. They signified that I had made it through another week and was ready for another opponent. Even the soreness was oh, so sweet.

How I miss those days.

Now my Mondays go something like this: Work on my tennis serve; take a conference call with a Hollywood executive; get my three children to school; browse my favorite Web sites, none of them involving football; check my Words With Friends; and take the dog to day care.

By then, it’s only 10:30 a.m.

Welcome to the life of the secure and utterly bored former professional athlete.
Seau’s death is the 3rd suicide of by a former NFL player in the last 15 months and 12th in the last 25 years.  I don’t know if that average is higher than the norm – I believe the suicide rate among active duty military members and veterans of our armed forces is significantly higher, but the comparing the NFL to the military, especially a military engaged in constant warfare for 11 years is appropriate. 1, 2

So I look at football differently than the average fan.  I love watching the game.  I love the statistics and the numbers, but I also understand that there is significantly more to it than what happens on the field – way beyond the X’s and O’s.  I read comments by “fans” lacking any understanding of the game beyond the Win-Loss column, ripping into kids that are too young to legally drink alcohol.  As the father of young adult football players, I’m not in a position to “defend” against ignorant, baseless, or just plain uncivil attacks against him or his teammates. 

In the age of social networking, everyone has an opinion and more often than not it appears that the opinion is expressed from a position of anger.

As Kurt Warner wrote defending his position on his children playing football:
“First, let me say that it always disappoints me that we can no longer respect others opinions, choose to disagree and use them as a means of dialogue to better understand the differing thoughts and concerns we may have, and from where these differing views stem.  In this day and age, it seems as if many take the approach, “It’s ok to share your opinion, as long as it agrees with mine, but if not keep it to yourself or you will be attacked.”  I hope all who read this will take a moment the next time they disagree with another and try to look at the topic from the others point of view before they attack that individual.”
For those of you who know anything about Kurt Warner or me, we have very little in common beyond being fathers of children that play football.  Kurt Warner’s personal website has “Matthew 6:33” in the banner and a mission statement that reads:  “Dedicated to impacting lives by promoting Christian values” while my banner reads “Choosing Good Over god.” 

But I get the sense that if the occasion ever arose, that Kurt and I could have a decent, civil, and even constructive conversation regarding our beliefs and opinions based on a commitment of respect for the other person.  Religious views aside, we may agree on a wide range of topics and how to improve the world.  I couldn’t agree with him more regarding his view of the lack of civility and respect for people’s opinions, or the concern of a father for his football playing sons.

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