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The death of Junior Seau, a former All-Pro linebacker who spent 20 years in the NFL, sent shockwaves through the football world, from Pop Warner leagues to the professional ranks. Seau appeared to be to too young, too wealthy and just too happy to take his own life.
"It's sad and shocking," said Todd Philcox, a 1984 graduate of who was a back-up quarterback in the NFL for three teams during a career that lasted five years. "I played with Junior for two months when I was in San Diego. He was a great leader and had an infectious personality. It's really sad what happened."
What happened to Seau seems to be happening at an astonishing rate among former NFL players. Andre Waters, Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling took their own lives over the past three years after suffering from concussion-related problems like dementia and depression. Medical studies have yet to determine if Seau suffered from the effects of jarring hits to the head in his career, but all signs point that way.
"Clearly, there is something going," said Dr. Rich Diana, an orthopedic surgeon who starred at and played running back in the NFL for the Miami Dolphins. "Many of those players suffered from CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and they probably sustained repeated blows to the head during their careers. We are still learning about the long-term effects they have on the brain and the problems they can cause."
Nick Giaquinto, a former star at and UConn, played in the NFL for the Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins. He feels the NFL has long been neglectful in dealing with head injuries that may lead to problems after a player's career is over.
"Absolutely, it's obvious," said Giaquinto, who has been the head baseball coach at Sacred Heart University for 24 years. "The NFL has been denying they have an issue with this for a long, long time. It's like the tobacco companies kept doing in the '80's when it came to the effects of smoking—deny, deny, deny. But now, with all these deaths, there is more pressure on the NFL to do more about the head injuries and player safety."
Easterling, a former defensive back with the Atlanta Falcons who killed himself in April, was one of 1,500 players who filed a lawsuit against the NFL claiming the league didn't care properly for former players who suffered head injuries. Not every former NFL player is on board with the lawsuit and those who feel the league didn't protect them.
"They're crying after the fact," said Dan Sileo, a former all-state defensive lineman at Stamford Catholic in 1981 (now ) who played one year in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "Everybody knows what they are signing up for. This is a viscous and violent game. Nobody made those guys play football. They chose to do it," said Sileo, a former Miami Hurricane who is now a host on sports radio in the city where he played college football. "Most of these guys are broke and want back on the gravy train."
Giaquinto got off the NFL train in 1983 after playing in back-to-back Super Bowls with the Dolphins and Redskins. As a running back in high school, college, and the NFL, the hits had taken their toll and Giaquinto knew when to say when.
"I could've tried to play longer," said Giaquinto, who rushed for 277 yards in a game during his career at UConn, which is still a record. "But I felt my long-term health was a lot more important to me. I knew the next play could end my career and the toll concussions could take. I understood the risks and got out after four years."
Sileo said he sustained nine concussions during his football career and often feels the effects of them, "Playing in the NFL was like being in a car wreck every day. The pain is stunning. Everything hurts and I sometimes suffer from loss of memory and recall."
Many players don't know when it's the right time to call it quits or walk away before another hit to the head causes permanent damage. The money, fame, and adrenaline rush that comes with playing in the NFL can be intoxicating.
"You're on top of the world one second and suffering from a low the next," said Diana. "I went from playing in the 1983 Super Bowl to medical school at Yale in September of that same year. A lot of players have a tough time adjusting to life after the NFL."
Sileo compared it to soldiers returning home after Viet Nam "who didn't know what to do or where to go." Philcox, who is a businessman in Jacksonville, Florida, believes that problems that came with life after the NFL may have factored into Seau's death.
"Nobody knows yet if Seau suffered from hits to the head and that caused him to be depressed and do what he did," Philcox said. "He may have had a tough time adjusting to the real world. Football players are human just like everyone else. They have struggles in like everyone else."