OCEANSIDE, California - Football great Junior Seau's family is considering having his brain studied for evidence of football-related injuries after the retired linebacker killed himself at his California beach front home, the family's pastor said on Thursday.
Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowl (all-star game) selection who played for 20 years in the National Football League, was found unconscious at his home by his girlfriend on Wednesday with a gunshot wound to the chest and a revolver nearby, police said.
An autopsy conducted by the San Diego Medical Examiner's Office confirmed Seau killed himself. But the coroner's office was awaiting family permission for outside researchers to examine the brain of the longtime San Diego Chargers star for damage from repeated head injuries.
Seau's death at age 43 comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of the effects of repeated blows to the head in football, and the potential for such injuries to contribute to depression and long-term health problems in players.
The Seau family's pastor, Shawn Mitchell, a former chaplain for the Chargers, said Seau likely suffered concussions during his long football career.
"He would go in head-first," Mitchell said of Seau, who lived in Oceanside, just north of San Diego.
After meeting with Seau's family, Mitchell told Reuters in a phone interview family members were "considering" having his brain studied for evidence of injuries.
The pastor made his comment in response to a question about the possibility of sending the brain to Boston University, which has a high-profile center that conducts research on the long-term effects of repetitive brain trauma. The center has examined the brains of other former NFL players.
Robert Boland, associate professor of sports management at New York University, said the fact that Seau was found to have shot himself in the chest may be significant, given that retired football player Dave Duerson did the same thing last year, and left a note asking that his brain be studied.
"I think that was a lot of people's first thought, and it was mine," Boland said. "My sense would be that because Duerson did that as well, it preserved their brains for study."
Experts said a standard autopsy would not reveal evidence of permanent brain injuries from concussions, and the San Diego medical examiner's office said it did not conduct such studies.
Seau was not widely known to have suffered from concussions, but experts said he probably did. "It'd be hard to believe a linebacker would escape concussions," Boland said.
The brain damage caused by concussions has the formal name "chronic traumatic encephalitis." It is known outside the doctor's office as boxer's dementia.
Suing the league
Over 1,500 former football players have sued the NFL over head injuries. On Thursday, 100 other retired players filed a lawsuit against the league on the same grounds in federal court in Atlanta.
The league disputes the claims in the suits, which accuse it of concealing links between football and brain injuries.
"Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit," league spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement. "It stands in contrast to the league's actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions."
The league has focused in recent seasons on health and safety issues. It has cracked down on hits to the head, and stiffened rules that bar players from using their helmets as a weapon through head-first contact, which is subject to fines and suspension for repeat offenders.
Seau's death was at least the third suicide by a former NFL player since February 2011. That is when Duerson, the former Chicago Bears defensive back, killed himself and left a note asking for a posthumous brain examination.
Less than a month ago, former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling shot himself to death at age 62.
Easterling, a plaintiff in one of the suits against the NFL, had been diagnosed with dementia, and his wife said after his death she wanted the league to "take responsibility."
An account in the New York Times posted online on Thursday said that in recent years Easterling would get lost jogging and blurt out offensive remarks. "I didn't feel like I was with the person that I married," his wife Mary Ann told the paper.
Ray Ellis, 53, a former player with the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns, told Reuters he believed Seau's death would contribute to a sense of urgency regarding players and brain injuries. "There needs to be research done," he said.
Neurologists are mystified as to why a mechanical injury like a concussion, in which the brain is slammed around against the skull, should cause the biochemical change that has been observed in research. Studies conducted to date have shown that repeated concussions can alter the brain's receptors.
"One result can be post-traumatic depression," said David Hovda, professor of neurosurgery and director of the Brain Injury Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Seau, who played for the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots after leaving the Chargers, retired after the 2009 season.
Seau's family plans a memorial service at a church in Oceanside on May 11, Mitchell said. That will be followed the next day by a ceremony at Oceanside High School, where Seau attended classes and played football.
(Additional reporting by Sharon Begley, Dan Trotta and Steve Ginsburg: Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Todd Eastham)