Monday, 19 August 2013

The Violent Life and Sudden Death of Junior Seau

When the legendary NFL linebacker retired for good in 2010, he seemed set for life: supremely wealthy, beloved across the league, a hero in his hometown of San Diego. Two years later, he was dead. On a lonely morning in a big empty house, Seau shot himself through the chest. It's no longer a secret how much damage pro football can do to the men who play it, but never before had we witnessed it destroy a genuine superstar—not until Junior Seau. in this GQ special report, Seau's friends and former teammates try to make sense of how a life so filled with triumph could go so wrong so fast
The average NFL career lasts 3.5 years. Junior Seau, one of the greatest linebackers in the history of the NFL, played for twenty—and San Diego, where he starred most of those years for the Chargers, was his city as much as New York is Derek Jeter's. Seau invested in San Diego both as a businessman and as the head of a foundation serving at-risk kids. But after retiring as a very wealthy man in 2010—he earned more than $50 million over the course of his long career—he began to behave uncharacteristically.

He withdrew from family and friends. He made terrible business decisions. He abused pills. He drank. He gambled away terrifying sums. It was evident to those who knew him well that he was struggling, but no one foresaw his suicide on the morning of May 2, 2012.

Eight months after his death, the scientists who examined his brain announced they had found evidence of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a dire neurological disease linked to concussions, which has been a factor in the deaths of many other NFL players. It's impossible to pinpoint the degree to which CTE drove Seau's rapid decline; the disease has been connected to depression, insomnia, emotional withdrawal, and compulsive behavior—all of which afflicted him. But there's one thing everybody close to Seau agrees on: In his final years, Junior was no longer the Junior they had known and loved.

Seau was a star linebacker for twenty seasons, primarily with the San Diego Chargers,where he was legendary for his seeming indestructibility

1. The Man Who Loved to Hit

Natrone Means (San Diego Chargers running back, ex-teammate): God Almighty, he was fast. He was strong, man. He was hands-down the best football player I ever played with.

Aaron Taylor (Chargers guard, ex-teammate, friend): Any time you play a sport that requires an ambulance to be on-site, it's inherently a fucking dangerous game, right? "Getting your bell rung" was the euphemism, and I think we all took pride in it. If you didn't light somebody up or get lit up in a collision, there was a sense that we weren't doing our jobs.

Warren Moon (NFL Hall of Fame quarterback, friend): You have two guys running full speed into each other and butting heads. And that's during practice. You don't do anything like that in a game.
Jay Michael Auwae (friend): I once asked Junior what the biggest hit was that he could recall. He said, "Buddy, it wasn't in a game. It was in practice. Natrone Means was talking trash; I was talking trash. I said, ‘Bring it on!' " Junior said Natrone hit him so hard, and he hit Natrone so hard, that they both were knocked out.

Means: I don't recall this. Maybe it was such a big collision that it's gone from my memory. But I can remember countless times I've seen Junior just smash guys out there. Fights would break out all the time. You want to make a name for yourself. And if you have a name, you want to prove why you have the name.

Taylor: I personally watched him take multiple injections, because he was in front of me in line for them. The 'Caine sisters: Marcaine, lidocaine. Toradol and steroidals to calm down inflammation. I can't say for certain what it was he took, but I would imagine they're not going to give him anything different than what we would've gotten for similar injuries. It was what you did.

Means: I remember him playing in the AFC Championship game [in 1995] with the pinched nerve, man. I mean, sixteen tackles. With a pinched nerve. God Almighty. Never coming out of the game.

Mark Walczak (Chargers tight end, ex- teammate, friend): I couldn't believe the number of surgeries he had. There were like 15 or 16.

Means: It was the "smelling salts and get back in there" generation.

Taylor: You cannot show vulnerability in the locker room. It's despised. Who wants to be a bitch?

Moon: One thing I read that was peculiar to me—he had never been diagnosed with a concussion. That tells me he wasn't reporting what was wrong with him. For a guy that played linebacker for twenty years, somewhere in there he would've had a concussion.

2. "What Do You Do with Your Day Now?"

As early as the mid-1990s, when Seau was in his twenties, he was privately complaining of headaches and bouts of dizziness. He also developed insomnia and began to pull away from his wife (they would divorce in 2002) and children. But there were no signs of that man when Seau announced his retirement on August 14, 2006. Instead he struck a more hopeful note: "I'm not retiring," he said. "I am graduating." Just four days later, he changed his mind and signed with the New England Patriots, where for the next four seasons he chased after an elusive Super Bowl ring. In January 2010, a few days before his forty-first birthday, he retired for good. "I'm going to surf," he said.

With his ever present ukulele, Seau was a fixture on the streets and beaches of Oceanside, his suburban San Diego hometown. But soon he began drinking heavily to cope with his insomnia, while also taking Ambien, a sleeping medication prescribed to him by the controversial former Chargers team physician David Chao (who has since, in an unrelated case, been found liable for malpractice). A downward spiral was taking shape: Seau's worsening health affected his business acumen—and when he made bad financial decisions, he would try to gamble his way out of them.

Taylor: [In 2003] Junior reached out to me. I had retired, and he was thinking of retirement. We had our history together of partying pretty heavily, but he had also watched my transformation. I've been sober eleven years, but [before that] I crashed and burned. So we went for sushi up in Encinitas and talked about the struggles of transition. I was telling him how my first feeling was relief that I didn't have to put my body through that anymore, but very quickly sadness set in. I didn't know what to do. I didn't have schedules; like, I was a blank slate. I had an infinite number of choices, and it was overwhelming and daunting. He expressed some fears of letting go and what's next: "What's it been like? What do you do with your day now? Is it hard?"

Means: If you were to write a script on how to exit the game, Junior's would be an ideal story. The only thing missing was the ring. Coming from the San Diego area, you go up to USC, you come back, and you play for the Chargers. It's almost storybook.

Taylor: The amount of adrenaline and endorphins that is released into our bodies when we run out of a tunnel or make a great play—there's nothing that can replace that [after we retire]. But it doesn't mean that we don't try—and that's where we get into trouble.
Seau moments after the Patriots' crushing last-minute loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl in 2008.
Dale Yahnke (Seau's financial adviser): My goal was to make sure that when he retired, he could work as he wanted to, not because he had to. I think we were there. I didn't like seeing him doing things that were destructive. I knew that what he was doing in Vegas was going to end only one way, and I thought it would be humiliating for him. I tried to talk him out of it. He didn't listen. It clearly was accelerating toward the end.

Auwae: We landed in Vegas one time and immediately, within hours, he won 800-something thousand dollars, okay? So he comes back up to the room. I said, "Let's go home, surf, chill, pay some bills." But after dinner a whale-watcher [a casino handler charged with roping in big-money gamblers] comes up to the room. I'm saying, "June, enough already." And he goes, "No, bro. One more time. I'm gonna clip 'em." Not even two hours later, he comes back up and hits the table with a glass and starts cussing. I was like, "Please don't tell me—" He had lost it all. He's lying on his bed looking at the ceiling, and I go, "Buddy, you gotta stop this, man." He goes, "We got this. We'll get 'em tomorrow." The next morning the whale-watchers show up. June got another half-million dollars, and he goes back down and loses the whole thing.

Taylor: He felt an inordinate amount of financial pressure for a lot of different reasons. He had had some money taken by John Gillette [a San Diego financial adviser who was convicted of stealing millions from his clients]. He had gotten divorced.

Moon: [Seau's The Restaurant, a local institution] wasn't doing as well, because another sports-bar chain had moved in to the same complex, and they were starting to take a lot of his business.

Walczak: He tried to open [another] restaurant in Temecula, which failed. I know that he put his personal guarantee on the restaurant and was continuing to pay the lease when the business was no longer there. Without a doubt his decision-making was impaired.

Auwae: He lost, what, $1 million trying to do [a chain of] Ruby Tuesdays.

Taylor: He shared with me that there were a lot of demands on him: from friends, family, the community. And it was overwhelming—the calls he would get to help pay $5,000 for a prom dress or a party or, or, or...

Yahnke: I'll just put it this way—he was very generous. I can't comment on the other side. I have opinions on it, but I can't comment on it.

Taylor: He was a guy from the hood who had made it. He was an icon, and I think because of that, he had a hard time saying no.

Yahnke: What he needed was for someone to say, "This is destructive behavior, and you need to stop doing it." I tried; didn't work. [The former head of Seau's foundation] tried; didn't work. So I don't know what it would've taken. He has great kids. I would've liked to see him spend more time with them. I think he was conflicted about it. He spent a lot of time at bars and things like that. His foundation helped a lot of kids around San Diego, but why he didn't spend more time with his own kids, who he loved, I don't know. I think deep down, Junior was lonely. He had a lot of what he would call buddies, but I don't think there was anybody that he could truly open up his soul to.
Taylor: Guys keep things to themselves. They suck it up. It allows us to be good football players, but it slices our throats on the back end, because we use the same tools in this new arena that allowed us to be successful during our careers. The alcohol was a numbing-out of all the things that troubled him: He had financial demands, he had familial issues, he had marriage issues. I know he had deep, deep guilt about how he was not showing up as a father toward the end.


3. From Ali to Urkel

Throughout his career, Seau was the gentlest of men off the field, but after his retirement he sometimes became aggressive and even violent with those close to him. At approximately 12:20 a.m. on October 18, 2010, he was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence after an incident with a girlfriend. Within hours of posting bail, he was involved in a bizarre accident on a coastal road in Carlsbad, California. The story made national headlines.

Walczak: He was up all night with the police. Finally they got it sorted out, and he was driving south, and he told me he fell asleep and drove off the cliff. At that time, I had no reason not to believe him. I wish I'd gone and looked at the site where it happened, because it wasn't an accident. I've been there lots of times, and it just doesn't work. It would be a ninety-degree turn. You'd have to crank the wheel so hard, and you'd have to time it just so.

Taylor: He was a beaten-down man. His confidence was gone. He seemed worn-out. It was hard for him to articulate coherent thoughts. There was a degradation of the dude that I remember playing with. I played with Muhammad Ali, and I had lunch with a guy that showed up with the machismo of Urkel. He looked like a crackhead walking in off the street. He said, "I need help. I don't know what to do. I'm an addict of a lot of things. Tell me what to do, man."

Walczak: Ambien is a crazy, hallucinogenic, mind-altering, addictive, terrible drug. I think part of his struggles were with that [drug] altering his ability to make sense or judgments. He didn't take it as prescribed; he'd take three over the course of the night.

Jamie Paulin (Nashville songwriter, friend): We'd talk about [a job in] sportscasting, where he'd be like, "Oh yeah, I'm going to get on that," and then the next day there would be no thought of it. It was, like, too much to think about.

Auwae: He would forget the phone on the back of the [car's] hood and drive two miles and not know where the phone is. Ukuleles, leaving them in different places. Missing appointments—like [his daughter] Sydney's volleyball game.

Taylor: We went to a meeting of a twelve-step program. He introduced himself as an addict and shared where he was at. I knew how much courage it took, because I know how hard it was for me, and I was a nobody as a player. Everybody in San Diego knew what happened with his car. I was very encouraged. But pretty quickly after that, he went dark.

Auwae: We went to a bar in Carlsbad [in late April 2012]. This fan comes up to him: "Mr. Seau, you mind if—" And he's like, "Get the fuck out of here, man." Dude, that's not Junior. This is so not him. I go, "What's wrong with you?" He just said, "I'm tired of it, man."
4. A Bullet to the Chest

In late April 2012, Walczak spent the week of his fiftieth birthday with Seau. The men spent that week hopping around local restaurants and bars, always returning to Seau's house across the street from the Pacific Ocean. Throughout, Seau regularly requested that they play music together—in particular a song that Paulin had written called "Who I Ain't."
Walczak: I've suffered many, many concussions, and at certain times I can't remember anything. He cracked on me: "Buddy, do you got Sometimer's or Alzheimer's?" We had cocktails and relaxed near the ocean. He seemed to be really right. We talked about Dave Duerson [the former Chicago Bears All-Pro safety who had shot himself; later he was discovered to have been suffering from CTE], because it came up on ESPN. I asked him: "How do you feel? Do you have symptoms of anything?" He said, "I feel great."

Auwae: Everybody talked about the suicide note; it wasn't a suicide note, it was the lyrics of a song.

Paulin: "Who I Ain't" was written ten years ago by me and Justin Lantz. It's about a guy who has made a lot of mistakes but then finds peace and redemption. Junior was here [in Nashville] that April, and he said, "Oh, you gotta send me a copy of that." We told him the chords and wrote down the lyrics for him.

Walczak: During the course of that week, we probably sang the song together fifty times, getting it right. When he found a song that he liked, man, he'd play it over and over. It goes, Cuz I've broke the hearts of angels, cursed my fellow man / Turned from the Bible with a bottle in my hand / My only hope for forgiveness, when the good Lord calls my name / Is that he knows who I am and who I ain't. Maybe he knew that he was going to end it. Maybe this was his way of being at peace with it and sharing his peace.

Paulin: I never thought he felt he was carrying any unfixable mistakes. Apparently he felt he was.

On Tuesday, May 1, Seau sent a group text to family members: "I LOVE YOU." He spent that evening watching a Lakers game on TV with a girlfriend. The following morning, she discovered his body. Among the mysteries of that day: The SIM card from Seau's cell phone was never found. Auwae has speculated that Seau received a collections call from a Las Vegas casino, which may have contributed to his suicide. In any event, Seau's gambling debts were forgiven following his death.

Walczak: He didn't tell me he owned a gun. I do know this: He had probably never, ever fired a gun in his life before.

Seau's mother after her son's suicide.

Mark Malamatos (investigator for county medical examiner's office; from his report): At approximately 0915 hours, [Seau's girlfriend] left her gym and attempted to telephone [Seau] four or five times. When he did not answer, she decided to drive by the gym where he worked out. She then went back to the house, and when she entered through the garage, she had a feeling that it was unusually quiet. When she walked up the steps to the living room/kitchen area, she saw [Seau's] dog, and knew it was unusual for him to be in there. She then walked down the hallway to the master bedroom and did not see [Seau] in bed. She noticed that one of the spare bedroom doors was shut, which again she thought was very unusual. As she walked into the spare bedroom, she saw the decedent lying on the bed.

Auwae: What's weird about the whole thing is he didn't even kill himself in his room. He went to a spare room. He sat in bed, grabbed the gun, pressed it hard against his chest, and blew a hollow-point round right through himself.

Walczak: It was completely uncharacteristic of a guy who was the constant competitor, the most generous person in the world, the biggest lover of people. It's just strange that his life would end in a way that symbolized uncaring and selfishness and thoughtlessness. He somehow lost his mind.


5. The Life and Afterlife of Junior Seau

In April 2013, the Seau family joined more than 4,400 former players in a mass of lawsuits charging that the NFL and the helmet manufacturer Riddell had misrepresented or suppressed data about the risks associated with concussions. Of the players involved in wrongful-death lawsuits, Junior Seau is one of the youngest. "We know this lawsuit will not bring back Junior," the Seau family said in a statement published by the Associated Press. "But it will send a message that the NFL needs to care for its former players, acknowledge its decades of deception on the issue of head injuries and player safety, and make the game safer for future generations."

Taylor: Junior was different. Junior was special. There's legendary stories of him playing with broken forearms and compound fractures. I don't know if I ever saw him for any reason leave a game. Junior fought through so much pain. There would be times that he wouldn't practice because he couldn't walk, but magically he would show up on Sunday.

Means: I remember when I left San Diego in 1996 and went to Jacksonville. I was thinking, "I guess every NFL team has a Junior Seau linebacker." I'm out there that first day of practice, I'm looking around, I'm like, "Okay, where's the Junior Seau at?" You see a lot of guys who look the part, but I'm like, "Naw, that's not the one.... No, that's not the guy...." That's when it really hit me: "Oh shit. Okay, now I get it."

Auwae: Once he told me about his first gym workout as a rookie. He was nervous about making the team. His dad wanted to buy the house he lives in now, but Junior didn't even have a bank account. At the gym, the most feared guy on the team starts flinging up the weights, and he's struggling. Junior grabbed the same weights and pressed them like nothing. He could feel everybody looking at him, impressed with him. Afterward he went to the phone and called his mom. He goes, "Mom, tell Dad to go buy the house. We're gonna be here for a while."

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