"Budddyyyy, my head was KILLING me!"
-- Linebacker Junior Seau, several hours after a violent collision in a 2001 practice.
Eight months after star linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in his beachfront Oceanside, Calif., home, the National Institutes of Health said Thursday that Seau suffered from chronic brain damage.
The news, first reported by ABC News, comes as little surprise to some of Seau's former teammates, who say he suffered from headaches and equilibrium problems despite never being diagnosed with a concussion during his 20-year career. A specific instance occurred during training camp in 2001, when a collision with fullback Fred McCrary left a three-inch crack across the crown of McCrary's helmet.
"Me and Junior had so much pride, we didn't want to tell the other one that we were hurt," says McCrary, who played for six teams over 11 years, including four with Seau in San Diego. "We talked about the play later that night, and I said, 'Junior, my head is on fire!' He was like, 'Buddddyyyy, my head was KILLING me! But I wasn't going to let [trainer James Collins] know because he would make me sit out.' "
The collision, during a morning practice at training camp, was so violent it could be heard across the practice fields at UC San Diego, where the Chargers trained. McCrary says the effects of the hit stayed with him for months -- and added that the cumulative hits over his career sometimes force him to spend time in a dark room until the headaches subside.
"After that [hit in 2001] I remember blacking out, seeing white all the time that year," McCrary says. "I'm like, 'What the f---?!' I didn't know why it was happening. It was scary. I remember laying down that night and I said, 'I've got to call James.' My head was beating like a drum. You didn't want to come out because you're trying to keep your job, but I remember I used to hit someone and fall to my knees.
"I look back on it now and I can say that that hit was the reason why I was in that condition. But at the time, all I kept thinking was, What's wrong with my head? My wife would tell me I need to go get checked out and stop playing, but I kept saying. 'I'll be all right. I don't want to sit out, I don't want to lose my job, I'm a starter now.' All that stuff goes through your head. Any football player you ask will tell you the same thing.
"I saw Junior messed up multiple times," McCrary continues. "He would just go back to his room and say, 'Buddy, what the f--?' When we had that collision, he'd walk around and say, 'We'll be OK. We'll be OK.' People need to realize, that stuff is so real."
Seau's family donated his brain to the National Institutes of Health following his suicide to learn whether he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that can be a contributing factor in dementia, memory loss and depression.
Retired NFL safeties Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling suffered from CTE before killing themselves in the last two-plus years, and researchers at Boston University recently confirmed 50 cases of CTE in former football players, including 33 who played in the NFL.
Although some have tried to draw a direct line from CTE to Seau putting a gun to his chest and pulling the trigger, the reality is that his story is more complex. Seau also suffered from alcoholism and was known to be taking prescription meds to deal with anxiety and insomnia. He also struggled with trying to live up to the larger-than-life image that others had of him.
But the confirmation of CTE is a blow to the NFL, which is being sued by thousands of former and active players for allegedly failing to inform them of the dangers of concussions and repeated brain trauma. Seau is the first megastar to be linked to the disease, not that the test results were a surprise to former teammates, who say there was no way Seau never had a concussion.
The collision with McCrary affected McCrary long after it occurred. "The truth is that I saw white after that hit. I blacked out," McCrary says. "To be honest, that was the year I started having equilibrium problems. To be honest with you, it used to come back every single year. New England, from that year on, it would come back from Week 7 or Week 8. I'm laying in the bed, arms outstretched, holding on. My wife is like, 'What's wrong with you?! What's wrong?! I'm like, Whoa! I know what it was from now, but I didn't know then."
To understand the culture of the NFL and tough-guy mentality, consider that McCrary not only kept the helmet after it split across the crown, but also had Seau sign it on one side, with McCrary signing the other side. He keeps the helmet in one of his trophy cases in his Atlanta-area home.
"I don't know how many facemasks I broke from just running into linebackers," McCrary says. "They're five yards back, we're five yards back ... POW!!! We'd do it over and over. It has no choice but to take a toll on your brain. Me being an idiot, loving it; Junior the same thing. But you can't help but be f---ed up after that. I still get headaches, right here."
McCrary points to the back of his head.
"They're pounding headaches," he says. "Sometimes they stay all day, no matter what I take. They come every couple of weeks. I try to just lay down because I know what it is. I just close the blinds and try to sleep it off. My kids are like, 'Daddy, are you OK? Is your head hurting again?' I tell them, 'Yeah, I'm all right. I just have to sleep it off.' It happens so much now that they understand -- close the blinds for Daddy. You have to get out of the light because the pain shoots into your eyes and through your brain. That's some real s---. REAL!"
Seau may have never been diagnosed with a concussion, but the brain study confirms that his experienced repeated trauma.