Ep. 3: ‘There’s something wrong with Junior’
There were so many signs that Junior Seau was struggling, and yet nobody saw them. Or if they did, they either couldn’t get through to him, or didn’t bother to try.
And that’s the problem. Junior had always insisted on being the strong one, a giver as opposed to a taker, the rock of his family. So even though he knew he needed help, he couldn’t bring himself to ask for it from the people who loved him the most.
Hear our story on Junior Seau, told through the eyes of his sister Mary, who might have known him better than anyone. Mary mentored Junior as they grew up together in Oceanside, Calif., and she sheds light on what drove her brother to become an NFL legend.
She also shares her thoughts on why the signs of her brother’s brain trauma went unheeded, discusses her own feelings of guilt and talks about what she is doing to help others through the Mary Seau CTE Foundation.
Hear the story by clicking the player above, or if you prefer to read, scroll down to the script below.
Episode 3 music credits:
(All music edited for time purposes)
Episode 3: ‘There’s something wrong with Junior’
Mary Seau: “When he drove off the cliff and I went to visit him at the hospital, I knew something was wrong because his pupils was different. … And I asked him ‘what’s wrong? what’s wrong? what’s going on?’ And he’s like ‘nothing, nothing.’ And … that’s when he, I guess his life just, he just gave up.”
Episode 3: “There’s something wrong with Junior”
The date was May 2, 2012. The sports world was rocked. A football legend dead.
[AUDIO MONTAGE OF NEWS REPORTS]
It was all over the news. … ABC, FOX, NBC, national, local … everywhere.
The death of Junior Seau was shocking on so many levels. He was so young, just 43. One of the greatest linebackers in the history of the NFL. Rose to stardom in San Diego, the city he loved. He seemingly had it all, and yet he gave it up, pressing a gun against his chest and pulling the trigger.
Even more puzzling? The cause of death did not match the public persona. Seau was this strong, tough guy, a wrecking ball of a football player for 20 years in the NFL. He was also this effervescent, charismatic guy, full of energy. A leader on the field, and a pillar of the San Diego community, especially in nearby Oceanside, where he grew up. And everywhere he went he was always smiling.
From the outside, and even to many on the inside — it just didn’t make sense.
Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries kind of seemed to speak for everyone around the league when he said he was just “shocked.” General manager Bobby Beathard, the man who drafted Seau, said “I just can’t imagine this, because I’ve never seen Junior in a down frame of mind.”
Even Junior’s mother Luisa pleaded in an emotional public statement: “I don’t understand.”
The sports world was stunned. But should it have been?
Junior’s sister, Mary, isn’t so sure. She carries the evidence on her phone wherever she goes. It’s a clip from an interview Junior did with reporter Jim Trotter, just shortly before the suicide. Mary shared the clip with me… here it is:
JUNIOR SEAU AUDIO CLIP: “For those who think the game has changed for the worse, they don’t have a father who can’t remember his name because of the game. If everybody had to wake up with their dad not knowing his name, not knowing his kids’ name, being able to function at a normal rate, I think they will understand that, you know, the game needs to change.”
If everybody had to wake up with their dad not knowing his name, they’d understand that the game needs to change.
MARY SEAU: “And just listening to his tone of voice, because I know him, he was crying out for help, and nobody caught it.”
That’s Mary Seau, and this is her story.
She believes somebody should have noticed. She says Junior’s friends in his post-playing days, the guys hanging out with him, partying with him, should have done something. They should have helped him.
MARY SEAU: “I kind — no I don’t kind of — I blame the people that was always with him. If you say knew him, then why didn’t you help him out? Because all these people I felt like Junior had trusted, that had been with him before this interview, you should have helped him, help him out! And then after the interview, when I listened to the interview, and I keep, you know right away, when I heard it, I was like ‘oh my God! My brother is hurting, he’s crying for help, what are you people doing? He’s on the radio, he’s crying for help.”
Of course nothing is that simple. And as you’ll see, Mary has placed quite a bit of guilt on her own shoulders as well.
Tiaina Seau was a school custodian in Oceanside, California, a hard neighborhood just up Interstate-5 from San Diego and butting up against the southern border of Camp Pendleton. His wife Luisa worked in the commissary there. They were hard workers and raised a family that loved its faith, loved its music and especially loved its sports. David was the oldest child, then came Mary, Savaii and Annette, followed by Tiaina Jr. or simply, Junior, June or June Bug. A sixth child, Tony, arrived later, when Junior was eight years old.
With both parents working, the Seau kids kept themselves busy. They played all sorts of sports and invented games and activities for themselves all around their neighborhood.
MARY SEAU: “We made our own flag football bands. And the boys in the neighborhood make their own go-karts. They got the lumber from my dad’s lumber in the back yard. The homeless people would steal carts and then we’d go in the canyon and take the wheels off the carts and they would build a go-kart. My dad would come home and get upset, and asking who’s been taking the lumber? My dad had to build a hut and lock his wood to make sure nobody was taking the lumber. But by that time the boys had already made four go-karts. And the go-karts were hidden at our next door neighbor’s house so that when my dad wouldn’t see or know.”
Junior was irrepressible and supremely competitive from a very young age. He looked up to his older siblings, but also kind of wanted to beat all of them at everything. When they ran neighborhood relay races around the block, Junior insisted on running the anchor leg, because he had figured out, pretty quickly, that the anchor leg runner was the one that got the glory at the finish line.
At one point, a neighbor registered a complaint to the Seau family …. it seemed they were being awakened by somebody practicing on their basketball hoop, at 6 o’clock in the morning. It was Junior, who was about 8 years old at the time. The complaints didn’t make dad happy. But the complaints continued, because Junior refused to stop. Eventually it was the neighbors who bent to his will, and moved the basketball hoop away from the house and into the street, so that Junior could play basketball, and they could get some sleep.
As often is the case in a large family, particularly when both parents are working, the oldest daughter became a mother-like figure to the others. That was Mary, and she was in charge of Junior. It was not an easy job.
MARY SEAU: “I used to always get in trouble because in the summer when my parents came home they were always looking for Junior and when Junior’s nowhere around the house. And my mom … they called him Pepe because he was at that time the youngest in the family … and they’ll come home and say ‘Where’s Pepe at? Where’s Pepe at?’ And we’re looking at each other like ‘where IS he?’ (laughing) And he’s at another next door neighbor’s house just hanging out and playing basketball either in the backyard of their house, or playing some kind of football or tag football. But he’s always somewhere in the neighborhood, playing.”
The two developed a bond, and Junior often came to Mary for advice. She got him his first library card, helped him join the school reading club. She steered him toward sports books because she figured that was probably the only way to get him interested in reading. As an athlete herself, she also helped him with sports, teaching him sprinting technique, playing catch with him, and even attempting to work out with him.
She also had to teach him humility, and that wasn’t necessarily easy. In his first track meet, Mary told Junior to shake hands with the runners he had just beaten, and to thank his coaches, but he embarrassed her by refusing to do so. The second meet, though, Mary says he did what she’d asked. While competitiveness and confidence came naturally to Junior, finding humility took a little bit of work.
MARY SEAU: “We were in his room and he was tossing his basketball up in the air and he told me ‘you know what, I’m gonna do better than all my brothers and sisters.’ I said ‘you know what you ARE gonna be better than all of us. But you need to be humble about it. Don’t go around telling people that you’re better than all these other people, especially your siblings, because then you’re not gonna be humble.’”
Junior also had a temper, a trait that never quite left him even as he matured. In fact, would be ejected from his first NFL game, a preseason contest against the Raiders, meaning very little in the grand scheme of things. That temper was often simmering beneath the surface and would crop up later in life. Mary, though, says that was more about self-criticism than anything else.
MARY SEAU: “People mistaken his anger as bad sportsmanship, but it wasn’t that he was angry at anybody, he was angry at himself because he could never beat himself. He always said that he sucked. He always had to beat himself up.”
Through grade school, middle school and on into high school, Mary was there to help guide him.
MARY SEAU: “He was my child, I guess. When he introduced me to people, his friends, his foundation. He’ll introduce me as ‘this is my second mom, my sister.’ And everybody that he introduces me to are like ‘I didn’t know you had an older sister. I knew you had this sister but I didn’t know this one.’ And they’d go ‘well she’s pretty what happened to you?’”
Junior Seau’s playing career has been well documented: 20 years in the NFL, 12 consecutive Pro Bowls, more than 1,500 tackles — and who knows how many hits? Countless hits. There were tremendous high points — he led the Chargers to the franchise’s only Super Bowl appearance, in 1994. And there were low points, too. The Chargers struggled during much of his career there. And they also decided they were done with him before he was done playing, and so Junior finished out his career in Miami and New England.
Perhaps an undersold part of Junior’s playing career — at least as far as understanding what kind of person he was — was his absolute refusal to show any weakness, or pain. He was legendary among his teammates for an ability to play through injuries.
In Jim Trotter’s book … “Junior Seau: The Life and Death of a Football Icon,” former teammate Orlando Ruff said of Junior: “People always said, ‘Does this guy never get hurt?’ It was just the opposite — he got hurt all the time. But what would make you and I stand down or sit out, that wasn’t an option for him.”
One example of this came in 1997. Junior had suffered a knee injury during the preseason and needed surgery to repair a torn meniscus. He was expected to miss six weeks, but after the Chargers were blown out in their season opener, Junior was back for Week 2. He had 11 tackles, a sack, forced a fumble and recovered another … the Chargers beat the New Orleans Saints that day.
As an NFL player, Junior Seau was still that unstoppable boy from Oceanside. Always full of energy, always happy, always positive and always refusing to acknowledge weakness, pain or any obstacles that might get in his way.
But towards the end of his career, troubling signs started to crop up, and they got worse after he finally hung up his cleats in January of 2010.
Always so careful with money, Junior started to show signs of a gambling addiction, taking high-roller trips to Las Vegas with these friends of his. He had odd flashes of anger and irrational behavior. There was one story where he fired the entire staff at his restaurant, “Seau’s,” before hiring them all back the next day. He also had problems maintaining personal relationships, and even grew distant from his children.
The public veneer was showing some cracks.
And then on Oct. 18, 2010, Junior drove his car off a cliff.
The previous night, Junior had been arrested for domestic assault against Mary Nolan, his girlfriend at the time. After being released from jail, he went for a drive, distraught. There were rumblings that the crash had been a suicide attempt, though he publicly denied it.
So many signs of trouble, and yet nothing happened. Nobody noticed, or if they did, they either couldn’t reach him, or didn’t bother to try. As noted earlier, Mary places a lot of blame on Junior’s partying buddies. And she’s not alone.
Here’s what former teammate Rodney Harrison had to say about it, in Jim Trotter’s book: “There were a lot of people around Junior that knew Junior was going through certain things, but they didn’t care. They cared about Junior because he gave them something. He gave them a sense of importance, a good time: I’m hanging out with Junior Seau. The people close to him who say they didn’t see the signs — you’ve got to be joking, you’ve got to be kidding me. I didn’t even hang out with Junior and I could see the signs, I could see the depression. I tried to reach out to Junior, and that’s the problem; he surrounded himself with people that …” Harrison didn’t finish his sentence. He didn’t really need to.
Mary shares that sentiment. But there is something more upsetting to her than the inaction of Junior’s friends. You see, when they were younger, she had been like a second mother to Junior, a person he would often come to for guidance. And in this case he also came to her for help, though in a roundabout way and without actually admitting he needed any …
MARY SEAU: “A year or maybe two years before his death, he did come up to me and he did ask me ‘hey sis how about you helping me out and try to find some questions about young kids brains.’ And I go ‘what do you mean? What’s going on?’ And he was ‘I just need more information about the youths’ brain.’ And I was ‘what are you looking for? What are you asking me to do?’ And ‘just do it for me.’ And I’m like ‘OK whatever.’ And we hung up and I go ‘I’m not going to do it.’”
In hindsight it’s clear what he was asking, but in the moment, Mary didn’t see it. She didn’t take her brother seriously. She didn’t read between the lines and figure out what he was driving at. She laughed it off, and it haunts her to this very day.
MARY SEAU: “He wasn’t very clear exactly what, what does youth’s brains have to do with … I have to have more information, like, if he woulda told me ‘the reason I need you to check on youth brains is because something is wrong with me and then, because all human brains work the same, it’s just different hits everything is different it just depends on the person. But I didn’t find that out until later. But yes, um, I think that if I would’ve listened to him and done it and then that would’ve opened my eyes exactly like ‘OK if I’m doing this there’s something wrong with Junior, if I would’ve informed him and educated him with what my findings were, he would’ve asked me more questions and maybe we could have worked together on this to understand more about his, his illness.”
“Junior asked me a question and if I would’ve listened to him and not laughed, I would understand what he was going through, and maybe I could help a little.”
“He always came to me … and I failed.”
The thing is Junior knew his behavior was out of control. He was aware that he was being used by these people he called friends. He knew he needed to change, and he knew that he needed to get help. We know this because he kept a journal and wrote about all of this. But the things he wrote down — he just could not get himself to say them to anyone who truly cared about him.
In ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary on Seau, Junior’s son Jake, in a particularly emotional segment of the film, reads from the journal, reciting such lines as …
“The longer I’m alone, the more I push away.”
“I am hurting a lot of people around me and it’s not cool.”
And then there’s this one …
“This world has nothing for me.”
Then Jake says …. “It’s frustrating that he can write these things, you know. Things that I wanted to address with him, and that he can write them out, but he couldn’t do anything about, that’s frustrating for me.”
And then Jake pauses and he says: “The hardest part is ‘this world has nothing for me.’ You know, he had us.”
But Junior distanced himself from those who loved him most. In the rare moments he did open up and show vulnerability, it was only briefly and often in coded language. He couldn’t bring himself to show weakness, he remained insistent on being a giver — not a taker — insisted on being the rock of his family. He insisted on running that anchor leg.
Junior’s death was devastating to his friends and family. And while tests on his brain showed he had been suffering from the degenerative brain disease CTE, that offered little relief. It just made loved ones wish they had done more to help him.
How does one move forward after that?
For Mary, it’s about sharing her experience and her knowledge about everything she’s learned in the wake of her brother’s death. She launched the Mary Seau CTE Foundation, which aims to raise money to help fund research into the long-term effects of repetitive head impacts. Last spring she held her first fundraiser and it was headlined by Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player who is among the most high-profile advocates for CTE research in the country.
And she’s working to spread awareness and education to young athletes and their parents. She doesn’t tell people what to do — that’s just not her nature, and growing up with a sporting family, she understands why people love football. She just tries to share what she knows about repetitive head hits and what they can do to the human brain. Then let people decide for themselves.
MARY SEAU: “I cannot tell these parents what to do and how to take care of their kids. But, I can give them the awareness. ‘This is how your brain functions work. This is what brain injury and brain trauma means.”
And Mary practices what she preaches. Her own son Ian was a very good football player, a star defensive lineman at the University of Nevada. He was not drafted and has not made an NFL roster to date, though he has gotten looks from the Los Angeles Rams, Buffalo Bills and New York Giants. Mary says they don’t talk about whether or not his football dream is over yet. It worries her. But she at least is glad to know that he is completely aware of the risks.
MARY SEAU: “Ian knew how I felt, but I still supported him. The reason why is because I didn’t want him to look back when he’s older and say ‘oh I couldn’t play football because my mom didn’t want me to.’ I didn’t want him to be unhappy for the rest of his life, I wanted him to be the man who he is and experience life, experience what he can. So he did experience the NFL life. I’m not sure if it’s over with, because I don’t talk about it. But it’s his life. I don’t want to hold him back.
“He is aware and you know we talked about it and he goes ‘Mom I really know, I really know.’ Literally we sat down and we did our research. And we were all in awe. Because we didn’t know. We didn’t know how bad it is.”
Thank you for listening to the Razed Sports podcast. For more on this topic go to RazedSports.com and to learn more about Mary Seau’s foundation, go to m-s-c-t-e-foundation.org. There, you can learn more about the foundation’s mission, find out ways to help, and you can even purchase tickets to the next fundraiser, which is coming up on March 31 in San Diego.
This episode was written and produced by me, Bob Harkins. Special thanks for the music, which comes from Sergey Cheremisinov, Philipp Weigl and Kai Engel. The theme song from DL Sounds.
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