I limped into work yesterday morning, my leg encased in plastic and metal, a brace designed to keep my right knee from slipping. The brace was there because my ACL wasn’t. My ACL wasn’t there because, several days ago, I was training for a rugby tournament, and during a routine drill I took a tackle the wrong way, something popped— my ACL, as it happens—and down I went, screaming and cursing, not because it hurt (it did, oh it hurts when a ligament snaps like an old dried out rubber band), but because in that moment I knew that I was done. Three months of running and lifting weights and getting the shit knocked out of me, all for nothing. That morning’s visit with the surgeon confirmed what I knew the minute my knee imploded like an old Vegas casino: surgery, with a few months of recovery to follow. Rugby. Jesus. Two things dancing in my mind: I’m 42 years old and I’m still trying to play the world’s toughest team sport, and damn, that guy who tackled me did it well—came in low, drove with his legs, wrapped me up, took me down. Nothing I could’ve done but fall. I snapped out of it, logged on, pulled up my company’s Twitter feed to scan it for any replies, and saw that Junior Seau was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Seau was a San Diego institution. Raised in Oceanside, a north San Diego County town, he played football for USC, then returned home to play for the Chargers. On the football field, he was a monster and an artist—the arm tackle is the bane of football (and rugby) coaches, the sign of an uncommitted, lazy player, and Junior went all in, throwing himself at opposing runners and quarterbacks, giving everything he had on every play. You didn’t have to be a fan to appreciate the way he went about his work; enthusiasm, devotion, and drive transcend any medium. During his time with the team, he enmeshed himself with our city—donating time and money to San Diego kids and military folks through his foundation, some $4 million over the course of the years. Every Thanksgiving he’d shut down his popular restaurant, bringing in the needy to feed them; Christmases, he’d lead toy and food drives. To say that my hometown loved him is an understatement; adored might be the better word. He was one of us, and now he’s gone.
43 years old, and he takes his own life. Speculations, of course, are already running rampant; sports journalists are mentioning possible brain injury as a cause. Perhaps we’ll find out; most likely we’ll never know why he pulled the trigger.
A day later, and I’m still thinking about the life Seau led, the life he lost, and the price athletes sometimes pay for our entertainment. My next door neighbor is an ex-NFL linebacker. He played for the Indianapolis Colts—won a Super Bowl ring with them, in fact. He has two kids: a toddler and a baby. Our neighborhood is quiet, ringed by an iron fence, and the street is a perfect place to play Frisbee, skateboard, or toss the rugby ball. We’re out there a lot, the kids and I—Zoe sits in the driveway blowing bubbles, while I instruct Lucas on the finer points of our shared sport: how to throw a spin pass, make contact in the scrum, execute a perfect drop-kick. Occasionally my neighbor—a Fijian, also a former rugby player and fan—joins us. When I first met him, I asked him why he retired. “Concussions,” he said. “After my last one, I said that’s it.” His wife and child were chatting with mine. He looked over at them. “Not worth it.”