SPRINGFIELD, Mass (WGGB/ABC News) — Junior Seau, who committed suicide in May, two years after retiring as one of the premier linebackers in NFL history, suffered from the type of chronic brain damage that has also been found in dozens of deceased former players. That’s the conclusion of five brain specialists with the National Institutes of Health.
Seau’s ex-wife Gina and his oldest son Tyler, told ABC News’ Jim Avila in an exclusive interview, they were informed last week that Seau’s brain had tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that can lead to dementia, memory loss, depression and even suicides.
ABC40′s Dave Madsen spoke with Avila Thursday about the findings and his interview with Junior Seau’s family.
MADSEN: “Was Junior Seau’s family surprised by the findings?”
AVILA: “I think they suspected there might have been something wrong, they watched his symptoms. They say that Junior Seau was a gregarious, heartwarming, loving father up about until two years before his death. Then, his personality seemed to change dramatically. He became withdrawn, alone and in fact had trouble with his children even communicating with them, estranged from them in many ways. So this finding is helping them understand it a bit. And they certainly suspected that there might have been a problem. They’re the ones who voluntarily sent his brain to the NIH to be studied so they thought there might be something involved.”
MADSEN: “You know Jim, when Junior Seau played for the Patriots, I always remember a smile being on his face, but the fact that he shot himself in the chest. Do you think he had some kind of an idea that he had a problem?”
AVILA: “I asked his family about that. They say he never talked about suicide, so they have no way of knowing what he was thinking. The only message he left for them was a simple, I love you, a text message the night before that gave no explanation as to what he was thinking. So they really don’t know for sure.”
MADSEN: “Junior Seau played for San Diego, Miami and the Patriots too, but none of those teams ever listed him as having a concussion. This must be a concern then that there are former players and players playing today that may be suffering from this same thing.”
AVILA: “Yes and it’s not only concussions themselves that can cause CTE. The doctors say that in fact, these sub concussions, which are smaller hits. Because it’s not necessarily the violent impact on the skull that causes it, it’s the shaking of the brain, the quick whiplash of the brain that causes it to shake inside that can cause the damage. The hardening of the actual brain tissue and the shrinking of the brain tissue that is associated with CTE that causes dementia, causes depression and can eventually lead to suicidal tendencies.”
MADSEN: “Does this really put a face on this for the NFL and really for everybody in the country?”
AVILA: “There in Massachusetts at Boston University Hospital, they’ve examined and found more than fifty athletes, football players, thirty some of which were NFL players who suffered from this condition. But Junior Seau is the biggest name. He’s the man, he kind of optimized the passion, the violence of the sport, he hit hard, he took a lot of hits, he was well known for being a tough guy, a warrior and even he succumbed to this. He died at 43 year old. Will that shake up the NFL, will that shake up the fans, we’ll have to wait and see.”
MADSEN: “This just didn’t start when he started playing in the NFL. I’m sure he played Pee Wee Football, high school football and in college. Do those organizations really have to look at this and deal with it too?
AVILA: “It’s interesting. The NFL has already taken some measure including one of the most important ones, according to doctors is to reducing the number of practices, hard contact practices to about one a week. But the NCAA they don’t have that rule and neither do high schools. They’re still practicing hard contact hitting practices multiple times a week, 3 to 4 times a week. And doctors say that increases the risk of this disease. So yes, in fact, the high schools and the colleges need to look at this. And I spoke to one NFL consultant, a doctor at the Boston University, Robert Cantu, who said to me today that he doesn’t believe any kids under the age of 14 should be playing tackle football. There’s no safe way to do it. He recommends only flag football for kids under 14.”
MADSEN: “After your talk with the Seau family, what do they hope comes out of this?”
AVILA: “Well they haven’t decided if they’re going to join the suit. There’s a suit here by 4 thousand former NFL players, they haven’t decided about that. That’s not why they came out to talk about it. They asked us to speak to them and ESPN as well, because they want other players to know that even a warrior like Junior Seau can suffer from this disease and that while he loved the game and they love the game, it gave them almost everything that they have. It also took everything away and there’s a high risk in playing this game and they should know the risk before they play.”
Look for more of Avila’s exclusive report on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer at 6:30 p.m. and Nightline at 12:35 am following Jimmy Kimmel Live.