Thursday, May 10, 2012

Rod Carew

My younger brother started playing football in the 4th grade. Back then, when the boys were first learning the game, it wasn't especially serious. I remember the day it became serious. In 6th grade, my brother was an average height and weight for boys his age, which meant he was slightly smaller than most of the other football players. He was stick thin and weighed roughly 90 lbs. On offense, he played quarterback. On defense, he was a linebacker, not because he was a particularly good tackler but because he was fast. One day that fall, while on defense, the opposing team's 220 lb left tackle caught him from behind. His helmet dug in my brother's lower right back, somewhere around where his right kidney would be found. He fell to the ground in pain and the game stopped. "I can't feel my legs," he moaned, and for several minutes nobody moved him. Eventually, his immediate shock wore off and he crawled off the field, where he lay for another 15-20 minutes, icing his back, before finally standing up and walking off the remainder of the pain and the fear. I most clearly remember those first few minutes, when he lay unmoving on the ground, as the first time I seriously worried about my brother's safety playing sports.

Next fall, my brother will likely play for his freshmen football team. In the last two years, he's put on some weight, he's gotten faster, and he's found out that he's much better suited for a wide receiver than a quarterback and for a cornerback than a linebacker, which is fine by me. Every time I see a quarterback get tackled, I thank God that my brother catches the ball and runs. And when I hear about Junior Seau's suicide, I'm grateful that Jacob, my brother, is no longer a linebacker.

Junior Seau was a linebacker for the USC Trojans and a first round draft pick in 1990 for the San Diego Chargers, who he played with for 12 seasons before spending two years with the Miami Dolphins and three years with the New England Patriots. He was a 12x Pro-Bowler, the 1992 Defensive Player of the Year for the NFL and the AFC, the AFC Player of the Year in 1994, and a member of the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame. He owned a successful restaurant in San Diego and his Junior Seau Foundation helps youth through child abuse prevention, drug and alcohol awareness, and multiple educational programs as well as anti-juvinile delinquency programs. After three years of retirement from the NFL, Junior Seau shot himself in the chest and died on May 2, 2012 at age 43.

The last eight days have left the sports world numb and questioning the role of football in Seau's life. This, and 68 lawsuits from over 1,800 retired NFL players, claiming that the league failed to offer them proper medical treatments for concussions or failed to inform them as to the extent of dangers that concussions pose, have people questioning football in general. They're mourning Seau as a tragic victim to a game that he loved. They're concerned that football players are slowly killing themselves, either with shots to the chest (Seau being the 3rd retired player within 15 months to choose this method of suicide, along with former safeties Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling) or by constantly subjecting their bodies to brutal beatdowns on the field. They're worried about their sons and their futures in the sport. I'm looking at the situation in a slightly different way.

I'll take this on one concern at a time. Junior Seau's death is tragic, but not in the way that some people are treating it. It's sad because someone died; it's sad because three children lost a father; it's sad because many people lost a friend and many more people lost a role model. But Junior Seau didn't die a hero, the way some people are treating him. He didn't die after a courageous and hard fought battle with an overpowering disease. He killed himself. He chose to die. He decided to leave all these people behind. It's sad that he felt he had no other choice, but it was a choice. And when I see a video of his mother or a picture of his father, I can't help but think that he caused it. He ended his suffering only to begin the suffering for the people that loved him. And that's selfish. After Seau severely pulled his right hamstring in 2000, one of many injuries throughout his career, he refused to sit out the remainder of the game or any games following it. He played through the pain. When asked about that decision later, he said, "You know what this game's about? Respect. The respect you can earn only between those white lines. The game is still about hitting. It's still about blocking. It's still about courage." Courage. That's what Junior Seau played for and that's what he lost on May 2. So, yes, his death is sad. But it's not a courageous death. It's selfish.

This leads to the next concern mentioned above. What happened to Seau that could transform him so completely? I'm not here to speculate as to what caused Junior Seau to pull the trigger, but it's hard to deny that football played some part in that. Nobody who knew Seau saw it coming. He was always happy; he was beloved in San Diego; he had plans for the following weekend. It's also possible that he had CTE: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, "the buildup of protein in the brain that has been associated with dementia in football players" (That definition was provided by David Epstien from Sports Illustrated.) It damages the part of the brain that causes impulse control as well, which may be one explanation as to why Seau acted so impulsively. Scientists don't know to what extent football harms the brain, but they know that it does. Yet players continue to play knowing they're endangering themselves. And that's why our concerning ourselves over the health of these players is pointless. I don't mean to sound crass; the brain damage football can cause is obviously a serious problem. But these players know that and they continue to play. Some people in the sports media have been speculating as to whether we should support them as they self-descruct and the answer is yes because the players know the risk. The play because they love the game and if they are willing to put themselves in the front line then we, as fans, should have no qualms watching them do so. It's our choice, just like it's theirs. Just like it was Seau's.

Which leads me to the point: what's going to happen to football? As scientists gain more understanding about the dangers of football, could we find ourselves in a football-less world? I don't know. I don't know if the dangers from football will ever exceed the joy it bring the players, the joy it brings the fans, and the revenue it brings to the sports world. Has a sport ever just disappeared? I don't know. But I've seen, on a very small scale, the effect Seau's death is having on the parent's of boys in football and I can say this much: it's not good. And I'm glad my brother prefers basketball to football.

Rod Carew wore the #29 for both the Minnesota Twins and the California Angels (now Los Angeles Angels) from 1967 to 1985 as a first and second baseman. He was inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, his first year of eligibility. He was born on a train in the Panama Canal zone, so he is officially known as a "Zonian" and is named after the doctor on the train who helped deliver him. He immigrated to the United States when he was 14.

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The Sports Nerd