Seau's suicide could be the turning point in player safety mission
Junior Seau's death was tragic punctuation to a historically eventful two months
London Fletcher wants players to have mandatory counseling upon retirement
More on Seau's death; Ten Things I Think I Think; Quotes of the Week; more
First up this morning: A history lesson. We'll never see two months like we've just seen in any offseason. Ever. To recap:
March 2 -- The NFL says the Saints ran a sophisticated bounty program with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams the ringleader and between 22 and 27 defensive players willing participants.
March 7 -- Colts release Peyton Manning.
March 9 -- Within eight hours, the following three stories break: Manning, a free agent, covertly flies to Denver, where Tim Tebow led the Broncos to the playoffs two months earlier ... The Redskins trade three first-round picks and a second-rounder to St. Louis to acquire the second pick in the April draft, so as to take Baylor quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III ... The Jets sign quarterback Mark Sanchez to a stunning contract extension, with $40.5 million in new money. (Much of it, we find out within days, is not guaranteed.)
March 11 -- Brandon Marshall is accused of punching a woman during a skirmish at a New York nightclub.
March 12 -- The NFL announces salary-cap sanctions against Washington ($36 million) and Dallas ($10 million), for what the league says was dumping salary into the league's 2011 uncapped year to gain a competitive advantage. The Redskins and Cowboys say they'll appeal the ruling. Randy Moss comes out of retirement to sign with San Francisco.
March 13 -- Miami trades Brandon Marshall to Chicago, where, apparently, there are no nightclubs, for two third-round draft picks ... Secretly, at night, Niners coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman work out Manning at Duke University.
March 14 -- Detroit signs wide receiver Calvin Johnson to a $132 million contract, the largest deal in league history. That's $12 million more than the entire team's salary cap for the 2012 season.
March 15 -- Mario Williams, the most attractive defensive free agent on the market, stuns the league by taking only one trip and signing with Buffalo.
March 17 -- Free agent quarterback Alex Smith, upset the 49ers haven't stepped up to the plate in negotiations, flies to Miami on a red-eye to investigate jumping to the Dolphins. A Seahawks blogger on the flight breaks the story on Twitter.
March 18 -- Free agent quarterback Matt Flynn signs with Seattle, ostensibly to start at quarterback.
March 19 -- Peyton Manning agrees to terms with Denver.
March 20 -- Newsy day in the Keystone State: Hines Ward retires ... Houston defensive captain DeMeco Ryans is traded to Philadelphia.
March 21 -- Roger Goodell suspends Saints coach Sean Payton for the season, departed defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, GM Mickey Loomis for eight games and defensive assistant Joe Vitt for six games, all for their roles in the bounty scandal.
March 22 -- Tim Tebow, three months removed from being the most famous player in the league, is traded from Denver to the Jets.
March 27 -- Bill Parcells, seriously considering taking the one-year Saints head-coaching job for his friend Sean Payton, plays golf with Payton and Loomis to see if they'd be able to work together.
April 5 -- Videographer Sean Pamphilon releases a tape of a Saints team meeting the night before a January playoff game in San Francisco, with some graphic detail of Gregg Williams seemingly urging his players to injure 49er players. "We've got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore's head,'' Williams says.
April 9 -- Goodell denies appeals by Saints coaches and Loomis.
April 12 -- The Saints announce Joe Vitt will be the 2012 interim coach, with Payton returning to coach the team in 2013. One problem: They don't announce who will coach the team for the six games Vitt is banned.
April 17 -- In yet another example of the league making news out of thin air, the NFL spends three televised hours releasing the 2012 schedule. Foes were already known for each team. Dates were released here. Denver has five prime-time games. Someone in the league office must be a medic, with Manning coming off four neck procedures in the previous two years.
April 20 -- Goodell visits Minnesota to tell legislators, in essence, that if they don't approve funding for a Vikings stadium, the team could go to the highest-bidding city (read: Los Angeles). Very soon.
April 24 -- Colts announce they'll pick Andrew Luck with the first pick in the draft.
April 26 -- There are 19 trades in the first round of an NFL draft that is as speedy (three hours) as Usain Bolt.
April 29 -- The NFL announces that 39 million people in the United States have watched at least one minute of the three-day draft.
May 2 -- Within two and a half hours, the NFL planet shakes. One: Goodell suspends four players for their roles in the bounty scandal, including a one-year ban for middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma ... Two: Junior Seau is pronounced dead in his San Diego home of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.
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:
Junior Seau, gone at 43.
I have a few memories of Seau, including one from Buffalo that I write about in this week's Sports Illustrated, but the most intense occurred in a tunnel, two-plus hours before Super Bowl 29, some 17 years ago. I was a pregame sideline reporter for ABC's Super Bowl coverage that year, and my assignment was to get a couple of questions in to Seau when he got off the Chargers bus. It had been previously arranged that I would do so. When I saw him approach, striding quickly, he had this look in his eye of supreme intensity. He never saw me as I took my place alongside him and said something like: "Hey, Junior, anyone say anything memorable in the team meeting last night?'' He never broke stride, never acknowledged me. "Junior?'' I said. "Junior?'' And he was gone, into the locker room.
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.
London Fletcher is a poor man's Seau, and he's had an anxious week.
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.
The league must be more transparent on the bounty penalties.
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.
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