What was going through Junior Seau’s mind?
Late Friday night, the San Diego Chargers’ team chaplain, Shawn Mitchell, announced that Junior Seau’s family would grant their consent to have the legendary linebacker’s brain examined by forensic pathologist, Bennet Omalu. Seau’s girlfriend found him dead in his home in Oceanside, California Wednesday morning. The San Diego County medical examiner determined the cause of death to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Seau’s Samoan family reconsidered Omalu’s request after consulting a group of elders.
“They just want to slow down, be sure they’re doing it right,” said Mitchell. “With the incredible, incredible anguish and grief and pressure of this situation, they’ve been in a fog. Now, they’re getting counsel.”
Omalu flew to San Diego Thursday to participate in Seau’s autopsy. He requested permission from Seau’s family to conduct a series of tests that would determine if the 43-year old suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). CTE results from repeated blows to the head. Its symptoms include an inability to control one’s emotions and impulses, memory loss, depression, and eventually dementia. In the mind of one Andre Waters, the former Philadelphia Eagle who also died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, Omalu found that CTE reduced the 44-year old’s mental acuity to that of an 85-year old with Alzheimer’s.
Omalu was the first to discover the link between professional football and long-term brain damage when, working as a medical examiner for Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, he performed an autopsy on Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center, Mike Webster. Webster played in 17 NFL seasons before spiraling into destitution, disorientation, and homelessness. In Webster’s brain, Omalu found massive deposits of abnormal tau protein, which became toxic and produced neural tangles.
In 20 years as an NFL linebacker, Seau was involved in more than 1,526 tackles and 56.5 sacks. His Hall of Fame-worthy performances are what made him a legend. They may have also left him in a morbidly ironic state of mind.