Junior Seau: Confusion of Death Should Not Overshadow Celebration of Life


Expressing the below thoughts was a choice I wrestled with internally. I did not know Junior Seau. I never met Junior Seau, despite eating in his Mission Valley restaurant numerous times, and living just a few freeway exits south of his Oceanside home.

When a spectator sees someone like Seau on the job week-in and week-out for years, a sort of false familiarity manifests. When that persona extends into the community, it magnifies that familiarity. We feel like we know the celebrity. Seau’s death proves how little we can really know. No shortage of outsiders have offered their opinions and pushed narratives. Those turning discussion to athlete safety certainly back a noble cause that needs more attention, but how much do we really understand Seau’s motivation for ending his life?

My reaction when I first read of Seau’s death at just 43 years of age was probably similar to yours: Shock. Confusion. Sympathy for his loved ones. A bewildered longing to better understand a “why” we may never know.

When an individual of his stature and celebrity passes, the masses are going to react. What are my emotions beyond more white noise bouncing around the echo chamber? The opinions and emotions I have are no more significant than anyone else’s, and certainly not comparable to those expressed by the people who knew Seau.

Marcellus Wiley is a man I watched ply his trade with admiration, in the same way I appreciated Seau. Wiley is a voice I hear daily on ESPN 710 radio in Southern California. Again, there’s that connection that exists, but doesn’t exist. Seeing Wiley’s reaction to his friend’s death today makes me feel a connection with a man I have never spoken, and probably never will speak to as a fellow survivor of suicide.

My older brother’s suicide is not a topic I have ever put into writing. Doing so through the prism of a topic I feel much more comfortable discussing — football — makes it easier. It’s never easy discussing a loved one who died by suicide, because how that person died defines them; not how they lived. Try as they might, others don’t know how to handle the topic. Thoughts range from awkward avoidance, to judgment and outright condemnation.

However, it’s not an understanding I would wish on anyone.

The human brain is such a wondrous and complex mechanism. Our understanding of its capabilities and function changes routinely. What we understand about suicide is tied into our comprehension of the mind, which is to say we know almost nothing. Why do people have outrageous mood swings? Why are some prone to lulls of crippling depression? In the context of Seau and other athlete deaths, what impact do sports collisions have on the mind?

The human race has an inherent desire to grasp everything, no matter how complex or obscure the concept. Our rush for knowledge sometimes supersedes basic human emotion; emotion like that expressed in a 6-foot-4, 280-pound former defensive end’s nationally televised tears.

Seau touched a lot of lives. He became a mentor and set a benchmark at USC. Seau became the definition of Trojan linebackers to wear the celebrated No. 55. Said Willie McGinest of accepting 55 from Seau in an interview with ESPN.com’s Andy Kamenetzky:

"“I was given it from the beginning. I did a photo shoot with Junior Seau, like he was passing the torch. I don’t think he had to [explain the significance]. One of the best players in college football at the time, a linebacker. I think it was self-explanatory. But the coaches did explain the number I was taking, the responsibility and the big shoes to fill.”"

USCTrojans.com chronicled his college gridiron exploits with this video:

Seau’s name is synonymous with the San Diego Chargers. The city embraced his inspired play, and he in turn showed his appreciation tenfold. His foundation worked for the enrichment of San Diego area youth. He used his restaurant to house displaced San Diegans during the October 2007 wildfires.

We may not understand his death, but we don’t have to in order to celebrate the life.