On Thursday, the death of NFL legend Junior Seau was officially ruled a suicide by the San Diego County medical examiner. While those who knew and loved the man are left to comprehend this, it has now been reported that Seau's family will allow his brain to be examined for damage resulting from concussions and other head trauma the linebacker may have suffered through his 20-year NFL career. The 43-year-old Seau shot himself in the chest at his Oceanside, Calif., home on Wednesday.
"The family was considering this almost from the beginning, but they didn't want to make any emotional decisions," San Diego Chargers team chaplain Shawn Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. "And when they came to a joint decision that absolutely this was the best thing, it was a natural occurrence for the Seau family to go forward."
The autopsy determining the cause of Seau's death was assisted by Dr. Bennett Omalu, the San Joaquin County chief medical examiner, and the man credited with identifying Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the neurological disorder caused by repeated head trauma. As the co-founder of the Brain Injury Research Institute, Omalu has been studying the impacts of concussions for years. The institute Omalu co-founded with Dr. Julian Bailes is one organization asking to study Seau's brain; another is the Sports Legacy Institute at Boston University, an organization that has received funding from the NFL.
According to a January 2011 ESPN article, doctors from both organizations once worked together, but now "compete" to further research in their fields. Public knowledge of CTE really began in 2002, when Omalu, then working as a medical examiner in the Allegheny County, Pa., coroner's office, found unusually high amounts of tau protein in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster. This led to his link between multiple concussions and long-term brain damage, a conclusion that the NFL went out of its way to discredit. Omalu then studied the brain of Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters, who committed suicide in 2006. Omalu found that Waters' head traumas had left him with early onset Alzheimer's disease and the mental capacity of an 85-year-old. Waters was 44 at the time of his death.
Public awareness increased when former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson killed himself in January of 2011 by shooting himself in the chest so that his brain could be studied and analyzed for CTE symptoms. It was revealed that brain trauma led to the depression that caused Duerson to take his life. At the same time, a series of lawsuits filed by former NFL players, claiming that the NFL withheld knowledge of the effects of concussions, became more of a public issue. Currently, the number of former players suing the league in a number of class-action cases exceeds 1,500.
Obviously, the similarities between Duerson's and Seau's deaths raised a lot of red flags and caused many people to assume that Seau was suffering from the same kind of brain trauma and depression that led to Duerson's suicide. We don't know and shouldn't officially speculate, but what happens to the NFL, and its own alleged concern about concussions, if it's found that Seau suffered from CTE?
Certainly, those close to Seau did not see his suicide coming -- he was revealed to be a happy person near the end of his life -- at least, on the surface to people around him. ''This is not anything I thought he would ever do,'' former San Diego Chargers safety Miles McPherson told the Associated Press on Thursday. "Junior is a warrior. He played 20 years in the NFL as a linebacker. You have to be a warrior. Warriors conquer problems they face and they run at them."
"All of us can appear to be super, but all of us need to reach out and find support when we're hurting,'' Chargers chaplain Shawn Mitchell said in that AP report. ''This super person, this wonderful human being, this extraordinary athlete and man ... if someone so invincible like Junior could end his life this way, it should be a message to all of us all going through hurt and travails, that we all need each other. If somebody's hurting, please talk to somebody. Get help.''
"When it happens to a person that I feel pretty confident has been exposed to repeat concussions, my first thought was, did somebody do what they could to make sure this individual knew what his exposure was in terms of concussions?" Dr. David A. Hovda, director of the Brain Research Center at UCLA, told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. "What the cost was going to be after he finished his career, and what he should look out for? Was the family notified? And did he get help if he needed it?"
After it is decided where Seau's brain will be examined, it could take up to 90 days for the results to be revealed.
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