Skip to main content

Junior Seau was hurting and didn't know how to say it

By Donald McPherson, Special to CNN
May 11, 2012 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Don Pherson says his friend Junior Seau (above) was in pain but didn't know how to ask for help.
Don Pherson says his friend Junior Seau (above) was in pain but didn't know how to ask for help.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Don McPherson: Football's Junior Seau, who committed suicide, to be memorialized today
  • He says research shows punishing head injury, living with pain leads some to suicide
  • He says he has his own scars from football; Junior's death a sobering reminder of toll
  • McPherson: Junior knew there were signs he was in trouble, didn't know how to get help

Editor's note: Don McPherson is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, a feminist and social justice educator. Follow him on Twitter, @donmcpherson.

(CNN) -- I heard on the news that Junior Seau passed away. Seau, 43, ended his life last Wednesday. He did so as purposefully and violently as he played the game of football. Today, a public memorial is planned for him at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

Junior, like my former teammate Andre Waters and friend Dave Duerson, both of whom also committed suicide, played the game as they were taught, with reckless abandon. These guys didn't just tackle opponents; they ran through them, never applying the brakes before collision. And they did what all great athletes do: They learned to play with pain.

ESPN analyst Marcellus Wiley, a former teammate of Seau with the San Diego Chargers, said of Junior that "he never let you see his pain." He also said that Junior would not get treatment with his teammates but would do so privately, so he was seen only at full strength.

Donald McPherson
Donald McPherson

The recent spate of suicides committed by former players has the NFL and the entire sports world examining the cumulative impact of concussions over the span of a career and a lifetime. The emerging research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has helped identify at least one culprit in the uncharacteristically fatal behavior of men who lived by the creed, "never give up."

But inherent in that creed is a zero sum mentality that teaches us all to "play with pain." This also means that we learned to live with pain. Together with CTE, this is a lethal combination that can be very difficult to see, unless we change our lens.

'Paddle-Out' honors Junior Seau
Seau's teammate: 'Concussions common'
Junior Seau's last interview

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

When I received the news about Junior, I had just walked out of my daughter's second-grade classroom.

A few dads were helping with a craft for Mother's Day. While in class, I complained to another dad about the painful decision of saving my back or my knees while assisting children with their cutting and gluing. I knew the source of my physical pain, and it is a constant reminder of a proud football career.

I accept that I gave my body to the game I love and every day I experience the consequences. That has long been the lament of former athletes: bad knees, bad back and nagging body aches are the battle scars of weekend warriors.

During the drive home from school, I thought of the scars that riddle my body and mind. And, for the first time in the discussion of the life expectancy of NFL players, I saw myself. Junior is the 19th player that I played with or knew personally from college and professional football who is dead, all before 50. He is the fifth to commit suicide.

Then I thought of Cover 8.

In 1986, when I was a quarterback at Syracuse University, we installed a defensive formation called Cover 8. It moved the free safety, a position usually 18 yards away from the line of scrimmage, to just half that distance. The purpose was to stop the quarterback (me).

Our free safety was Marcus Paul, now assistant strength coach for Super Bowl champs the New York Giants. For 20 days, we purposely and violently ran through each other several times a day. Each collision brought admiration, respect and a hardening of our resolve. We knew we were making each other better. If we survived each other, no opponent could pose a greater challenge.

We played for another 10 years, but we still laugh about the ringing in the ears and the workman-like way we went at each other that spring, conditioning ourselves to raise our threshold for pain.

We were young men demonstrating the rules of masculinity and sports. Ignore pain, leave it on the field and never back down. As a businessman, I know the merits of those qualities that transferred from my athletic career. But I wonder (and fear) as a man and as a person about what other physical and emotional qualities transferred? At what costs? And when will I find out?

Women are twice as likely to attempt suicide but men are four times more successful. We both suffer from mental illness and seemingly insurmountable stress. But men are also less likely to show signs or ask for help. This leads to the "if you can't fix it, force it" approach that is evident in most violent acts committed by men.

Sadly, there were signs with Junior, Andre, Dave and all the other players who have committed suicide. And, they knew it. What they didn't know was how to tell us. And, we didn't know how to see it in them.

We assumed that they were like most players who find it hard to adjust to life outside the locker room, without the game. It's easy to see them as warriors without a war.

It's harder to see them as men without capacity to say, "I hurt and I need help."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Don McPherson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT