Musician Duff McKagan's column runs every Wednesday on Playbook Sounds.
With the much-too-early passing of Junior Seau last week, we lost a giant of a football player. We lost a guy who was good outside of football, too. A mentor. A philanthropist. A good human being. At 43 years of age. We all probably looked at Seau’s life from the outside as one that was just beginning.
Of course, none of us can be certain of the reasons for a person’s suicide. Once in a while there is a note. Once in a while, there are clear-cut reasons that will inform us. But in Seau’s case, there is just the blank emptiness of sudden loss, with no real answers.
It’s a far stretch for me as a writer to try to bring anything more than assumption into this conversation. At this point, I would never want to try anything so base. Seau has a pristine reputation that he earned in his short life by being a stand-up man -- both on and off the field.
But something that really must be paid attention to now is how a player is supposed to transition into "normal" and civilian life, after the weekly rush of the game, and perhaps even undiagnosed brain trauma.
I can speak a little bit about the "rush of the game" part.
Personally, I had to get out of the "game" for a minute back in the '90s. In my case, drugs and the Devil’s juice were destroying me, body and soul. It was time for me to make a change, and so I sobered up and went to school.
But as I soon found, even in the very positive environment of a college campus and having a brand new daughter and excellent wife, was that you can’t just suddenly stop doing that thing you have such a passion for. That thing you get such a rush from (I’m talking about playing music ... not the drugs and drink bit).
No, as I matriculated through school, I found that the urge to go out and play live again simply overwhelmed me. It was like I was missing a piece of my biological makeup. This is not an overstatement, either.
But musicians only really need to keep their musical "chops" up. We don’t need to be in the primest physical shape of our lives. Our careers can go on for a long, long time. And even if you are not playing the biggest places anymore, a musician can still get that rush and contact with an audience.
But pro athletes have a whole other dilemma. When the game is done for them, it also ends a lifetime of being the top dog. From Little League to high school, and college to the pro ranks, these guys were always the best, and touted as such. It has to be unthinkably tough to suddenly get cut or be put on an indefinite injured reserve list, or just simply retire. There is no NFL for old guys.
And even though many pro athletes have a college degree of some sort, it is not so easy to have a second successful career, and especially one with any hope of near parity in pay or lifestyle. No more free trainers and support staff. No more weekly "rush of the game" and urgency in life.
According to a 2006 USA Today article, there is more bad news:
Experts say a high percentage of those men will be thrust into the so-called real world with few marketable skills to increase their wealth and serious self-identity issues that often make the transition from the game a perilous one.
In fact, 78 percent of all NFL players are divorced, bankrupt or unemployed two years after leaving the game, according to Ken Ruettgers, a former player and current advocate for NFL players transitioning from professional sports.
We should all probably hope that it is time to find a better way to ease our players into the afterlife of pro sports. It means that there should be better preparation along the way taken into task by the teams and NFL Players' Association.
But can you even speak to an alpha dog about such things while he is in the midst of the killing season? I don’t know. Let’s hope for the best here. These guys give us so much from the field. They could probably have as much to offer, or at least feel as valued, after the game is done.