Skip to main content

Junior Seau was hurting and didn't know how to say it

By Donald McPherson, Special to CNN
May 11, 2012 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Don Pherson says his friend Junior Seau (above) was in pain but didn't know how to ask for help.
Don Pherson says his friend Junior Seau (above) was in pain but didn't know how to ask for help.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Don McPherson: Football's Junior Seau, who committed suicide, to be memorialized today
  • He says research shows punishing head injury, living with pain leads some to suicide
  • He says he has his own scars from football; Junior's death a sobering reminder of toll
  • McPherson: Junior knew there were signs he was in trouble, didn't know how to get help

Editor's note: Don McPherson is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, a feminist and social justice educator. Follow him on Twitter, @donmcpherson.

(CNN) -- I heard on the news that Junior Seau passed away. Seau, 43, ended his life last Wednesday. He did so as purposefully and violently as he played the game of football. Today, a public memorial is planned for him at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

Junior, like my former teammate Andre Waters and friend Dave Duerson, both of whom also committed suicide, played the game as they were taught, with reckless abandon. These guys didn't just tackle opponents; they ran through them, never applying the brakes before collision. And they did what all great athletes do: They learned to play with pain.

ESPN analyst Marcellus Wiley, a former teammate of Seau with the San Diego Chargers, said of Junior that "he never let you see his pain." He also said that Junior would not get treatment with his teammates but would do so privately, so he was seen only at full strength.

Donald McPherson
Donald McPherson

The recent spate of suicides committed by former players has the NFL and the entire sports world examining the cumulative impact of concussions over the span of a career and a lifetime. The emerging research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has helped identify at least one culprit in the uncharacteristically fatal behavior of men who lived by the creed, "never give up."

But inherent in that creed is a zero sum mentality that teaches us all to "play with pain." This also means that we learned to live with pain. Together with CTE, this is a lethal combination that can be very difficult to see, unless we change our lens.

'Paddle-Out' honors Junior Seau
Seau's teammate: 'Concussions common'
Junior Seau's last interview

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

When I received the news about Junior, I had just walked out of my daughter's second-grade classroom.

A few dads were helping with a craft for Mother's Day. While in class, I complained to another dad about the painful decision of saving my back or my knees while assisting children with their cutting and gluing. I knew the source of my physical pain, and it is a constant reminder of a proud football career.

I accept that I gave my body to the game I love and every day I experience the consequences. That has long been the lament of former athletes: bad knees, bad back and nagging body aches are the battle scars of weekend warriors.

During the drive home from school, I thought of the scars that riddle my body and mind. And, for the first time in the discussion of the life expectancy of NFL players, I saw myself. Junior is the 19th player that I played with or knew personally from college and professional football who is dead, all before 50. He is the fifth to commit suicide.

Then I thought of Cover 8.

In 1986, when I was a quarterback at Syracuse University, we installed a defensive formation called Cover 8. It moved the free safety, a position usually 18 yards away from the line of scrimmage, to just half that distance. The purpose was to stop the quarterback (me).

Our free safety was Marcus Paul, now assistant strength coach for Super Bowl champs the New York Giants. For 20 days, we purposely and violently ran through each other several times a day. Each collision brought admiration, respect and a hardening of our resolve. We knew we were making each other better. If we survived each other, no opponent could pose a greater challenge.

We played for another 10 years, but we still laugh about the ringing in the ears and the workman-like way we went at each other that spring, conditioning ourselves to raise our threshold for pain.

We were young men demonstrating the rules of masculinity and sports. Ignore pain, leave it on the field and never back down. As a businessman, I know the merits of those qualities that transferred from my athletic career. But I wonder (and fear) as a man and as a person about what other physical and emotional qualities transferred? At what costs? And when will I find out?

Women are twice as likely to attempt suicide but men are four times more successful. We both suffer from mental illness and seemingly insurmountable stress. But men are also less likely to show signs or ask for help. This leads to the "if you can't fix it, force it" approach that is evident in most violent acts committed by men.

Sadly, there were signs with Junior, Andre, Dave and all the other players who have committed suicide. And, they knew it. What they didn't know was how to tell us. And, we didn't know how to see it in them.

We assumed that they were like most players who find it hard to adjust to life outside the locker room, without the game. It's easy to see them as warriors without a war.

It's harder to see them as men without capacity to say, "I hurt and I need help."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Don McPherson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT