The Patriots honored the late Junior Seau in 2012.

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Tomase: Junior Seau's legacy, CTE, and why it's harder than ever to be an NFL fan

John Tomase
September 11, 2017 - 2:03 am
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I covered Junior Seau. I liked Junior Seau.

I wasn't nearly as stunned as I should've been when he stuck a .357 magnum revolver to his chest in 2012 and pulled the trigger.

Seau's suicide at age 43 was tragic, but it wasn't shocking. When tests yielded the familiar diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, it felt sadly inevitable. It turns out Seau hadn't withstood all that punishment over 20 Hall of Fame seasons; he had simply and brutally absorbed it. By the time he retired in early 2010 after his fourth season with the Patriots, there wasn't much of him left. Nearly 2,000 tackles and countless collisions with fullbacks, tight ends, and pulling guards had scrambled his brain to such a degree that two years later he'd willingly leave behind three teenagers without so much as a note.

I found myself thinking about Seau on Thursday night during the Patriots' season-opening loss to the Chiefs when wideout Danny Amendola took a knee to the head while fielding a punt. He did not return.

If Amendola is officially diagnosed with a concussion, it will be at least the third of his career, though that number sounds optimistically low. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder may be injury prone, but no one can question his toughness. He has survived for nine years as an undrafted free agent despite a dislocated elbow, a torn triceps, a broken collarbone, a surgically repaired groin, and assorted strains and sprains.

There was a time when we'd have either saluted his desire to stay on the field or ridiculed his inability to avoid the trainer's room. But now there's a third reaction, because every time Amendola gets his clock cleaned, it's hard not to feel complicit. How can we watch him jeopardize his short- and long-term health without wondering what kind of damage he's doing?

Amendola represents but one example. In reality, you could swap his name with any of 1,000 other players, most of whom will not end up taking their own life, though they could easily be affected in other ways. If Seau's death represented the gut-punch alerting us to the severity of NFL brain trauma, the five years since have unfolded as a kind of steady, relentless awakening.

It's enough to make me seek alternate avenues of entertainment when the Patriots aren't playing, and even if abstaining leaves me in the minority, I suspect I won't be alone forever.

The NFL opened up shop on Sunday and I didn't watch a single second. At the risk of sounding like a pearl clutcher, I simply know too much to cheer big hits with a clear conscience. If these guys want to destroy themselves -- "If I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field," Jets rookie Jamal Adams told season ticket holders in July -- that's their choice, but I don't have to cheer their demise.

The days of seeing Joe Theismann's ankle snapped in half by Lawrence Taylor or Mike Harden standing over an unconscious Steve Largent in year-end highlight videos are over. The NFL can't market extreme violence anymore. Instead, it pays lip service to protecting its players, but that's a tough sell after years of denying, ignoring, or downplaying the obvious links between football and brain damage.

Is it taking a toll? Ratings dropped during last year's election before rebounding. Perhaps it was simply Hillary and the Donald dominating the news cycle. That's certainly what the league's owners told themselves.

But maybe there's something more at work. There's already a generation of parents who would never dream of letting their kids play football, and I don't remember that being the case 20 or 30 years ago. What happens if those kids come of age without being rabid fans?

Realistically, that won't be an issue for many, many years. The NFL is too dominant. But all dynasties fall. Just ask boxing and baseball.

As the NFL kicks into gear, I don't expect to watch much beyond the Patriots this season. The random Monday night showdown between the Packers and Vikings or Raiders and Broncos doesn't feel particularly compelling anymore, and that might be Seau's ultimate legacy.

Ten years ago, he was in his second season with the Patriots after coming out of retirement to chase a ring with the NFL's signature franchise. The future Hall of Famer could be moody or manic in conversation, but if you got him going on the right topic, he'd fill your notebook.

I asked if he shared my perplexity that tackles aren't considered an official statistic.

"That's crazy. Other than touchdowns, what's more important than a tackle?" asked the man who might've recorded more of them than anyone.

One of those tackles, one of those collisions, may have nudged Seau over an abyss that led to suicide. The same can be asked of former Bears safety Dave Duerson, Heisman Trophy-winning running back Rashaan Salaam, or Eagles safety Andre Waters, even as the league cites studies suggesting ex-NFL players commit suicide at a lower rate than the general population.

Regardless, five years after Seau's death, the NFL feels like a different game.

Increasingly, it's one I can live without.

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