He was a Hall of Famer whose life ended much too soon.
Junior Seau — who died three years ago this coming Sunday — was drafted 25 years ago out of the University of Southern California by his hometown team, the San Diego Chargers.
He died in 2012 by shooting himself in the chest. When his family requested an analysis of his brain, he was found to have a degenerative brain disease consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE has been linked to aggression, depression, and impulse-control problems.
His death helped raise public awareness of CTE and the potential longterm dangers of football concussions.
“We saw changes in his behavior and things that didn’t add up with him,” his ex-wife, Gina, told The Associated Press.
His grim end followed an All-Pro NFL career spanning 20 seasons. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who coached Seau for 38 games from 2006 to 2009, remembered his former player fondly before this year’s Super Bowl.
“The one word that comes to me when I think of Junior in life and football: passion,” Belichick said. “He’s a very passionate guy, lot of energy, lot of enthusiasm. First guy in the building in the morning, watching film, lifting weights, ready for practice, always loved to practice, flying around on the practice field, energy before the game on the sideline… I loved coaching him, and he always expressed how much he enjoyed playing on the New England Patriots, and that meant a lot to me.”
But now he will also be remembered for the violent end that made him a face of the NFL’s concussion crisis. He was among the players profiled in PBS’s Frontline’s 2013 League of Denial, which examined brain damage caused by concussions and how the NFL has dealt with them.
“We wanted Junior’s brain because we pursue every case of a former NFL player passing away,” Boston University Center for the Study of Chronic Encephalopathy co-director Chris Nowinski told Frontline in 2014. “We firmly recognize that no single case is going to change anything in any significant way, so we knew it was our responsibility to attempt to get it.”
In April, a federal judge approved the settlement between the NFL and ex-players that is expected to cost the league nearly $1 billion dollars over the next 65 years.
The settlement covered thousands of ex-players, many suffering from dementia, mood disorders, or other physical problems they say were caused by brain injuries from repeat concussions.
But Seau’s relatives won’t be part of it. In 2014, they rejected the proposed settlement and said they would proceed with a wrongful death lawsuit they filed against the NFL in 2013.
“The family wants to know why this settlement seems designed for expediency for the NFL and to ensure that information doesn’t come out,” Seau family lawyer Steven Strauss told ESPN’s Outside the Lines before the start of the 2014 season. “And the Seau family wants the truth to come out. Since this litigation started, there hasn’t been one document produced, there hasn’t been one deposition taken. It seems very clearly designed to nip this in the bud and not have the truth come out, and that’s not acceptable to the Seau family, and it’s not acceptable to Junior’s legacy.”
In their 2013 complaint filed in California federal court, the Seau family accused the NFL of concealing the risks of head injuries and failing to protect players by allowing them to return to the field too soon following head injuries.
Seau, whose full name was Tiaina Baul Seau Jr. was drafted No. 5 overall in the 1990 draft. He played 12 years for the San Diego Chargers, and was named an All-Pro 10 times and to the Pro Bowl all 12 seasons he was with the Chargers. In 1994, he was named the AFC Player of the Year.
In 2003, Seau was traded to the Miami Dolphins. He was released in March 2006 after limited time on the field because of a torn pectoral muscle.
He announced plans to retire, but was picked up by the Patriots days later. He went on to start in 10 out of 11 games played in the 2006 season, before breaking his arm.
Seau last played for the Patriots in 2009. In his career, Seau tallied 1,849 tackles and 56.5 sacks. In 38 games for the Patriots, he totaled 121 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
He announced his intention to retire again in 2010, the same year personal problems began to surface. In October 2010, he drove his SUV off an embankment in Carlsbad, California, and was hospitalized with minor injuries. The incident occurred hours after he was arrested for domestic violence following an incident his girlfriend reported to police.
Seau was the eighth member of the 1994 San Diego Chargers, the team that lost Super Bowl XXIX to the 49ers, to die at a young age. The other ’94 Charger players that have died: Chris Mims, David Griggs, Rodney Culver, Lewis Bush, Curtis Whitley, Shawn Lee and Doug Miller.
In February 2015, he headlined the 2015 class for the Pro Football Hall of Fame where his two sons represented their late father who was elected posthumously.
“I wish,” 25-year-old Tyler Seau said later, “he was here in person with us.”