A group of scientists who analyzed the brain tissue of former NFL great Junior Seau, who committed suicide last May, has determined that he suffered from the same type of chronic brain damage that has been found in dozens of other deceased former NFL players, according to researchers and Seau’s family members.
Seau, who absorbed and dished out punishing hits over a long and stellar career as a linebacker, shot himself in the heart in his Oceanside, Calif., home at the age of 43. His ex-wife, Gina, and Tyler, his oldest son, told ESPN and ABC News that Seau’s brain showed shown signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to dementia, memory loss, behavioral changes and depression.
“I think it’s important for everyone to know that Junior did indeed suffer from CTE,” said Gina Seau, who was married to Seau for 11 years “It’s important that we take steps to help these players. We certainly don’t want to see anything like this happen again to any of our athletes.”
Seau’s CTE was caused by “a lot of head-to-head collisions over the course of 20 years of playing in the NFL,” Gina Seau said. “And that it gradually, you know, developed the deterioration of his brain and his ability to think logically.”
Dr. Russell Lonser, the former chief of surgical neurology at the NIH, helped coordinate the study and said that Seau’s brain showed the presence of tau, an abnormal proteic that forms neurofibrillary tangles that constrict healthy brain cells. The NIH said tangles were found “within multiple regions of Mr. Seau’s brain” and that his left frontal lobe showed “evidence of scarring that is consistent with a small, old traumatic brain injury.”
His family, which includes three children, struggles to reconcile that finding with Seau’s love for the game, a game that his sons no longer play.
“It definitely hurts a little bit because football was part of our lives, our childhood, for such a long time,” Sydney, a 19-year-old freshman at USC, told ABC. “And to hear that his passion for the sport inflicted and impacted our lives, it does hurt. And I wish it didn’t, because we loved it just as much as he did. And to see that this was the final outcome is really bittersweet and really sad.”
Seau’s son, Jake, is a high school junior who switched from football to lacrosse. “He lived for those games, Sunday and Monday nights, you know?” he said. “And to find out that that’s possibly what could’ve killed him or caused his death is really hard.”
Tyler Seau, whose mother was Seau’s high school sweethert, is 23 and remembers rising at 5 a.m. to lift weights with his father. “I guess it makes it more real,” he said. “It makes me realize that he wasn’t invincible because I always thought of him as being that guy. Like a lot of sons do when they look up to their dad. You know? You try to be like that man in your life. You try to mimic the things that he does. Play the game the way he did. Work the way he did. And, you know, now you look at it in a little bit different view.”
Not that it’s any consolation, but the Seaus are not alone. Boston University researchers have determined 50 cases of CTE in football players, including 33 who played in the NFL. Thousands of former players are participating in a lawsuit against the NFL, contending that the league ignored the link between football and CTE. The Seaus have not decided whether to join the suit.
What they do know is that, after he retired from the NFL, Seau’s behavior changed markedly and he clearly knew it, too. In 2010, he drove off a cliff after a domestic violence incident and, just months before his death, he told SI’s Jim Trotter that “the game needs to change.”
“He would sometimes lose his temper,” Tyler Seau said. “He would get irritable over very small things. And he would take it out on not just myself but also other people that he was close to. And I didn’t understand why.”
On the night before he died, he sent a text to his ex-wife and children: “I love you.”
The NFL, in a statement this morning, said:
“We appreciate the Seau family’s cooperation with the National Institutes of Health. The finding underscores the recognized need for additional research to accelerate a fuller understanding of CTE. The NFL, both directly and in partnership with the NIH, Centers for Disease Control and other leading organizations, is committed to supporting a wide range of independent medical and scientific research that will both address CTE and promote the long-term health and safety of athletes at all levels. The NFL clubs have already committed a $30 million research grant to the NIH, and we look forward to making decisions soon with the NFL Players Association on the investment of $100 million for medical research that is committed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. We have work to do, and we’re doing it.”
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