We learned recently that football icon and certain Hall of Famer Junior Seau suffered from conditions consistent with the degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The legendary Seau sacrificed his whole body to the game of football over a career that spanned nearly three decades (including college and high school), and his family continues to cope with their tragic loss. In the wake of the National Institutes of Health’s findings, Mr. Seau’s children are left questioning if they could have done “something more” or had “the awareness to help him more.”
According to his family, Junior Seau suffered from bouts of depression, irrationality, mood swings, forgetfulness and insomnia. From the reports I’ve read, he hid these conditions well in public, but those family members and friends close to him saw the truths he struggled against on a daily basis. Like most professional football players, years spent grimacing through pain to survive through another play likely aided his ability to paste a smile on his face in public settings.
My heart aches for the Seau family, as it does for all the families of athletes, war veterans, and others who have suffered while a loved one deteriorates from CTE’s unrelenting assault. My heart breaks for them because I understand the pain, and I empathize with the remorse over wishing I had known or done more.
My father, former NFL running back Rob Lytle, suffered an unexpected heart attack and died eight days after his 56th birthday in November 2010. Our family donated his brain to the researchers at the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) and learned in early 2011 that Dad’s brain demonstrated signs of moderate to advanced CTE.
After learning this news, the father I remembered during his final years crystallized into sharper view. I immediately considered the week before his death, when my mom, sister, brother-in-law and girlfriend celebrated Dad’s birthday with a Saturday lunch before retreating to our Fremont, Ohio, home to watch that day’s college football games. Unlike most afternoons I spent with him, Dad vanquished the day sleeping in his bedroom away from our family (normally he just snored on the couch next to all of us). I didn’t think much of it then, just assumed he was tired from a long workweek.
I then recalled the day at Michigan Stadium in 2008 when Michigan announced him as an honorary captain for the Wolverines game versus Northwestern. He seemed distant meeting people before the game, somewhat off in his situational awareness and awkward in his response to simple questions. Two months later, he had a small stroke, and I attributed the strangeness in his behavior in Ann Arbor to this looming near calamity.
Finally, I thought about my mom’s comments regarding how Dad interacted with his granddaughter. Sure, he called my sister’s young baby the “love of his life,” and to me he seemed to exhibit the same involved, loving, playful behavior with her that he did as a father to my sister and me. But Mom knew better. She knew that something was wrong by the slightly pained smile worn on his face and in his reluctance to hold his granddaughter as much as normal if he were completely healthy.
There were signs that something was wrong, but they were always easy to dismiss. As a family, we observed the physical destruction wrought by his lifelong affair with football: ten mangled fingers that pointed in about ten separate directions, two artificial joints, vertigo, faded scars slicing through the skin above nearly every joint on his body and his reliance on prescription painkillers to numbingly navigate each day.
What we missed, or maybe chose to ignore, was the emotional and mental pain he concealed with his humor and deflecting self-deprecation.
Following Dad’s death, and after my family understood the news of the trauma inside his brain, I began to think it plausible (even likely) that his behavior represented the initial unraveling of the veil he’d used to mask his depression, bouts of dementia and inconsistent judgment—all symptoms typically present for an individual whose brain is plagued by CTE.
I’ll never know whether this is true.
Football embodies much of the masculinity present in our society. From an early age, boys are instructed to play through pain, hide their weaknesses, attack without regard for safety and persist as the rock that “weaker” people break themselves against. Showing cracks in your protective armor, whether physical or psychological, means a seat on the bench. No mercy exists for the frail or exhausted.
This is the athletic culture embraced by our society. It captivates millions of fans every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday in the fall and winter. Football is our national sport, and its game day combatants are our heroes, gladiators who refuse to cower in the face of certain destruction.
My wish for football—beyond the improvements in helmet technology, concussion awareness, medical advancements and hit count limitations—is for a culture to bloom where former players are encouraged to relinquish some of the pride that has carried them to so much success and admit they can’t will themselves through every situation.
My wish is for fans to understand that these players are not warriors but real men with wives, daughters, sons and parents.
My wish is for former players (whether high school, college or professional) to have a forum where they can feel safe to admit how much the loss of football affects them, and how impossible it is to find satisfaction in a life without the camaraderie of daily practices and weekend games.
I witnessed firsthand how challenging life without football can be for someone who once devoted every fiber in his body to succeeding in the game at its highest level. My wish is that my dad and I would have had one honest conversation about the state of his health in those final years. I wish that I didn’t have to live with the regret of biting my tongue and not pressing him more over what was really wrong when he confessed to me that everything inside him “felt tired,” but that he knew he would “tough it out.”
I wish that I wouldn’t have ended that conversation by saying “I know you will, Dad.”
I’m confident the medical advancements made possible by the diligent work of many dedicated individuals will make football a safer game for players. I believe that children playing this game in the future will appreciate how the game builds character, teaches the importance of teamwork and stresses a tireless work ethic.
But my final wish is that players come to understand that they don’t have to be invincible warriors after their days of competition conclude. Being vulnerable and asking for help is not just acceptable, it’s brave. Having the courage to realize something is wrong and admit it to family will not cure the physical toll exacted by repetitive collisions. However, it could prepare a wife for a future with her husband that is different from the one she has always imagined, and it could encourage a son finally to ask his dad all the questions he’s always wanted.
Most importantly, it could help show players that regardless of what they’re fighting, they aren’t fighting alone.
For my life, that’s my wish.