I am a football fan. Have been for years. I am conflicted about it. Have been for years. And now this.
Junior Seau, linebacker for the Chargers and the Patriots and one of the great leaders and great characters in the history of the game is dead, a suicide at 43. The speculation began immediately. Was Seau, another one, like Dave Duerson? It’s called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, an irreversible degenerative brain disease caused by repeated trauma. Seau was a linebacker, and one of the most feared tacklers of his generation. He played for eighteen years. Duerson, the old Bears’ safety, recognizing the onset of dementia caused by CTE, shot himself to spare his family, and requested his brain be used to research CTE. Seau’s brain will be similarly used for research.
Jim McMahon was the greatest college quarterback I ever saw play, and one reason I was proud to be a Cougar. He was a rebel and a party guy, and honest about it. He was an amazing competitor. And he has almost no short-term memory today, he says. He thinks he has it too. He’s one of the reasons I’m a football fan, and one of the reasons I’m not sure I should be one.
It’s a brutal sport, violent and ugly. It’s a beautiful sport, filled with courage and athleticism and strategies that make it a fan’s delight. The guys who play it say it fills them with joy. A lot of the best players ever are young men, 40’s and 50’s, and can’t walk, are in constant pain. Some, possibly many, are permanently brain-injured. Most say they have no regrets. They went into with eyes wide open, and they loved it while they were playing. A lot of them were poor, and made more money at football than they ever could have doing anything else. Ray Lewis said ‘I know I’m sacrificing my body for my children’s future.’ I also understand that impulse. With a shudder.
The NFL has taken and says it will continue to take steps to make the game safer for its participants. That’s good. It’s still a violent and dangerous game. Guys are getting bigger and faster. “I’m just waiting for someone to die”. The players all say that.
If I could have played it, I would have. My high school had a good team, and I was friends with some of the players. I was tall back then, slow, but strong. I could have tried out. I never did. I tried acting instead, and have never looked back, but I was envious of the guys who did play, and when we’d goof around, throwing a football, they’d say ‘man, we could use you, you’d be a great tight end.’
My son decided. It’s a violent game and he’s a Christian, so no, he will no longer watch, or follow, the game of American football. He’s into soccer instead. I am too, but not as much as him. So I ask myself, why do I watch? Why do I like it? What does that say about me? What does it say about us?