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Seau's Suicide Helped To Make Concussions In Football A National Issue


This week, we are talking about football, the draw of that sport and also the risks involved. Yesterday, we heard from three parents struggling over whether to let their son play a sport that has become synonymous with brain trauma.

CHRIS LANDRY: I distinctly recall one of his first seasons - or his first season. He was playing, and - big kid is running with the ball. And my little kid is going to meet him on a tackle. And it just seemed like slow motion as I'm watching this impending collision and thinking oh, my gosh. What have I done?

GREENE: That's Chris Landry, a California dad who did decide to let his son play, saying all sports have risks involved. Today, we hear the story of the NFL player whose death more than any other brought the issue of concussions in football into the mainstream.


MEGAN NORDERER: Junior Seau, my boyfriend.



UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you know if he's breathing?

NORDERER: I don't think so.

GREENE: This was the 911 call after Junior Seau committed suicide in 2012. This shocked the football world. Seau took his life after several years of erratic behavior and depression. A hall of famer, Seau played most of his career with the San Diego Chargers as a linebacker famous for his crushing tackles.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Whack. You see Junior Seau just step, see the ball - full force of Junior Seau.

GREENE: Seau's brain was studied after his death. And there was CTE - chronic brain damage caused by repeated blows to the head. It's been found in dozens of deceased NFL players. Seau's family has brought a wrongful death suit against the NFL, claiming the league knew the danger of concussions but hid it from players. Now, during his career, Junior Seau, like so many other players, downplayed or even hid his injuries.

JIM TROTTER: He would have the trainer come to his house 5 in the morning to treat him before the trainer would go into the office because Junior didn't want to go in the training room in front of his teammates. He felt that if players saw him in the training room, they would think it was OK for them to be in there and to miss practice or to miss games.

GREENE: That's the voice of football analyst Jim Trotter, who's the author of the new book "Junior Seau: The Life And Death Of A Football Icon." He says concussions were among the injuries Seau kept private.

TROTTER: In his 20 years in the NFL, this is a guy that had over 1,400 tackles, and not once was he ever diagnosed with a concussion. And yet in talking to his ex-wife and others, they will tell you he had many concussions. In fact, he would it say to her. He would call her after the game. She'd be at home. And she'd be like hey, what happened on this play? Why weren't you there? And he'd say oh, I just had a concussion.

GREENE: But Seau did seem to recognize the damage that he was doing to himself. This is from a 1993 NFL video.


JUNIOR SEAU: If I could feel some dizziness, I know that guy's feeling double of what I feel. So yeah, the hitting that I put on somebody else is always going to be judged on how I feel going back to the bench.

GREENE: Jim Trotter, that makes me want to ask you this. I mean, people who are very concerned about, you know, brain injuries in the NFL say that they just want players to know the risk of what they're doing and to know the possible consequences. I mean, if a person like Junior Seau knew that there could be devastating effects on his brain and his life because of these hard hits, do you think he would've acted in the same way? Do you think we would've heard him saying these kinds of things?

TROTTER: I do. I think - you know, many of the players I talk to today even, when I ask them knowing what you know now about concussions, would you still play this game? And some are active; some are retired. And I would say out 9 of 10 say yes. There's something about this game, about the camaraderie, about the competition, all those sorts of things that when you're the elite of the elite, these guys love to compete. And there's also when you're young, I think you also feel that you're indestructible. And I'll never forget the conversation I had with Junior two months before he died. I said to him people say Roger Goodell, the commission of the NFL, is making the game soft with these rule changes or enhanced rules for player safety that he's instituting. And I said what do you think about that? And Junior said it has to happen. And that kind of caught me off guard because it seemed to go against everything I knew about him, you know, as a player in terms of the physicality and all those sort of things. And I said what do you mean? And he said those who are saying the game is changing for the worse, well, they don't have a father who can't remember his name because of the game. I'm pretty sure if everybody had to wake with their dad not knowing his name, not knowing his kids' names, not being able to function at a normal rate after football, they would understand that the game needs to change. If it doesn't, there are going to be more players - more great players - being affected by things that we know of and aren't changing. That's not right.

GREENE: But it didn't seem like he told anyone about that.

TROTTER: That wasn't his nature. It wasn't - again, go back to the guy who had the trainer come to his home at 5 in the morning - that's the struggle for many when they leave this game is that forever you've been told don't show weakness on the field. Any sign of vulnerability will be exploited by your opponent. And then all of a sudden, when you're done playing, now you say flip the switch and show your vulnerabilities, show weakness. For many of them, that's hard because they've been taught the contrary. So for Junior, it was definitely that way, where he was not a guy who would reach out and ask for help. He would give you anything. But in terms of actually asking for help himself, it was hard for him.

GREENE: There's a line in the new "Concussion" movie, and it quotes a league official saying if 10 percent of moms decide that football is not safe, the NFL is dead. Are we getting to a point where that might happen?

TROTTER: Oh, I think you're definitely going to have more parents who think twice before allowing their kids to play, particularly at a young age. And I know of people, I know of players retired or active who have said to their kids you know what? You've got to wait until you're in high school to play. I'm just not comfortable with you playing at a young age. But I think there will always be a talent pool of players available for the NFL. And the bigger question I have - and I'm hoping that one day we get the answer, maybe it'll come out in the wrongful death suit that the Seau family has filed against the NFL - is I want to know what the NFL knew and when it knew it. I think the fans and the players deserve to know.

GREENE: Jim Trotter, real pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.

TROTTER: No, thank you for having me.

GREENE: That's Jim Trotter. His new book is called "Junior Seau: The Life And Death Of A Football Icon." And tomorrow, we will speak with actor Will Smith. He stars in "Concussion," a new film about brain injuries and football. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.