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Friday, May 4, 2012
Junior Seau family: Brain study OK

ESPN.com news services

The family of Junior Seau will allow researchers to study his brain for signs of damage caused by concussions suffered during his 20-year NFL career, according to Chargers team chaplain Shawn Mitchell.

The San Diego County medical examiner ruled Seau's death a suicide on Thursday, a day after the former linebacker was found at his home with a gunshot wound to the chest.

"The family was considering this almost from the beginning, but they didn't want to make any emotional decisions," Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday night. "And when they came to a joint decision that absolutely this was the best thing, it was a natural occurrence for the Seau family to go forward."

Seau's ex-wife, Gina, told The Associated Press that while Seau suffered concussions during his playing career, she had no idea if they somehow contributed to his death.

Mitchell said he didn't know where the brain was being sent and that the family's decision regarding Seau's brain was a result of wanting "to help other individuals down the road."

He said the family was not speculating as to whether concussions were a factor in Seau's suicide.

Garrett Webster, the administrator and player liaison for the Brain Injury Research Institute, which studies the impact of concussions, said his group has requested the family donate the brain but hasn't heard back.

"I don't want this to sound too crass, but we've sort of made our pitch," said Webster, the son of the late Hall of Fame center Mike Webster of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "We hope the family choses us, but the important thing is somebody's going to get it and it's going to get looked into. Junior Seau was a wonderful man and we're all aware of his work with charities. I wish it never happened. The important thing is, in some way, this will continue his legacy on giving back to the community and helping people."

Bennet Omalu, co-founder of the Brain Injury Research Institute and a forensic pathologist who first identified chronic brain damage as a factor in the deaths of some NFL players, flew to San Diego on Thursday to participate in the autopsy of Seau, two sources with knowledge of the case told ESPN's Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru.

Omalu assisted in the autopsy conducted by the San Diego County medical examiner because of his experience with NFL players and brain injuries, the sources said.

Mitchell said he never heard Seau complain about dizziness or headaches.

"With Junior, that would be so outside of his nature because he had an amazing threshold for pain," Mitchell said.

Family members and friends have said they weren't aware of any issues that may have led to Seau's suicide. Police said no suicide note was found.

"This is not anything I thought he would ever do," former Chargers safety Miles McPherson said.

Oceanside police released the 911 call from Seau's home one day after the San Diego County medical examiner's office ruled the death a suicide.

The call captures the voice of a woman who is horrified to find the former NFL linebacker in a spare bedroom with a gunshot wound to the chest.

"My God, my boyfriend shot himself! Oh my God!" the eight-minute call begins.

The woman, who identifies herself as Megan, said she was returning to the home Wednesday morning from a one-hour visit to the gym.

The caller is nearly hysterical and breathing heavily during much of the call as emergency workers guide her through life-saving measures that failed.

"Where is the gun?" the dispatcher asks.

"It's next to him in the bed," she answers.

"What is your boyfriend's name?"

"Junior Seau," she says.

The dispatcher asks where he was shot.

"I can't tell, ma'am. It looks like in the heart," she said.

She told the dispatcher that he did not have a pulse and that his chest was not moving.

"I just came home from the gym, and he's in our spare bedroom, and he shot himself, and it looks like he shot himself in the chest," she says after the dispatcher transferred the call to the fire department.

Nearly five minutes into the call, she goes to the door to allow rescue workers in. She explains again what happened and then begins to sob.

The woman's last name is unintelligible on the recording. Lt. Leonard Mata, a spokesman for Oceanside police, said police aren't releasing the woman's name.

Seau's family and hundreds of people held an impromptu memorial Thursday night outside his Oceanside, Calif., home near San Diego.

Seau, 43, played his first 13 seasons with the Chargers before moving on to the Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots.

He helped lead San Diego to its only Super Bowl after the 1994 season, was voted to a Chargers record 12 straight Pro Bowls and was named All-Pro six times.

Further autopsy details, including results of toxicology tests, will be released in a final investigative report, which may take up to 90 days to complete.

Omalu's involvement may help determine whether the future Hall of Famer's suicide could be related to the growing link between football and concussions.

Omalu, the chief medical officer for San Joaquin County (Calif.), is credited with identifying chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurological disorder stemming from repeated head trauma, in several deceased NFL players. CTE can lead to erratic behavior also associated with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Another research institute, Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, has analyzed the brains of dozens of former athletes, including that of Dave Duerson.

While saying they were saddened by Seau's death, center officials would not say if they have reached out to the Seau family or would be interested in studying his brain.

Chris Nowinski, a Harvard graduate and former professional wrestler who helped found the group, declined a request with ESPN for an interview.

Taylor Twellman, a soccer analyst for ESPN and former Major League Soccer star, was a neighbor of Seau's. He said Thursday in an interview with ESPN's "SportsCenter" that he told Seau one time that he had suffered a concussion playing soccer and was experiencing bad headaches. Twellman said Seau admitted he also suffered from headaches from multiple concussions playing football.

Twellman, who has become an advocate for athletes with brain trauma, said he later tried to reach out to Seau to tell him he should seek help, but Seau never responded.

Duerson's family has filed a wrongful death suit against the NFL, claiming the league didn't do enough to prevent or treat concussions that severely damaged Duerson's brain before he died in in February 2011.

Former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who had joined in a concussion-related lawsuit against the league -- one of dozens filed in the past year -- shot himself last month at age 62. His wife has said he suffered from depression and dementia after taking years of hits.

Seau is not known to have been a plaintiff in the concussion litigation.

On Friday, Easterling's attorney told ESPN's Paula Lavigne that Easterling shot himself in the head.

About six months ago, Easterling decided he wanted to donate his brain to Boston University for researchers to establish a link between the concussions he suffered during his playing days and his worsening dementia, attorney Larry Coben said. But this spring, Easterling made a trip to the university for testing and came back from the visit "fit to be tied," said Coben. He was upset and disillusioned, he said. Easterling's dementia had progressed to the point where he was routinely getting lost, having to call his wife for directions, and was just generally frustrated, said Coben.

"I think it was just another brick on the pile," Coben said.

On April 19, Easterling shot himself in the head at his home in Richmond, Va.

Coben said Easterling left a note that said he had changed his mind about donating his brain. But Easterling's wife has asked the medical examiner to see if any of his remains could be recovered and still used for research, the attorney said.

Even if researchers aren't able to test Easterling's brain, Coben said that shouldn't affect the lawsuit because a neurologist had already determined that the former player's dementia was caused by his concussions.

"It's really sad," Coben said. "It's really scary for all those other guys."

"Ray was under treatment. He was seeing doctors. He had medications to try to help him. He was doing the best he could."

It is expected to take four to six weeks to determine whether Seau suffered from CTE, and at this point, it is unclear who will make that diagnosis. Seau's brain remains with the San Diego medical examiner and is not expected to be buried with Seau, according to the sources.

Omalu, Bailes and Nowinski once worked together on the CTE issue but split over philosophical differences. The clash between the two groups over the acquisition of brains for CTE research, particularly in NFL players, is an ongoing issue and was documented in an ESPN article last year.

"It is our policy to not discuss any completed, ongoing or potential research cases unless at the specific request of family members," the Boston group said in a statement Thursday. "Our primary goal is to learn more about the long-term effects of repetitive brain trauma by conducting meaningful scientific research. At this time our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Seau's family, his many friends and former teammates."

The issue of the NFL and brain damage began to emerge in 2002, when Omalu, then a pathologist in the Allegheny County (Pa.) coroner's office, conducted the autopsy on former Steelers center Mike Webster. The doctor discovered widespread brain trauma that appeared to be related to the player's 17-year career. Webster died of a heart attack at age 50, but his death was preceded by years of bizarre and erratic behavior.

Omalu's findings of "gridiron dementia" in players such as Webster, former Steeler Terry Long and former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters were initially dismissed by the NFL, which claimed there was no link between football and long-term brain damage. The league since has acknowledged a connection.

More than 1,500 players have sued the NFL, arguing for years the league hid the link between repeated concussions associated with football and brain damage. In the latest lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, more than 100 players, including former Falcons running back Jamal Anderson, alleged the NFL "repeatedly refuted the connection between concussions and brain injury."

Information from ESPN investigative and enterprise unit reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru and The Associated Press was used in this report.