Wednesday morning former NFL star Junior Seau, considered by some to be the greatest middle linebacker ever to play football, was found by his girlfriend dead with an apparent gun-shot wound to the chest. He was 43.
There are, of course, articles written on this topic everywhere on the web, but there is something in particular that struck me about this apparent suicide and the man behind it.
I remember Junior Seau being exactly what people remember him as – passionate, intense, and fiercely loyal to his teammates. Such passion was not only his hallmark when he was working out or crushing his opponents, it was also the soul of who he was off the field. The bearer of an infectious smile and a great speaker, Seau called his teammates “my players” and many of those around him “Buddy.” In a note he wrote to Patriots owner Robert Kraft after the death of Kraft’s wife, Seau wrote, “Love you, Buddy.”
Junior Seau was deep and rich. And I’m not talking about the money he made playing pro football.
I am reminded today of a topic I used to discuss with my students in the classroom, the deception that makes some warriors who go to battle think that it is a smooth transition to go from the warfront back to everyday life once the war is over. A central story we’d study was Stephen Crane’s “An Episode of War” in which the young soldier, back home from the war with his arm amputated, is caught in the disastrous position of having no identity – not as a soldier in the war obviously, and not as a civilian back home anymore either. There are countless stories out there of individuals who have returned home from a war not only changed, but wounded in a way that will never heal and scar. The pain is always there, open and incessantly fresh, even amid life’s most wonderful moments.
Most people would see a comparison of an ex-football player to a soldier of war skewed if not downright ridiculous. I respect and understand that point of view. But my comparison is not rooted in the externals of a playing field and a warfront; the reason stories like that of the lieutenant and Junior Seau touch me is because in all of them is the deeper issue of identity. Who we are as individuals. What we choose to believe in. What mantras we hold fast to that create everything in us and even outside of us. Yes, I could look at Seau the warrior in football and make a skewed comparison and hail the conflict of good and evil in life and on the field. But that’s not what I’m getting at here.
I’m getting at the constructions we create and the identities we hold fast to. I’m getting at how quickly it can all disappear.
Those who have read my work in recent months know that I have gone into the valley of the shadow of death and really addressed the things inside me I was using to self-sabotage. They also know that I haven’t written any such reflections since “Left Hand Turn” on March 8.
I have been away for nearly two months now simply because I haven’t felt that there was anything to say. I do feel like I’m emerging from some crucial stage in my life, some spiritual war that cannot last forever, but I am emerging with a sense of nothingness inside me. I go back and read some of my old posts and see a warrior. I see someone with a purpose. That kept me going even though it was hard. But I’m tired. I’m exhausted from the constant self-assessment and emotional barrage I levied on myself. I no longer see myself as a part of that war.
And yet even after weeks now in which I sense that I’m back from it, I haven’t felt like anything else either. I’m not a spiritual warrior, but I don’t remember what it is like to be here either. I don’t even know what “here” is. I especially don’t know how to be, what to be, in this world now equipped with all the knowledge I gained in the war behind me.
I don’t know my purpose. I don’t know my identity. I don’t even know where on earth to look for it.
Don’t get me wrong and don’t be alarmed – I’m not going to do anything disastrous to myself! Let me make that clear. But my point is that this man Junior Seau – I feel like I know him. I know that passion and that love for life and the people around us. I know how it feels to be happy and depressed at the same time. I know what it means to be divorced, to hate yourself for failing at such a monumental beauty in life. I even understand what it means to have had concussions and to have to live with the long-term effects of that. I get it. I get him. And that’s why this news of his death is so difficult for me.
When I read that he’d texted his ex-wife and three children “I love you” in four different text messages, I knew I would have done the same thing. And in addition to saying I love you, he was also saying I’m sorry.
It was an apology that I know ran much deeper than mere words could ever communicate. And that is part of the frustration in feeling these things – you can never adequately describe the depth of what’s going on in there.
When I say I love you to the people closest to me, I hope they realize how much. When I say I’m sorry, it just makes me feel worse because the pain I feel for any harm I’ve done just makes me want to go crawl into bed and sleep. That may be one of my problems, is that I fall in love with people and become too trusting entirely too quickly. But one thing I can say is that I have emerged from whatever battle I was in with at least that still intact, and even though it hurts so very often, I don’t think I’ll ever not be that way. I’ve tried to be cold and distant to protect myself, especially to someone dear to me just this past week, but it simply doesn’t work. I inevitably collapse under the weight of my own foolishness and self-fraud. It is obvious in the way the people around him have spoken that Junior Seau lived like that, with a passion for life and the people he loved that knew no bounds. Superman is indeed dead, but he left a super legacy behind that will have people saying I Love You Buddy for a long time to come.