There’s no getting inured to scenes like the one that unfolded in Oceanside, Calif., on May 2, where a crowd gathered and a mother wailed as the body of Junior Seau — the sunny, preternaturally good-natured veteran of three NFL teams — was carried out from his home to a coroner’s van, victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. He left no note.
What made the loss of the 43-year-old Seau especially cruel was not just that he was a model citizen in a sport too often populated by on-field bounty hunters and off-field felons. It was also that this kind of thing has become drearily familiar: Ray Easterling, who played for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1970s; Dave Duerson of the Chicago Bears and New York Giants; and Owen Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania all committed suicide in the past two years.
No one yet knows if Seau was suffering from the same kind of degenerative injury, and no one ever will know unless his family agrees to allow his brain to be studied postmortem, the way the brains of the other athletes have been. He does, however, fit the profile. He played for a long time — 20 years in the pros alone, to say nothing of college, high school and Pop Warner. He had recently exhibited uncharacteristically volatile behavior — getting arrested in 2010 on a domestic violence charge and later that day driving his car over a 100-ft. cliff in California, sustaining surprisingly mild injuries. No drugs or alcohol were involved and he claims to have simply lost consciousness.
The condition that claimed Duerson and the others — and may have claimed Seau — is known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Diagnosed only microscopically after slicing and staining cerebral tissue, CTE is an accumulation of sludge-like tau proteins, which, in a healthy brain, are one of the key structural components of nerve tissue. When the head sustains a blow, however, nerve fibers can be wrenched and torn, releasing tau.