Few linebackers impacted the game like Junior Seau. A ferocious hitter with sideline-to-sideline speed, he grew into a household name as the leader of the San Diego Chargers. For nearly two decades, he set the standard by which the position should be played.
However, Seau’s body also endured years of abuse from the game of football. And just a few years after he finally called it a career, he took his own life. His tragic death exposed the lethal impact of CTE—a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to the deaths of several former NFL players.
Junior Seau became one of the best linebackers in NFL history
Playing linebacker in the NFL requires incredible toughness. And back in the ’90s, no player exuded that quality more than Junior Seau. Following a legendary career at USC, the San Diego native got a chance to play for his hometown Chargers. The fifth overall pick from the 1990 NFL draft wasted no time showing he belonged.
After a solid rookie season, Seau went on to earn Pro Bowl honors every year from 1991 through 2002. Despite playing a physically demanding position, he missed just eight games in 13 seasons with the Chargers. During that stretch, he annually ranked amongst the league leaders in tackles.
Eight first-team All-Pro selections later, Seau took his talents to the Miami Dolphins. At that point in his career, he played more of a backup role. Seeking his first Super Bowl ring, the aging linebacker joined the New England Patriots.
Surprisingly, Seau actually started 10 games in his age-37 season. Unfortunately, he never got a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. New England came so close to closing out an undefeated season in 2007 before Eli Manning hit David Tyree on one of the most incredible plays in Super Bowl history. The Patriots lost to the Giants and Seau never earned a coveted Super Bowl ring.
With 268 games and nearly 1,900 tackles on his resume, Junior Seau retired after the 2009 season. That should have set him up for a long life after football. Only the game that gave him so much also contributed to his untimely death.
Seau’s tragic death exposed the lethal impact of CTE
At age 43, Junior Seau should have been entering the best years of his life. He made millions as an NFL star for several prominent franchises. Yet, he never lived to see his 44th birthday. On May 2, 2012, his girlfriend found him dead inside his Oceanside, Calif. home. Seau shot himself in the chest but did not leave a suicide note.
Immediately, people questioned why he would take his own life just two years after retiring from the NFL. It turns out that CTE may have played a role in his suicide.
In January 2013, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru of ESPN reported that five brain specialists consulted by the National Institutes of Health concluded that Seau suffered from the degenerative brain disease commonly found in former football players.
That came as a shock to some considering Seau never had a diagnosed concussion during his NFL career. Of course, it’s safe to say he likely endured dozens of them that went undocumented. His death caused conflict for his children, who watched their father achieve so much through sports.
“It definitely hurts a little bit because football was part of our lives, our childhood, for such a long time,” said Sydney, [Seau’s daughter] a freshman at USC. “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.”
Other deceased NFL players have been linked to CTE
Sadly, Junior Seau isn’t alone. Many former NFL players have passed away only for the world to find out that they too suffered from CTE. In 2009, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry died after getting dragged from a moving truck. An autopsy showed that he had already developed CTE. That represented a major discovery because he passed away while still being an active NFL player.
Two years later, former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Boston University School of Medicine researchers discovered that he suffered from CTE. Duerson was just 50 years old when he killed himself.
And just three years ago, former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez also took his own life. Prison authorities found Hernandez hanging in his cell. Later, his family learned that he lived with severe CTE despite being just 27 years old at the time of his death.