David Griggs died in a car wreck while driving drunk. Rodney Culver died in the crash of ValuJet Flight 592. Doug Miller was struck by lightning. Curtis Whitley died of a drug overdose. Chris Mims died of an enlarged heart, Shawn Lee of cardiac arrest, and Lew Bush of a heart attack. And on Wednesday, 43-year-old Junior Seau became the eighth member of the 1994 San Diego Chargers to pass away before his 45th birthday. Police found Seau in his home, having reportedly shot himself in the chest. The day before, according to TMZ, he texted his ex-wife and kids to tell them he loved them.
The shocking death toll of that AFC-championship-winning squad can only be partly attributed to football—nobody dies in a commercial plane crash or gets hit by lightning because they played in the NFL. That tragic list is also a reminder that brain trauma isn’t the only risk that football players face: Mims, Lee, and Bush were all enormous men who succumbed to heart ailments.
But Seau’s apparent suicide will not be an occasion for a nuanced discussion about football and health. Instead, he will become a powerful symbol—the most-famous name in the disturbingly long rundown of NFL players who’ve taken their own lives. As the NFL has grown in popularity year after year, football fans have managed to put these deaths in the back of their minds, somewhere they won’t bother us when we’re rooting for our favorite teams. On April 19, ex-Falcons safety Ray Easterling killed himself after apparently suffering from depression and dementia for years. Easterling’s suicide was a tiny blip on the NFL wire, drowned out by tens of thousands of words about Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.