The irony struck almost immediately on Wednesday afternoon. Within 90 minutes of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handing out one of the stiffest suspensions in league history to four players for their part in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal, one of the league’s most popular former players, Junior Seau, was found dead in his home in Oceanside, Calif.

“I pray to God, please, take me. Take me. Leave my son,” Luisa Seau, Junior’s mother, said outside of his home on Wednesday. “But it’s too late. It’s too late.”

The death of Seau, who played 19 seasons in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, and New England Patriots, is the latest in line of former NFL players committing suicide, and speculation is already rampant that years of big hits and undiagnosed concussions damaged Seau’s brain and led to his eventual suicide.

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On Oct. 18, 2010, Seau drove his SUV off of a cliff just hours after being arrested on felony domestic violence charges. Seau claimed to have fallen asleep at the wheel and insisted that he was not trying to kill himself. His death now comes on the heels of the suicide death of former NFL defensive back Ray Easterling, who committed suicide on April 19.

Easterling, who played for the Atlanta Falcons from 1972 to 1979, had been suffering from depression, insomnia, and dementia. Easterling was also a part of a group of former players who are currently suing the NFL for improper treatment of concussions and what they feel is the league concealing the links between brain injuries and football.

“He was a wonderful husband and father,” Mary Ann Easterling told ESPN on April 20. “In everything he did, he was a charger. He went full tilt. (His dementia) has been a progression over the last 20 years. It’s very sad to see.”

Seau’s death has been compared to the 2011 suicide of former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson, who also took his own life with a gunshot to his chest. Duerson had been complaining of headaches, memory loss, and blurred vision in the months leading to his death. In a handwritten suicide note, he asked that his brain be donated to the “NFL brain bank” at Boston University.

On May 2, 2011 — exactly one year before Seau’s suicide — researchers found what many had feared: that Duerson was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which has been found in at least 20 deceased former players. CTE, once largely associated with boxers, is an incurable degenerative disease similar to Alzheimer’s with symptoms that include memory loss, depression and early onset dementia.

“It’s tragic that Dave Duerson took his own life, but it’s very meaningful that he recognized the symptoms of the disorder,” Dr. Ann McKee, the doctor who examined Duerson’s brain, told the New York Times on May 2, 2011. “It validates this condition.”
She told the Times that said she found indisputable evidence of CTE with “no evidence of any other disorder.”

The NFL, which for years denied and discredited any research that linked traumatic brain injuries and football, acknowledged the link for the first time in 2010 and donated $1 million to Boston University’s research.

DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL players association told the Times that the CTE connection “makes it abundantly clear what the cost of football is for the men who played, and their families.”

“It seems to me that any decision or course of action that doesn’t recognize that as the truth is not only perpetuating a lie, but doing a disservice to what Dave feared and what he wanted to result from the donation of his brain to science,” Smith said.

Head trauma in high contact sports such as football, hockey, boxing, and even professional wrestling have led to a spike in suicides by players in recent years. Along with the multiple deaths in the NFL, three NHL enforcers — Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard, and Rick Rypien — all committed suicide in a three-month span following the 2011 season.

WWE is still recovering from the aftermathof Chris Benoit’s death. Benoit killed his wife and 7-year-old son in a double murder-suicide in 2007. His brain was later examined and later found to have incurred damage consistent with someone who suffered multiple concussions due to numerous blows to the head.

“These extreme changes throughout Chris Benoit’s brain are enough to explain aberrant behavior, including suicide and even homicide,” Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at West Virginia University, said to ESPN in 2007. Multiple concussions have shortened or ended the careers of numerous Hall of Fame players, with many of those injuries occurring at times when the league treated concussions as minor injuries.
“It was like a freight train hitting a Volkswagen,” Cowboys’ legend Tony Dorsett said to the Associated Press, referring to a 1984 helmet-to-helmet hit that knocked him unconscious on the field. “Did they know it was a concussion? They thought I was half-dead.”

Dorsett said that after being examined in the locker room, he returned to the field and rushed for 99 yards in the second half. Dorsett said that he ran multiple plays the wrong way because he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to do.

“That ain’t the first time I was knocked out or been dazed over the course of my career, and now I’m suffering for it,” Dorsett, now 57, said, “and the NFL is trying to deny it.”

Dorsett is one of 300 former players who is suing the NFL, and helmet manufacturer Riddell. The former players feel that the NFL was negligent in its treatment of concussions and could do more now to help retired players who are dealing with the after-effects of years of hard hits.

On Thursday in Atlanta, a group of 100 more players filed suit with the league, claiming that they were not properly protected or treated for concussion issues. The plaintiffs in that suit include former Atlanta Falcons running back Jamal Anderson, and former Green Bay Packers quarterback Don Majkowski.

Not all current players are convinced that the dangers are not worth the risks. Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola, an 11-year NFL veteran, told the Detroit Free Press that he thinks the dangers are “totally worth it.”

“This is the best job in the world,” Raiola said on April 19, the same day as Easterling’s suicide. “I’d never trade it for anything, so I don’t know if I could justify suing the league when I’m done, because it’s given me, up to this point, 11 years.

“When I’m at home in my rocking chair at 40, I don’t think I’m going to be thinking about suing the NFL. I’m going to be thinking about those guys I played with in the locker room and, hopefully, these good years coming up.”

Ironically, numerous concussion issues have plagued Raiola’s teammate, running back Jahvid Best. Best was hampered by concussions in his rookie season in 2010, his 2011 season was cut short after two concussions, and his senior year at the University of California ended after a concussion.

While word on what exactly happened to Junior Seau may not be known for months, his death could be lightning rod of change to the country’s most violent and popular sport.
“We all lost a friend today,” Chargers president Dean Spanos said in a statement on Wednesday. “Junior was an icon in our community. He transcended the game. He wasn’t just a football player, he was so much more.”

Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith