The Tragic Legacy of Junior Seau

The dominant linebacker, who took his own life in 2012, is elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame under controversial circumstances.

Aug 8, 2015, Canton, OH, USA; Sydney Seau poses with the bust of her late father Junior Seau at the 2015 Pro Football Enshrinement Ceremony at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. (Andrew Weber/ USA Today sports)

For 20 seasons—an eternity for a professional football player—there were few better linebackers in the NFL than Junior Seau. Strong, swift, and imbued with an fanatical work ethic, Seau terrorized opposing offenses so much that they largely avoided him, preferring to take their chances against his teammates. During his career with the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, and New England Patriots, Seau was selected to 12 Pro Bowl teams and was an First-Team All Pro six times. As he walked away from the game at the end of the 2009 season, there was no question that Seau would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at his earliest eligibility: this year.

As expected, Seau’s name was among the eight selected for enshrinement in Canton, Ohio, in 2015. But the great linebacker was not there to celebrate the achievement. On May 2, 2012, the 43-year-old Seau died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his Oceanside, California home, a death that sent shock waves throughout the NFL. An anticipated moment of joy—the great Seau’s acceptance speech—was forever denied to his family, friends, and fans.

As his career wound to a close, Seau had asked his daughter Sydney to give a Hall of Fame acceptance speech on his behalf. But in 2010, the NFL enacted a new policy allowing only the players themselves to speak. And despite Seau’s desire to have Sydney perform the honors—as well as his premature death—the league refused to make an exception.

That the NFL was stubborn wasn’t entirely a surprise. Throughout its history, the league has earned a reputation for promoting conformity and enforcing discipline—just ask players who receive fines for wearing their socks the wrong length or for excessive end zone celebrations. But the NFL’s intransigence on Hall of Fame speeches may have more to do with the circumstances surrounding Seau’s death. A charismatic, popular figure throughout his career, Seau’s personal life had complications belied by his sunny disposition. According to a 2013 investigation by ESPN’s Outside the Lines, Seau was an inveterate drinker and gambler who frittered away thousands on frequent trips to Las Vegas. In 2010, months after his career came to an end, Seau’s girlfriend accused him of assault. Soon after being released on bail, the beloved athlete drove his car off a cliff in a suspected suicide attempt. (Seau claimed that he had simply fallen asleep.) Nearly all of the $50 million he earned in salary during his career had evaporated by the time of his death.

Seau isn’t the first NFL player with a checkered personal life to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. But there’s reason to suspect that his brief, turbulent retirement resulted directly from injuries he sustained as a player. Through his two-decade career, Seau was acclaimed for his willingness to play through injury, and he claimed to never have suffered a concussion. But soon after his playing days ended, Seau became forgetful and erratic, signs that the thousands of collisions he endured during his career had severely damaged his brain. Test results revealed after his death revealed that Seau, like many other professional football players, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain condition caused by repeated blows to the skull.

In 2013, Seau’s family filed suit against the NFL. But the league has resisted calls to change the game in order to better protect the mental health of its players, and has tried to downplay the issue—particularly at venues like the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“Were I a suspicious fellow, I might speculate that the NFL knew damn good and well its employees were going to start dying young and that they would be visited by early death due to the damage inherent in the game, so the league called the Hall and suggested the induction of dead players be downplayed,” wrote Charles P. Pierce in Grantland. “Or, as [Pro Football Hall of Fame] president David Baker put it last week, saying far more than he thought he was saying: ‘Our mission is to honor the heroes of the game and Junior is a hero of the game. We’re going to celebrate his life, not the death and other issues.’

In the end, the NFL offered Sydney Seau a compromise: She could be interviewed on stage after spectators watched a video montage honoring her father. But in a hotel room in Canton, Sydney delivered the speech she had prepared—and would have given had the NFL let her—in a recorder. The words are a loving testimony to her father.

“I think what we tend to forget about our favorite invincible, unstoppable, indestructible super-humans is the minor detail that they are also human,” she said. “That is something that we all must endure today without his physical presence. We cannot celebrate his life and achievement without feeling the constant piece that’s missing.”