The image I can't shake is the one of Luisa Seau, sobbing uncontrollably outside her son's Oceanside, Calif., home Wednesday after Junior Seau was discovered with an apparent self-inflicted fatal gunshot wound to his chest.
"Take me. Take me, leave my son!" she cried. "But it's too late. It's too late."
Yes, it's too late for Luisa Seau, too late for all the families of football players who have gone too soon, many from the effects of violence, concussions and depression. That's who I think of -- the sons and daughters, the mothers, fathers and wives who are left behind to cry out in anguish when another former NFL player dies this way.
We still don't know what could have compelled Seau to take his own life, but you'd have to be ignorant or naive not to suspect that it was somehow related to his 20-year NFL career. Some people expressed surprise. They said Seau, a good guy, seemed happy. Others spoke of his dark side. There was, of course, that time he drove his car off a cliff after a domestic spat.
It was an eerie coincidence that Seau died on the day when the league announced discipline in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. Four former Saints were suspended by Commissioner Roger Goodell. Jonathan Vilma, who was fingered as the ringleader among the players, was removed from the NFL for an entire season.
Predictably, some players went to their Twitter accounts to register their outrage. The Dolphins' Reggie Bush offered the unoriginal complaint that the game was turning into "two-hand touch," as if punishing players for targeting opponents' heads for financial reward were some affront to the manly tradition of pro football.
James Harrison, the Steelers linebacker who has been a poster boy for on-field violence, called the suspensions "outrageous" and said Goodell is motivated by the lawsuits filed by former NFL players who claim the league didn't do enough to educate them about concussions.
There's some truth to that. But even so, it's about time the league took head injuries seriously, not to mention the difficult transition that players face after leaving the game. Goodell is cracking down hard on violence, and he should be applauded for it.
Fines aren't a sufficient deterrent. The NFL needed to take players (and coaches, in the Saints' case) off the field, the way the NHL has after its ugly playoff violence and the NBA did when Ron Artest (aka Metta World Peace) delivered a vicious elbow to James Harden's head.
The NFL Players Association will almost surely appeal the suspensions. That's their job, though it would be nice if they put as much passion into protecting the players' health as their bank accounts. I hope Goodell stands firm on the year suspension for Vilma. At least someone is making a stand for the players' well-being.
That's more than I can say for bounty hunter Gregg Williams, who should be banned for life for urging defensive players to attack the heads of San Francisco players before a playoff game. I wonder what Williams and Vilma think of Seau's death? Or how about the suicide of Ray Easterling, the former Falcon who shot himself to death on April 19 at age 62? Easterling was one of more than 1,200 plaintiffs in the ex-players' lawsuit against the NFL.
What would Williams, who exhorted his players to "Kill the head" of the Niners' Frank Gore, say to Easterling's wife, Mary Ann? She told a reporter that her husband, who had 25 orthopedic surgeries, suffered from depression, insomnia and dementia. She said her late husband "felt like his brain was falling off."
Kill the head, indeed.
Do you suppose Williams and Vilma feel a twinge of remorse when they think of Dave Duerson's four children, who sued the NFL after their dad killed himself 15 months ago with a gunshot to the chest? Duerson left a note, asking that his brain be donated to Boston University, which was studying brain trauma in athletes.
Oh, and how about the late Andre Waters? Williams was a rising assistant coach under Buddy Ryan when Waters was a hard-hitting, undersized safety for the Eagles in the late 1980s. Waters killed himself with a shot to the head six years ago. A leading pathologist concluded that Waters suffered brain damage from football that led to depression and death.
Waters made his reputation dealing out big hits, often leading with his head. He got the nickname "Dirty Waters." He didn't like the nickname, but it came with the territory. Ryan was a big believer in physical intimidation. In Philly, he supposedly offered a $500 bounty to any player who knocked Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas, a former Eagle, out of the game.
So if you think about it, the bounty issue traces back a long way. You can follow the thread all the way from the '80s to the present, to a sad Wednesday when four Saints players were suspended for their part in a bounty system and Junior Seau lay dead in his house.
I don't find it so hard to make a connection. The culture that promotes, glorifies and even rewards violent hits on the football field is the culture in which Seau lived and thrived for two decades. It's not a reach to suggest it had something to do with his premature death.
Families are the collateral victims here. Not the fans, who sit and cheer by the millions when the players are introduced on a three-day, made for TV draft, then forget about the players when they're done. It's the families who live with the players when the cheering stops, when the depression and anger set in, and sometimes, when death comes calling.
George Visger, a defensive lineman on the Niners' first Super Bowl champs in 1982, has suffered from concussions since his playing days. He wrote a book about the subject. Visger said recently that "more and more bodies are just piling up." He asked how you can compensate the families.
That's a great question. The NFL likes to talk about itself as a family. But when it comes to head injuries, they've been a large, dysfunctional family, steeped in denial. If they were one big happy family, how come more than 1,200 have joined the lawsuit against the league?
We've heard a lot of the usual rationalizations from players, how they chose the football life and accept the physical dangers that go along with the exhilarating high of playing a violent sport at the highest level. This isn't two-hand touch, right?
But more and more, it seems NFL players need to be protected from themselves. It's as if there were an unspoken bounty system at work that provides untold riches and fame for today's players, with a heavy and sometimes lethal price to be exacted down the road.
It's been easy for the players union to turn away from a bunch of hobbled old guys who played in the NFL's formative years, before the merger or cable TV or million-dollar salaries. But it's hitting close to home now. Seau retired a couple of years ago. Many of the current players competed against him and in some cases, idolized him.
That's why bounties are so deplorable. It's guys from the same family targeting one another for a competitive advantage and pocket change. How can they reconcile such mindless behavior against the mounting carnage of damaged, concussed and dead former players? Do they feel genuine remorse for the families that are left behind?
Luisa Seau stood outside her son's house Wednesday, wailing and saying she couldn't understand. How could such a thing happen? I'm not sure exactly where Junior's death fits in all this. But each time it happens, I understand a little bit more.