C.T.E. and the Truth Below the Helmet

The first time I heard about C.T.E., memories of a warm summer day in New England filled my mind. I recalled standing beside a practice field at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, watching an NFL legend approach and remove his helmet. I had grown up watching Junior Seau on television and, now, he was standing in front of me, smiling as he shook my hand. 

As one of the most dominant middle linebackers in NFL history, it was hard not to notice Seau over time he graced the field. Even for non-football fans, it was clear that Seau was a brilliant football player. Each one of his actions seemed decisive and confident. He seemed to know where the play was going long before it ever took place and, when he acted on that knowledge, he did so with extreme violence and devastating impact. 

Number 55 was a monster. 

But today? As he approached a small group of Patriots fans, having recently signed on with the team, he was smiling, amiable and appeared completely carefree.

He posed for pictures. He signed footballs and jerseys. He took a knee, slinking down his massive 6’3”, 250 lb. frame to gently shake hands with wide-eyed children, who stared credulously at his giant hands, which were twisted and arthritic from years of being jammed into facemasks and stepped on by sharp cleats. He laughed at the jokes their fathers told, and genuinely seemed to treat everyone like a friend. He even referred to seemingly everyone he addressed as “buddy.” 

Yes, Seau was a violent force to be reckoned with on the field. He was the last man you wanted to come in to contact with. 

But off the field? 

He was warm. He was charming. His intimidating stature and menacing stat-sheets slipped away behind his disarming spirit. He truly seemed like a kind soul, honored to entertain those who watched him every Sunday. I was always impressed by the super human feats he seemed to accomplish week in and week out, but I was even more floored by just how human the man behind that facemask was. They say “never meet your heroes,” but I knew, right then and there that I would always be a fan of Junior Seau. 

Just a few years later, after retiring from football, that kind man lifted a .357-caliber Magnum revolver to his chest and sent a bullet through his own heart. He was 43 years old.

Seau didn’t leave a suicide note. Instead, scribbled on a paper left on his kitchen counter were the lyrics to one of his favorite songs, “Who I Ain’t.” 

I never made a deal with the devil, but I broke promises to the Lord.
I’ve tried to be the man I should, but sometimes I fall short.
I’m not a man of anger; I never meant to hurt no one.
But there are things in my life, I’m sad to say I’ve done.

Cuz I broke the hearts of angels, cursed my fellow man
Turned from the Bible with a bottle in my hand.
My only hope for forgiveness, when the good Lord calls my name
Is that He knows who I am and who I ain’t.

I haven’t been to church on Sunday since I was in Sunday school
I used to blame Saturday nights but I wore out that excuse
I’m sitting in the twilight of my younger years
When I think about the man I was, it brings the man I am to tears.

Cuz I broke the hearts of angels, cursed my fellow man
Turned from the Bible with a bottle in my hand
My only hope for forgiveness, when the good Lord calls my name
Is that He knows who I am and who I ain’t.

I was shocked when I heard the news of Seau’s death come through my television. I couldn’t understand how someone so successful and universally beloved could ever want to end their life in such a dark way. I’d heard stories about famous figures ending their lives before, but I had never met them. But I had met Junior. 

I saw his smile. I saw the joy he displayed. 

But as I stared at the screen in disbelief, I saw something else. I saw the letters C.T.E., and the truth below the helmet of Junior Seau and so many of the football stars I had sat in awe of as a child began to unravel. 


As highlights of his legendary career poured across the screen, I watched Seau’s helmet slam into his opponents over and over again, stopping these massive athletes dead in their tracks and driving them into the ground. 

I remembered meeting the man below that helmet -- his bright smile and his kind demeanor -- and I wondered: was football to blame for the demise of that kind man? Did C.T.E. lead him to pick up that gun and pull the trigger? Did it lead to the end of a life that so many celebrated?

Was this the reality facing the players I’d grown up admiring, I wondered and, if so, was the sport of football — the game I loved so deeply — to blame? 

As all of these questions flooded my mind, there was one that seemed to shout above all of the others: why had I never heard of C.T.E. before this moment? 

The sport of professional football is a spectacular spectacle. Every Sunday throughout football season, 53 highly-conditioned athletes take the field, battling against an opposing 53-man machine for the right to be crowned victorious. These players have honed their skills over decades of practice and intense training, meeting head-to-head – often literally – to assert their dominance in every aspect of competition. It is truly America’s game, but what is the cost of such a sensational show?

Recently, a neuropathologist examined the brains of 111 former NFL players. Of those 111 specimens, 110 were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E.  Despite this incriminating evidence, however, the NFL has never been more popular or financially successful. Even the leagues commissioner has downplayed the study, stating that “the average NFL player lives five years longer than you, so their lifespan is actually longer and healthier. And I think because of all the advancements -- including the medical care -- that number is going to even increase for them.”

Is the NFL attempting to mask a dark reality facing the athletes we adore?

Is the NFL attempting to mask a dark reality facing the athletes we adore? What is the reality facing the players so many people cheer on every week? Can anything be done to prevent further damage to those players? Should we allow our own children to play the violent game that’s offered by so many programs throughout adolescence? What are the risks associated with playing football? And, as players continue to grow larger, faster and more powerful, what does the future of football look like?

As the NFL season gets into full swing, we sat down with the Dean of PNWU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine Dr. Thomas Scandalis, our Associate Dean for Pre-Clinical Education Dr. Robert Sorrells and former NFL tight end, Super Bowl champion and author of “Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away,” Ben Utecht, to discuss C.T.E., the sport of football and the reality behind what is occurring below the helmets we dedicate our Sunday’s to.

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Paul Bubluski

Marketing Coordinator
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

Paul Bubluski