In 2012, when Junior Seau shot himself in the chest at his home in California, he was one of four ex-NFL players to kill himself in just eight months. Even his method of suicide followed an established pattern: he’d shot himself in the chest to preserve his brain for future study, just as former Chicago Bears cornerback Dave Duerson had done 15 months earlier.
There’s something especially cruel about the fact that Junior Seau lived long enough to know so much about CTE despite playing in the days when “shake it off and get back in there” was the kind of advice you could expect from a doctor. Players of his era only learned the true irreversible horror of what they done to their brains long after they’d already done it.
Seau died at 43. Incredibly, he spent 20 years in the NFL, playing all of them before any meaningful concussion protocols were instituted. For my generation, he was probably the first former player to commit suicide while memories of his playing days were still vivid. Certainly, he was the biggest star to go down that road. Seau’s fame as a personality transcended football, especially to anyone who lived in the San Diego area between 1991 and 2010 or so, where his face and name were unavoidable, even during the years he spent playing for Miami and New England.
Seau, a new documentary about Junior Seau, debuts Thursday on ESPN+, ESPN’s new streaming platform. It covers his early days, as a freak high school athlete (excelling not just at football but also basketball, shot put, and just about anything that offered an advantage to someone big, strong, and fast) whose work ethic was just as freakish. Whereas Bo Jackson admitted in You Don’t Know Bo that the lifting he did in his Nike commercials was about the only time he actually spent in the weight room, Seau was known to be finishing his morning workouts when the rest of the team was just showing up — lifting preposterous amounts of weight, even when he was a rookie.
Unavoidably, the film covers Seau’s final days, his ultimate unraveling, and the warning signs we probably should’ve seen along the way, while we were screaming for his sacks and hits. In one particularly resonant sequence, former soccer player and current ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman recounts telling Seau about his own concussion and the subsequent symptoms he was suffering — light sensitivity, and a seemingly constant headache — to which Seau confided, “Man, I’ve had a headache since I was 15.”
It’s anecdotes like that one, between Junior and a guy he happened to share an apartment with in the early 2000s, that make Seau particularly memorable. Being able to dig up those kinds of nuggets is a particular skill, a skill at which Seau‘s director, Kirby Bradley, a veteran sports doc producer, seems to excel.
Normally the difficulty with a documentary is that people don’t film every day of their lives. You sort of have to piece it together after the fact from the spotty public record. In Junior Seau’s case, almost his whole life was lived publicly, and there’s more tape than you could ever watch. Bradley’s job was to find a path through it. And then there’s the more delicate matter of just getting permission to do it, first from a family still grieving, and then from a sports league that up until recently was trying to pretend that CTE didn’t exist.
Bradley managed to do all that, and even more incredibly, discovered that Seau had kept extensive journals. All movies are a combination of careful planning and serendipity, of hard work and sheer luck, and learned that Junior Seau of all people had kept a journal seems a perfect example of the latter. The degree to which Seau — a guy who had to sit out the first year of college because he couldn’t muster the minimum SAT scores — was eloquent and introspective in the writings no one knew he had made before he died, is one of the most shocking parts of the movie.
I spoke to Kirby Bradley by phone this week, about Junior Seau’s exceptional life and all the work that goes into telling a story that on paper might seem like a no-brainer.