The Void

by Casey Barrett

Junior Seau,Waterman

Instead of going for a surf, he chose a shotgun to the chest.

A man of renowned positivity, a legend who never forgot his roots, one of the all-time greats, on and off the field… When Junior Seau killed himself last week, it shook the NFL to its core. It’s a dark cliché, but Seau was truly the last guy you’d ever think would do this. It’s no exaggeration to say he may have been the single most respected football player of his generation. He was 43.

In its probing cover story on the tragedy this week, Sports Illustrated reported another side of Seau, far from the gridiron. It appears that this larger-than-life Samoan was every bit the surfer as he was a linebacker. His place in Oceanside, CA was right on the sand and most mornings he would grab his long board and paddle out into the always good San Diego surf. His first words upon announcing his retirement three years ago: “I’m gonna go surf.”

For Seau, the sea was the place he felt most at peace. It was water therapy of the highest order, and after two decades playing a brutal sport he loved, he desperately needed the peace and solitude that only the water can provide. It wasn’t enough.

In the immediate aftermath of his death, the narrative became clear: this was a story about the brain damage suffered by football players. Endless hits to the head causes a condition known as CTE – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. A grim disorder that can lead to depression and, darkest of all in Seau’s case, cause a deterioration of impulse control. His suicide appears to have been a clear case of a desperate impulse he couldn’t control. The day before he died, Seau was laughing with friends, inviting folks to a Kentucky Derby party at his popular restaurant. This was not a guy at the end of his rope.

This was a guy with demons, who needed a good long surf session. Everyday before, that had been enough. On the morning of May 2nd, it wasn’t.

It’s hoped that Seau’s brain and the effects of CTE will be studied in extreme detail. The NFL has a public health crisis on its hands. And all of us who watch the game and worship the big hits and the play-through-pain culture should probably take a step back and reconsider just what you’re cheering.

But let’s set that aside for a moment, because there’s another story here, one that relates to every athlete in every sport. Seau was so respected because he was the ultimate Player. He was as authentic as it comes. His work ethic, his commitment to the game, his ability to rise to every challenge – he was a coach’s dream, an athlete’s athlete. Combine those qualities with his profound bond with the water, and you have a man that every swimmer should want to honor.

He was also a man afflicted with the Void. When he was no longer Junior Seau the Linebacker, who was he? He likely didn’t know, couldn’t know. He is not alone in this. When you’re done with your sport – or when it’s done with you – how will you define your identity?

On 60 Minutes last Sunday, Michael Phelps insisted that when he retires, “I’m done.” No comebacks, no looking back. These comments were the ones immediately picked up – and questioned – by other journalists in response to the piece. Many doubted him. Some pointed out that he also said the same thing about the 400 IM four years ago after his “last” one in Beijing. A guy’s entitled to change his mind. Because as nice as freedom sounds when you’re still locked in the shackles of your sport, that freedom can gradually turn to chaos.

Suicide, of course, is the darkest most chaotic state of all. When a loss of identity is merged with clear game-induced brain damage, one can see how desperation can spiral. But there are legions of ex athletes out there all suffering from the Void. Most will never dream of turning a gun on themselves. Yet their depression, their loss of identity, can still be crippling.

Junior Seau knew where he could find peace with that – in the water. He managed to paddle out on countless mornings and find solace.

Until even the waves weren’t enough…