Tragedies, Players And The NFL

By Christina Rivers

Is tragedy a larger issue for past NFL players than we ever dreamed was possible? The death of Junior Seau has uncovered a dark side of the retirement world post-professional football that would have Obi Wan shuddering. The sports world is abuzz with questions about how the league will handle what has surfaced and how much they\’ve known all along and never addressed.

Fans and players alike have condemned NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for initiating new rules regarding player safety, saying he was ruining the game. Statements about how football would turn into \’powder-puff\’ games with \’men in skirts\’ became so common on social networking sites that it had its own following. The question now should be whether or not the NFL and Goodell are doing enough; not how the game will be a shadow of its old self.

Post-career issues have moved to the forefront whether we feel uncomfortable about it or not. With Seau\’s alleged suicide and those closest to him saying such action was uncharacteristic of him, we see that our heroes aren\’t immune to personal tragedy. We may never know why Seau drove his car off of a cliff in 2010 and then took his life two years later.

In 2011, Dave Duerson (former defensive back for the Chicago Bears) shot himself in the chest. He left a note behind for his family asking them to donate his brain for research on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE has been discovered in at least 20 other deceased former professional football players. Duerson (50) believed he suffered from the condition, and upon examination of his brain, evidence was positive.

CTE is progressive and degenerative. Unfortunately, research has been unable to pinpoint the exact cause-effect. CTE was only part of the reason the NFL implemented rules they can only assume will help prevent brain trauma.

Two weeks prior to Duerson\’s death, former Atlanta Falcons cornerback Ray Easterling (62) fatally shot himself. His wife told that her husband suffered from depression, dementia and insomnia.

In regards to Seau, Julian E. Bailes, M.D., Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at University of Chicago North Shore and former NFL, current NCAA team physician and co-founder of the Brain Injury Research Institute said, “You\’re looking at someone who is approaching or at 30 years of exposure (to repetitive head injuries).”

Bailes has studied the brains of former Steelers greats; Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk. He has also autopsied former NFL players; Andre Waters (Philadelphia Eagles) and Chris Henry (Cincinnati Bengals). Dr. Bailes was once the team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a team physician for the West Virginia University Mountaineers football team. His research is maintained at North Carolina University. In Chapel Hill, Dr. Bailes and his colleagues hold a brain and tissue bank at the Center for Study of Retired Athletes.

Eight San Diego Chargers players who were on the 1994 AFC Championship team (Super Bowl XXIX) had passed away before Seau joined them. Linebacker David Griggs (28) was killed in June 1995 after his car left a South Florida expressway ramp and hit a pole.  Four additional teammates died between 2008 and 2011; Chris Mims (Oct. 15, 2008) of an enlarged heart, Doug Miller from heart failure following a double lightning strike, Shawn Lee (44) whose heart arrested after he suffered double pneumonia and a battle with diabetes and Rodney Culver (26) died after boarding ValuJet Flight 592 that crashed into the Florida Everglades.

Granted, there is no evidence as such to say that any of the Chargers\’ tragedies were brought on by CTE. Many health issues that past players have experienced can\’t be proven as being caused by CTE either; yet.

Hank Bauer, a former Chargers player and the team\’s radio analyst said publicly about Seau, “There was zero warning…I think the message is this: We all forget that people we idolize are just…people. Do we have unreal expectations of our heroes?”

Jason Whitlock of FoxSports wrote an interesting piece about how he felt the game could be changed to make it “worth the risk” players take year after year, play after play. He compared life after the NFL for the “typical player” to be equivalent to a Wall Street millionaire losing everything he had in a stock-market crash. It has become apparent that post-NFL life has taken its toll on many, and that those who\’ve been fighting in court to prove their case may just be the spark that lights an inferno.

While we mourn the loss of our iron-men, all of us should re-investigate whether we love them enough to allow the game to change. One less retired jersey hanging in a stadium because of injuries and death caused by playing a game we love would suit me just fine. I\’d rather see that jersey retired with the man who wore it holding it up for the world to see.

About the Author

Christina L. Rivers
Born in 1972, Christina L. Rivers follows in her maternal Grandmother's shoes as a writer. Christina is currently a journalist for, and writes for several blogs. She has recently been added as a writer for SteelersDepot and 'The Beam' in Pittsburgh. Christina's favorite Steelers players of all-time are Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley. She is active on Twitter @3Rivers_Writer. Christina also enjoys collecting NFL cards, and has over 5,000 individual Steelers cards, some as old as the late 1950s.
  • Shannon Stephenson

    My problem with all this is that when they go into the NFL they should all realize the risks…if you feel uncomfortable with the possible outcome then maybe football isnt a good career for you.

  • mokhkw

    Nice article. Yea, I am uncomfortable with what is happening to the NFL & yearn for smash-mouth football, but if it is having that much of an impact then I’d rather see some changes made.

    What I think will ultimately happen is a change in helmet and shoulder pad design to the softer materials used in Rugby. That’s the only way you’ll ever stop Players from using them as weapons and making hits to the head imo.

    There would still be plenty of room for hard play & big hits, they just wouldn’t be to the head ( which would probably be outlawed). Only real issue I see is the running style of RBs who ( correctly) run with a tilt – this would still lead to many head-to-head collisions as the ball carrier dips into the tackler who is aiming at the chest or waist.

    Rugby players seem to manage ok without the helmets while carrying the ball or tackling. In fact, such a rule & equipment change could actually lead to better overall tackling.

    Unfortunately, that would than lead to an increase in knee and ankle injuries. SilverBack’s tackle on Decker in the WC game vs Denver is a prime example of this – he knows he can’t risk any more helmet-to-helmet hits so he instead goes low. Even John Elway commented on this and said Harrison really had no choice given his past fines & suspension.

    Another positive from such a change is we’d see even more athleticism from the Players. If you’ve never worn hard Helmet & Shoulder pads then you probably can’t fully appreciate how much it hinders you movement.

    Today’s Pass Happy NFL is more popular than ever, leading me to believe that a majority of fans would rather watch great athletes than tough guys.

    While us old-school “purists” may not like it, I think the writing is on the wall tbh.

    The only thing I have trouble reconciling is players who enter the NFL obviously knowing the risks and getting paid more money in one year than they’re likely to make in a life-time in the normal work-force, only to then turn around and sue the NFL for something they were compensated for to begin with.

    I think a lot of this is driven by their envy of today’s wages tbh. A lot of them go broke because they waste all their money and/or make bad life/business decisions. They made the decisions & should accept responsibility for their own actions, just like the rest of us have to.

  • I think all NFL players now the risks when they sign on. The problem is years back I really don’t think they had the most safest equipment for protection. I don’t believe it is necessary to make it ” Into men wearing skirts” but in these modern days and science they surely can come up with better equipped head gear ( helmets) for better padding and protection. There is no excuse that so many of these guys are having head injuries like this…I mean we are in the 21st Century not back in the early 60’s…hitting of the head area should NOT be allowed. There are other ways to block and tackle without smashing someone in the head/helmet. They should and can change the requirements and rules to make the game less violent and really fine or punish those who do it on purpose. I know there are times it is avoidable and it just happens but the NFL needs to take some kind of action to ensure accidents and trauma to the head injuries. There will always be injuries in contact sports but you can’t tell me that they are not more safe equipment options out there as well…that is what I am saying. Football is NOT a sissy game and the guys are tough…but ANYONE who sustains that many hits to the head ( In any sport) is bound to have some repercussions and it can be prevented or at least NOT happen as often as it has…that is up to the NFL higher ups to take this matter into their hands and protect the players a little more.

  • Gabe

    The thing is, they know the risks. But then you have people pushing these college players to go into the NFL instead of finishing college and taking on a different job. If I played college football and was good – I’d be looking at the money I could be making too.

    I think that it would only be fair for the NFL to truly investigate these issues whole-heartedly and then make changes instead of (as they have for years now) shun the research or say it isn’t tangible enough to make a decision about.

    1. Be upfront about the TRUE injury possibilities
    2. Players — stop using equipment as weapons and tackle correctly
    3. Past players — ask your Union why they didn’t protect you better “back then”
    4. (And this is in agreement with MOKHKW below) – find a company (like Nike or Under Armour) that are interested in creating soft padding and helmet designs. It would make them billions!!!

    Short of going helmet-less, the NFL simply needs to revamp and players need to learn that if they’re going to hit in illegal ways (to do injury), their day may come as well. Heck, how many of them who’ve hit illegally end up with brain injuries/concussions? That would be an interesting story.