Junior Seau, among the greatest linebackers in NFL history, suffered from degenerative brain disease when he fatally shot himself in May, the National Institutes of Health said in a study released Thursday, another blow to a league whose former players say they were never warned about the dangers of head injuries.
The findings were consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease widely connected to athletes who have absorbed frequent blows to the head, the NIH said in a statement. Seau is the most prominent player to be associated with the disease, which has bedeviled the sport in recent years as a proliferation of studies have exposed the possible long-term cognitive impact of head injuries sustained on the field.
"The type of findings seen in Mr. Seau's brain have been recently reported in autopsies of individuals with exposure to repetitive head injury," the NIH said, "including professional and amateur athletes who played contact sports, individuals with multiple concussions, and veterans exposed to blast injury and other trauma."
Since CTE was diagnosed in the brain of former Eagles defensive back and USF assistant coach Andre Waters, 44, after his 2006 suicide at his North Tampa home, the disease has been found in nearly every former player whose brain was examined posthumously. (CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously.)
Researchers at Boston University, who pioneered the study of CTE, have found it in 33 of 34 brains of former NFL players they have examined.
"I think it's important for everyone to know that Junior did indeed suffer from CTE," said Seau's former wife, Gina. "It's important that we take steps to help these players. We certainly don't want to see anything like this happen again to any of our athletes."
Shortly after the death of Seau, 43, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest at his Oceanside, Calif., home, members of his family announced his brain would be donated to the NIH to be studied. The release of the results Thursday was at the family's request, the NIH said.
Seau's suicide was one of several high-profile suicides of former NFL players, raising concern about head injuries in the sport. In February 2011, Dave Duerson, a former Bears player, shot himself in the chest, saying in a note that he wanted his brain donated for research. Doctors determined that Duerson, 50, had CTE. Duerson's son Tregg is suing the NFL, claiming the league did not meaningfully warn players about the potential risks of concussions.
Ray Easterling, 62, a Falcons safety in the 1970s and a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the NFL over its handling of concussion-related injuries, died two weeks before Seau of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. More than 2,000 former players are suing the NFL, contending the league never properly addressed head-injury issues and often withheld information about the long-term effects associated with them.
"The finding underscores the recognized need for additional research to accelerate a fuller understanding of CTE," the NFL said in a statement Thursday. Pointing to a $30 million research grant it has committed to the NIH and $100 million it plans to invest in medical research, it added, "We have work to do, and we're doing it."
It's conceivable that damages as part of concussion lawsuits could soar into the billions. Even if the NFL was able to withstand that, lower levels of football, from Pop Warner through college, would be hard-pressed to cover insurance premiums to keep programs going.
The last team Seau played for, the Patriots, is preparing for a playoff game Sunday. Players who were asked about Seau on Thursday expressed sympathy but did not dwell on the news.
"It's the playoffs, so that's the least of our concerns right now," offensive lineman Logan Mankins said. "You could probably say we're meatheaded and ignorant not to think about it, but maybe in February, after the season, we can think about that."
After retiring following the 2009 season, ending a 20-year career, 13 with the Chargers, Seau was known for his work with his foundation and his restaurant, often a cheery presence in and around San Diego. But friends struggled to understand his darker moments. In his final years, Seau had wild behavioral swings, according to Gina and son Tyler, along with irrationality, forgetfulness, insomnia and depression.
"He emotionally detached himself and would kind of 'go away' for a little bit," Tyler Seau, 23, said. "And then the depression and things like that."
Tyler played football through high school and for two years in college. He says he has no symptoms of brain trauma.
Gina's son Jake, a high school junior, played football for two seasons but switched to lacrosse.
"Watching what his dad went through, he says, 'Why would I risk lacrosse for football?' " Gina says. "I didn't have to have a discussion with him after we saw what Junior went through."
Her son Hunter, 12, has shown no interest in playing football.
"That's fine with me," she said.