Riki Ellison was a middle linebacker at USC in 1978, ’79, ’80 and ’82, and played with the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Raiders from 1983 to 1992. The following is a letter he wrote with his feelings on the suicide of Junior Seau:
Here I stand on the sands of Waikiki with the sounds of rolling, soft waves gliding gently upon the wet sands of retreat. The stoic Diamond Head stands in raw contrast to the Pacific waters, its unmistakable beauty a commanding presence.
The roots of Polynesian spirits are stirred, coming from within and without, from the tropics of countless islands and shores touched by the Pacific Ocean.
The tragic loss of Junior Seau — who exemplified those Polynesian roots, its soul and its traits at the highest levels — has to be questioned by those who also come from these waters and have traveled similar paths.
The loss of Junior Seau has led to much public speculation and oversimplified reasoning. The liberty I am taking to share my thoughts may incite, may bore, may shed light and may shed more rumors; yet a man has the right to speak and if it somehow prevents these types of rare situations. then it must be said.
As I see it, his loss is the result of sustained concussions to the brain together with the inability to control depression that can easily follow after losing the stardom that comes with the achievement of extraordinary accomplishment and the kind of adrenaline one gets when competing at world-class levels. This powerful combination found on the field of the NFL is a volatile mixture, particularly when the mix includes depression sustained by a partially functioning brain caused by repeated concussions.
The middle linebacker, apart from every other position in football, endures the most violent and most repeated contact using the head and helmet and, as a result, sustains the most concussions.
It is neither the offensive line nor the defensive line that receives the most hard-hitting contact. Most of their contact occurs within a yard of the line of scrimmage. There is little velocity. It is not running backs or tight ends, where most of their hits are not in the head, and they never get hit in the head in practice. It is certainly not the quarterbacks, the defensive backs or the wide receivers. They rarely get hit in the head and there are penalties to make it even more rare. Referees are specifically charged with the responsibility to always be mindful to protect the players in those positions. During practice, quarterbacks, D-backs and wide receivers never experience contact to the head.
The outside linebacker plays on the edge and, like tight ends, fullbacks, and strong safeties, sustains more hits to the head than the rest, but those hits are neither as consistent nor as impactful as those felt by the middle linebacker.
A middle linebacker is taught from his first organized game to use his head and helmet as the first contact point when tackling and when shedding drive blocks of linemen and fullbacks who have the advantage of a running head start. By the time a middle linebacker reaches the college ranks, those drive blocks come from 325-pound linemen and 255-pound fullbacks.
Yes, head-first contact is fundamental to the middle linebacker position. Make no mistake, withstanding and absorbing partial concussions during a 60-minute game is a part of being a middle linebacker. Withstanding and absorbing those same hits during contact practices is also a fundamental and accepted part of a middle linebacker’s life. The athletes who can handle this reality along with a demanding and specific skill base are the ones who can rise to the pinnacle of the sport and play for one of the 32 teams in the National Football League. You need it all to be a middle linebacker in the NFL. Skill alone will never be enough.
Middle linebackers are a different breed. They are very aggressive and are often monumental risk takers. They lead by action and love contact, perhaps more than any player on the field.
The question is why is this so? The answer begins at the high school level when a young teenager first experiences the joy of contact football. The fact is that when you receive what I would refer to as a partial but playable concussion, there is a unique feeling of being high, of floating, of being numb to pain and unaware of other distractions. This produces a happy state that translates to a belief of invincibility and a superman complex. In some ways, it acts just like a drug. You become addicted to that feeling and want more of it. And when you get another hit, it feels even better. When mixed together with the newly found testosterone being produced at that age, it is a special and hidden pleasure. Very few young football players are attracted to this kind of behavior. Coaches are mostly unaware unless they had been middle linebackers.
All of this is dramatically intensified at the college level — during practice and game time. Practices at USC were much more intense and violent than games. USC was typical; not the exception. There were as many as five to 10 contact practices, including training camp, to one game. Your head was rattled, but you loved the feeling. The athletes were bigger, stronger and faster, which made for more violent contact and more partial concussions. Of course, once you get to the NFL, the violence and the collisions become even greater.
Those of us on the San Francisco 49ers were fortunate to have a visionary like Bill Walsh, who simply didn’t allow contact in practice during the football season and permitted only limited contact in training camp.
When you sum it up — the years playing middle linebacker, the number of practices let alone the number of games, the number of drive blocks, the number of tackles, the number of times your head absorbs a heavy blow — it is staggering to even try to add up the number of partial and complete concussions an NFL linebacker has endured.
I played 19 years of contact football, all of it as a middle linebacker, from high school to the NFL. Junior Seau played that many years in the NFL alone. Junior was bigger than me, more violent, and a better middle linebacker. No doubt, he incurred more intense collisions, more violence and more concussions than most middle linebackers who have played in the NFL.
The helmet can protect only so much, and it isn’t uncommon for a middle linebacker to receive a second concussion long before the brain has completely recovered from the first. For Junior Seau, it was no doubt far more common than was realized at the time.
There is something else that is important to consider. The culture of a Pacific Islander is of tribal origin. The family is the critical component, and it is the love from the bloodlines that means so much and drives your reason to live. I know it well as a Maori from New Zealand. And so it was with Junior Seau and his Samoan family. Having his immediate family taken away during his prime in the NFL, Junior entered a post-NFL life divorced. That had to have been devastating, coupled with depression and spiraling self-perception. I know; I’ve walked that walk.
The questioning of his new place in a world without the NFL and the adulation that came with it no doubt fed his depression. All of it was exacerbated by the reality of traumatic brain injuries caused by countless concussions over more than two decades. I believe it is reasonable to consider whether Junior asked whether life is worth living. He felt the downward spiral. Having been at the top of the mountain for nearly his entire life and then realizing that he was no longer on the mountain at all, must have ripped at his Islander pride in ways that most people would never understand. ...
We often associate cowardice with the choice that Junior made. But I believe his fateful decision was highly influenced by brain damage, inducing states of depression that he absorbed from his life as a middle linebacker — by the self-isolation it caused, and how it clouded his clarity and judgment. He was unable to see what the tremendous good his huge heart and overflowing kindness meant to his family, his community and all those he could have touched. Hope vanished. Pride became vanity, and the gold dust he was became dust of the earth.
It hurts. That’s from one USC middle linebacker and one NFL middle linebacker to another.
God bless his family, his children and himself; the good and great should never die young. Grace of Tuesday, May 8, 2012, goodness be with him. The world has lost a great man.
Fight On, Junior.