Seau's suicide could be the turning point in player safety mission
First up this morning: A history lesson. We'll never see two months like we've just seen in any offseason. Ever. To recap:
Two months. A never-ending, rarely pausing news cycle.
The Vilma ban and Seau suicide weren't the end of it. On Thursday, word leaked that 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs would miss some or all of the 2012 season with a torn Achilles. On Friday, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith came out passionately against the suspension of the four players. The union charged the league had not proven its case, and filed two grievances in an attempt to overturn the sanctions.
I don't know what it all means. Maybe this is a freaky year. Surely there won't be a player the status of Peyton Manning getting whacked and then wooed in free agency. Surely there won't be another story with the legs of the bounty scandal. With the NFL becoming so gargantuan, there will be more stories where these came from. I just don't believe we'll ever see two months in an offseason when, day after day, week after week, the NFL obliterates the NBA, the NHL and major league baseball.
Now for the news items of the week:
I have a few memories of Seau, including one from Buffalo that I write about in this week's
I never forgot that intensity. I honestly think he was so zoned in that he never paid attention to anything in his path. But that's the way he played, and his burning focus is one reason he's such a strong candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2015.
As for why he killed himself with a gunshot to the chest Wednesday, we don't know why. We can theorize, and we will, but until (and if) medical authorities have the chance to analyze Seau's brain to see if it was damaged by years of brute-force football contact, it's going to be just educated guessing and anecdotal evidence.
I believe Seau played his entire career never wanting to give into pain and playing with far more than his share of it -- he missed only nine games due to injury in his first 14 pro seasons. If you asked me which defensive player in the last 20 years inflicted the most punishment on offensive players in the NFL, I'd say it'd be a tie between Junior Seau and Ray Lewis. Former Oakland fullback Jon Ritchie once told me about getting Seau's helmet driven "full force under my jaw, and he hit my like I've never been hit. I couldn't hear anything out of my left ear for a week. I was deaf. And my jaw was so sore, I couldn't eat right.''
That's one unforgettable hit in two decades of them, in college and pro football.
In the last year and a half, the league has been trying to eliminate some of the violent helmet-to-helmet hits in the game. That's a good thing. But those efforts have earned mostly scorn from fans and defensive players. After Seau's death, the tide is turning. Fans (scores of them on Twitter at least) have bleated, "The league's got to do something to improve players' lives after football,'' and said the league has to make sure players can walk away from the game as close to normal human beings mentally as possible.
You can't have it both ways, folks. If you want the explosive, brain-rattling hits to continue unabated, there's a good chance we'll see more players wrecked as they leave football, and years after that. Not saying that's what killed Seau. But I am saying it's a logical avenue to explore, and the league can't wait five or eight or 10 years to have a conclusive study of enough deceased players' brains in order to say it's time to get serious about player safety.
The best thing the NFL can do to honor Seau is to continue to hammer home the protective point that while it may not seem fair in all cases to fine defensive players huge money for hits on defenseless players, it has to be done if the league is going to prove it's serious about making the game safer.
And no more discussion of an 18-game schedule. Please. Simple logic says that's the dumbest idea of the Goodell Era. Unless the league pushes the novel but probably idiotic concept of every player playing a maximum of 16 games in a given season, it's an idea that must go away.
This will be Washington linebacker Fletcher's 15th year in the NFL. By unofficial count, he has more tackles than any player in this century. He plays the game with abandon, the way Seau played it, and has been remarkably durable. Since 1998, he's never missed a game due to injury.
Last night I asked him about what Seau's suicide has meant to him.
"I'm still in disbelief,'' he said. "Still having a hard time with it. I've thought about him every day. And I think about what I'm going to be like at his age, 43, and how I'll be coping with life after football. I keep going over and over it. What am I going to be like several years down the road? I'm definitely concerned with quality of life after football. This makes me a little more scared about it.''
Fletcher didn't know Seau well, but he knows the type of person he was -- driven, brave, not one to ask for help. He's like the rest of us: He doesn't know why Seau killed himself. But he fears it has something to do with the football player's way of minimizing injuries, mentally and physically, and seeking his own way out of problems instead of asking for help. That's why he hopes the league and the players association will mandate counseling sessions for players as they transition out of football. "
You take the decision out of guys' hands,'' Fletcher said, "and that way, maybe some of them will be helped. If players have to go seek counseling on their own, lots of guys won't do that. Men in general, we're wired to hold things inside. It's not manly to be vulnerable and ask for help. For me, now, I can tell you I'm going to seek help if I feel I need it. That's what Junior's death has taught me.''
As of now, Fletcher doesn't notice signs of depression, or memory loss. But he said the Seau death "spooked'' his wife and family. "I had a cousin call me right away and say, 'I'm here if you ever want to talk.' The good thing about this, I think, is that many players around the league are having family members reach out to them, asking how they're doing.'' Now, Fletcher wants help to be mandatory when players walk away. I hope the league and the union consider his idea.
I think it's likely the league has damning evidence on the Saints players. But I also think if the league's going to destroy the character of a heretofore well-respected player, Jonathan Vilma, by putting a scarlet letter on his chest for the rest of his life ("B'' for bounty leader), it needs to come clean with more evidence on Vilma than it's provided thus far.
I don't believe the league has shared nothing, which the union would have us believe, but I also don't believe the league has shared nearly enough evidence to convince anyone that Vilma deserves to be banned for a year. If it's true Vilma offered his teammates $10,000 to knock Kurt Warner and Brett Favre out of a playoff game three seasons ago, let's see the proof. I understand that the league must protect certain whistleblowers in this case, but there has to be some evidence the NFL can share to assuage the doubters that the league really has the goods on the players.
It's good that Mary Jo White, a well-known and highly respected set of legal eyes, combed through the league's evidence in the case and pronounced it conviction worthy. But White was also retained by the league. What do you think she would have concluded had she been retained by the players association?
One other point: I ran into De Smith at the draft, and we talked for a couple of minutes about how the league and the players are fated to always be at odds, at least to some degree. He said ruefully that some players had said to him they thought now that the 10-year labor deal signed last summer meant the two sides would finally be at peace. That's not going to happen. Smith knows it, and now the league knows it.
Actually, it's the first of two D-Days. Today, the Minnesota House of Representatives will debate and then vote on the proposal for a $975 million, fixed-roof stadium next to where the Metrodome stands in downtown Minneapolis. On Tuesday, the Minnesota Senate will vote. The vote must pass in both bodies for the stadium to be built. If it passes -- and the smart political money says it will pass, barely -- the new stadium will be ready for football in 2016. If it doesn't pass, well, no one is saying what will happen. But I can tell you what is likely:
The Vikings will be the prime candidates to move to Los Angeles, following the Lakers and North Stars out of town. When commissioner Roger Goodell went to Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago to sound the alarm about football's future in Minnesota, he told legislators and civic leaders that now they controlled the fate of the Vikings. But if a stadium bill wasn't passed, and soon, the control of the team would be out of their hands. And he's right. The wheels will be in motion for Los Angeles quickly if, by Tuesday night, the stadium deal hasn't passed.
The owners of the team, the Wilfs, have offered $427 million in stadium construction costs plus $13.5 million per year in operating fees (65 percent of the cost of operating the stadium annually). The rest of the cost would be borne by the city ($150 million toward the stadium) and state ($398 million toward the stadium). Because the Vikings were third in line in local stadia -- the Twins and University of Minnesota's football team were in line first -- this will be the final stadium project the city and state will have to support for a while. Even though the Wilfs are offering the third-most money any NFL ownership group has ever offered in stadium construction, it's still a difficult time for politicians to spend public money to support millionaire owners. If the project fails, that will be the reason.
But one other point is clear: If this stadium initiative does not pass, the end of the Vikings in Minnesota will be in sight. And the politicians are in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't position. Some fear voting for the bill and getting voted out by the Tea Party types. Some fear voting against it and getting voted out by the Vikings fanatics. Watch for a very interesting week in Minnesota.
After the death of Seau, I wanted to find a story this morning of a man leaving the game who -- at least in my opinion -- could be a good model for the NFL for players' lives after football. Light, drafted in the second round by the Patriots in 2001, had a very good 11-year NFL career and played in five Super Bowls. I've gotten to know him pretty well as a player and as a person off the field, because of his extensive charity work, both with his foundation and other pet projects, including the Greater Boston Food Bank.
Light will retire at a ceremony in Foxboro at 10:30 a.m. today. He may do some TV work, but I know he's going to work extensively with his Matt Light Foundation, which is devoted to helping troubled teenagers around the country by putting them in a rural setting in Ohio for part of every summer. The foundation gets them to work together and do charitable community ventures in an effort to help them turn their lives around. I asked Light to write a piece of the column this morning about retiring and about life after football. Here's his take:
The first reaction to Terrell Suggs being out for most, if not all, of the 2012 season with a torn Achilles suffered 10 days ago -- the Ravens' All-Pro pass-rusher is due for surgery Tuesday -- is Baltimore's defense will take a nosedive. And it's quite possible the Ravens won't be able to recover, and they'll fall back in the AFC North.
But a closer look will show the Ravens have three things going for them in Suggs' absence: Pernell McPhee, Paul Kruger and Courtney Upshaw. And as much as the Ravens were gnashing their teeth during Round 1 of the draft 11 days ago, when they failed to hit on any of the players they really wanted and had to dump out of the first round, how fortuitous does it now look that they traded down to the 35th overall pick ... and Upshaw, stunningly, was still there?
It's likely that Upshaw, one inch shorter and 10 pounds heavier than Suggs, will take his right-side (End? Linebacker? Suggs plays a hybrid spot on the right side) rush spot from opening day. That would leave McPhee and Kruger on the left side to rush, and that's not such a bad thing. They combined for 11.5 sacks in just 762 defensive snaps last year (the snap count per
One other point from Pro Football Focus to consider. Last season, in 375 fewer combined snaps than Suggs, McPhee and Kruger, according to the football website that charts every individual play in the game, had 49 quarterbacks hits and pressures -- the exact same number as Suggs. Maybe if they play more they won't be able to mathematically increase the production, particularly without Suggs on the other side for offenses to worry about. That's why Upshaw should be one of the most significant rookies in the league this year. Instead of the Ravens being able to take their time with Upshaw this year and patiently teach him the defense and his role in it, now they'll have to do the teaching more rapidly, and the pressure will be on him to produce early.
There is one compelling free agent available who some observers might think would interest the Ravens: Andre Carter, who had a 10-sack season in a reborn years for the Patriots last fall. He turns 33 Saturday. The Patriots could have interest in him again, but would the Ravens kick his tires too? From what I hear, it's unlikely, even though he'll be ready to practice full-speed in training camp after a late-season quad injury landed him on injured reserve in New England.
If you're a Ravens fan, and you want to look on the bright side with the Achilles injury to Terrell Suggs, it's this: Only one time in Suggs' nine previous seasons with the team has Baltimore played its first game against Pittsburgh later in the season than the team will this year. In 2006, the first Baltimore-Pittsburgh game was Nov. 26; this year, it's Nov. 18. Suggs thinks he'll be playing football in November, though no one will know that until he has the Achilles surgically repaired Tuesday.
But with the first game between AFC North behemoths 28 weeks away (six-and-a-half months from yesterday), the Ravens can hang on to at least faint hope that Suggs will have a chance to mend for it. Baltimore plays the Steelers twice in a weird late-season-too-close-for-comfort 15 days (Nov. 18 in Pittsburgh, Dec. 2 in Baltimore).
Breaking down how Suggs has fared in his nine seasons as a Raven against his division rivals, including playoff games:
Breaking down how Suggs has fared against Pittsburgh, and against all other NFL teams:
So you'll see a pretty big leveling of the field if Suggs isn't dressed Nov. 18 or Dec. 2 for the Ravens-Steelers games.
"Junior obviously had been facing demons for at least 18 months. That's no longer speculation. People can take pills, run their car off the road and that's a cry for help. He was crying out for help. Yet he was too proud to ask for it. What I'd like to see done ... There is no exit strategy from the NFL. It's 'You're done.' You don't even get an apple and a road map. What needs to happen is mandatory counseling. In 15 years as a middle linebacker, I never would have thought of seeing a counselor. I saw one in my divorce, and I just called my counselor today. It can't be optional, because macho players are taught to be invincible and they're not going to do it. Make it mandatory.''
"I have never been around a man with more love and passion for the game of football than Junior Seau, and he lived life the same way. Junior was always fun to be around, always positive and made every person who knew him feel like he was their best friend. You never heard one negative word come out of his mouth. Junior just had this energy that followed him around wherever he went, almost like theme music. It was like he never had a bad day. As a young linebacker, Junior was my hero growing up and once I had the opportunity to meet him I saw that he was everything I hoped he would be and more. Getting the chance to play alongside of Junior Seau, the greatest linebacker to ever play the game, made my dreams come true. I am absolutely devastated to hear this news. Today I lost my hero, my friend, my buddy."
"I pray to God please, 'Take me! Take me! Leave my son!' But it's too late, too late."
"I won't give you the vision on what I think his role will be in the offense. But I would just say that to the best of my knowledge, I believe that what Coach (Ryan) said is he can play anywhere from one to 20 snaps, somewhere like that. And I would say what coach said is 100 percent correct. As far as how we'll use Tim or what we'll do with Tim that way, we're going to keep that to us right now.''
Someone has to tell me this: Why is the train station in downtown New York called Pennsylvania Station and the train station in downtown Newark called Pennsylvania Station and the train station in downtown Baltimore called Pennsylvania Station ... while the train station in downtown Philadelphia is called 30th Street Station, and the train station in Pittsburgh is called Union Station?
Scurrying to Wikipedia already this morning, are you?
Three other Acela comments this morning, after a round-trip to Washington Friday and Saturday:
Stanford tight end Coby Fleener, the 34th pick in the draft, wrote a story about me for a class at Stanford ... and he
Story behind the story, if you care: Fleener, in his fifth year at Stanford, is a master's student in communication. His professor for a class called Specialized Reporting and Writing, the one who assigned Fleener to interview and write about a member of the news media, is Gary Pomerantz, who covered the Redskins for
Fleener has already accomplished one very big thing with the publication of this story that's essential to journalism: He's made an uninteresting person sound interesting. You've got a future, kid, if this football thing doesn't work out.
"I feel like Sonny Corleone at the toll booth.''
For one of three reasons:
"Really proud of the way Eli handled the big stage. Think I'll get him a present to celebrate. Maybe a banana lol"
"Albert Pujols is not even taking batting practice. He was essentially told by #Angels MGR Mike Scioscia to not even pick up a bat today."
You can't tell me the Angels aren't sweating over Pujols a little. Not that he's finished; but, "My God! We have 9.8 years of this guy's contract left!"
One-hundred-eighteen plate appearances. One home run. When Scioscia benched him Saturday, he was five for his last 47 (.106 BA, .128 slugging percentage, .253 OPS), with one RBI, over a two-week period. Fans booed him at the Big A Friday night. Not overwhelmingly, but there was more than a smattering. What an amazing story.
As I've said, we don't know why Seau did what he did, but mental illness, depression and trying to find meaning in life after the cheering stops are all issues former players struggle with. In Acee's story, former safety John Lynch, a friend of Seau's, says it's vital post-career mental-health care and finding meaningful lives after football be priorities for the league and the retiring players. "The automatic response right now is it's got to be concussion-related. I wouldn't discount the concussion [aspect]. If we did, we'd feel terrible ... But, and I don't say this in a negative conversation, it's an out for people that are lost and searching. It's a huge issue. It's one the league better pay attention to."
I'm not sure who Ben Roethlisberger is right now, and I'm not sure if he'll ever be the kind of person you'd want your kids to emulate. But what I am sure of is this: People are capable of changing, and very often do change when tumultuous events rake their lives. That, however, is something none of you Twitter abusers believe can happen.
In October, Fuller, of Texas A&M, was a legitimate first-round prospect. Then, as the 2011 season progressed, he seemed to drop more balls than he caught, he lost confidence, and bombed at the Senior Bowl. When I was in Miami last weekend, I could tell coach Joe Philbin had a blank-slate philosophy with everyone on the roster, which will hold Fuller in good stead. That plus he'll be catching the ball from his college quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, and having the plays called by his college coach, Mike Sherman. Maybe the dropsies will be terminal for Fuller. But if he catches the ball well in training camp, he's absolutely an NFL-caliber receiver.
Warner left the game, in part, because of a fear of further concussions after a slight concussion left him woozy for days. And he has every right to say he wouldn't want his kids to play the sport that made him fabulously rich but also left him wondering if head trauma would impact him later in life. We grow, we think, we learn, Amani. As parents, we have the right to point our children in certain directions. To blindly point them down a road you think is wrong ... well, that's just wrong.
a. Now you know why the New Jersey Devils feel like stepchildren: After the scintillating overtime win over Philadelphia Thursday in Newark, the Devils, who play eight miles from Manhattan, got half a page out of 33 sports pages in the
b. Tremendous experience Friday with the USO at the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Had the chance to get a tour with USO heavy Phil Parisi and two Nats, Adam LaRoche and Sean Burnett, and then to visit with some of the wounded troops adjusting to life with prosthetics. Inspirational is a word that comes to mind, particularly regarding the one Green Beret medic who lost his right leg, much of his left leg and half his left arm in an IED blast, and calmly had the presence of mind to tie tourniquets on all three wounds, and told us how lucky he was to have made it out alive.
c. Good work by the Nats, by the way, in offering great seats to the military for so many home games, and for opening their stadium and training facilities to rehabbing vets. That's an organization that gets it.
d. Very good to see the Nationals and the Orioles relevant.
e. My favorite quote from Saturday morning walking around the monuments in Washington comes from the Jefferson Memorial:
In other words, don't tell me we cannot amend laws that don't apply, or laws that must be fitted to our society today.
f. Love Mariano Rivera saying, "I'm coming back. Write it down in big letters.'' You might have gathered I'm no Yankee lover, but I do admire many of their players -- none more than the classy Rivera.
g. Weirdest, most shaken-up month for closers I've ever seen. Wreaking havoc on my Rotisserie team.
h. Funniest thing I've seen on "Saturday Night Live'' in memory was Peyton Manning coaching football to young kids on a field in Manhattan in a United Way ad spoof, and abusing them ruthlessly, to the point of punishing one by stashing him in a portable toilet. On Saturday night, Eli Manning wasn't as funny, but I don't recall a guest host playing more roles than Eli played the other night.
He was a Swedish football player (with the accent), a cross-dressing beauty contestant, a defendant who texted a photo of himself holding a banana in his groin and making light of his manhood, a lame game-show guest, an Occupy Wall Street protester, a New Yorker giving advice to tourists (a little lame), and, in his shining moment, a Big Brother-type to a kid getting abused by his older brother -- and helping the little brother get revenge. Eli held the older bro upside down over a toilet, threatening him with -- I think this is what it's called -- a swirly. That was a great sketch. Eli says gruffly to one kid who he locks in a trunk: "Maybe you'll treat your little brother with some respect now, Peyton!''
It wasn't a better performance than Peyton's six years ago, but it's got to go down in SNL history as a candidate in the category of Most Roles Played By a Host in 90 Minutes.
i. I was impressed that Eli would play as many uncomfortable roles as he did.
j. Had the pleasure the other night of being with former Sox pitcher Bill Lee at a Red Sox game for a few innings. He's started making wine now, "Spaceman Red,'' in Napa Valley, which is fitting for a man of his varied tastes. Still a big baseball fan, with a twist. When he saw Cody Ross of the Red Sox wearing a think hood under his cap, Lee said, "What's he doing wearing a burqa?'' When the A's took out very effective starter Jarrod Parker in the seventh, Lee sneered, "Quality start,'' with disdain. And so on. Entertaining night at the park.
k. Happy 81st birthday (Sunday), Willie Mays.
l. Coffeenerdness: Can you vary the baked goods, Starbucks? Are we fated to looking at the same doughy, tasteless scones for the rest of our lives?
m. Beernerdness: Lucky enough to find Starr Hill Amber Ale ("The Gift of Great Beer'' is on the label, and I don't doubt it) from Crozet, Va., in D.C. over the weekend. Bold and full of flavor, like a strong Cabernet, and eminently drinkable.
n. Beernerdness II: Congrats to Allagash White, which beat out 49 competitors to win the best Belgian Witbier at the World Beer Cup. See? I must be drinking something right.