The first call to Ian Seau’s cellphone on the morning of May 2, 2012, came from a reporter. The 19-year-old didn’t answer. The second, in quick succession, came from his sister, Shannalei. This time he picked up. She told him their Uncle Junior had been shot.
Ian sat in his buddy’s house in San Diego. He hung up the phone, rushed out the door and went to meet his sister and their mom, Mary Seau.
The family of three sped up I-5 on the western edge of California, about an hour north to the scene in Oceanside. They didn’t know exactly what had happened. Reporters, not family members, kept calling Mary during the frantic car ride. They turned on the radio, searching for answers.
For Ian, that answer came when he arrived at the house and saw his uncle’s dead body. Junior Seau, the 12-time NFL Pro Bowl linebacker, had shot himself in the chest. He was later found to have CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative condition found in people who have suffered multiple blows to the head.
Ian knows what’s at stake here at Buffalo Bills training camp, and it’s not just his place on the 53-man roster. The movie "Concussion" was released less than two years ago, followed by several early retirements from the sport and a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Only one of 111 deceased former NFL players examined by Dr. Ann McKee didn’t have CTE. Ian's reaction when hearing those numbers: “Damn.”
The Los Angeles Rams cut Ian as a rookie last September, and he hasn’t been with an NFL team since. After stops at Kansas State, Grossmont College in California and Nevada, he has yet to latch on in the pros.
He and his family have educated themselves on brain trauma and are well aware of its consequences, yet Ian still chases his dream of making an NFL roster here in Western New York.
Every time someone asks Ian about the four letters on his back, he’s reminded that his famous uncle put a bullet in his own chest while suffering from CTE. Junior’s story follows him everywhere while he tries to write his own.
Ian knows just being here puts him at risk, but for now it’s a risk he’s willing to take.
“A lot of people wouldn’t change the path that they’ve taken to get here. I know for a fact my uncle wouldn’t have changed his path,” he said. “ … When it gets to the point that I know to walk away, I’ll know to walk away.”
Ian didn’t attend practice at Grossmont for three months after Junior's death, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to keep playing football. He saw the tolls a rigorous NFL career had on his uncle.
Ian internalized his coping; that’s how those who know him say he naturally is. Grossmont head coach Michael Jordan offered his counseling to the teenager, but Ian didn’t open up. If there was emotional turmoil, Jordan didn’t see it. “Nobody really cares how you feel in this world, I feel like,” Ian said. Especially with the cutthroat culture of junior college players aspiring to reach Division I and eventually the NFL, he didn’t think pouring out his feelings would benefit him.
Ian sat down with family after Junior’s death while he sat out spring practice, to grieve and to weigh his own future. “They all wanted me to stop playing,” Ian said. His family knew the dangers football brought, even with Junior not yet officially diagnosed with CTE.
Ian listened to his uncle when Junior recommended bringing a ukulele to Kansas State for his freshman year in 2011. It helped Junior find serenity, and he thought Ian should try the same while adjusting to life as a college football player. Ian kept his uncle’s desires in mind again a year later – after Junior's death – when making one of the biggest decisions of his life.
After getting past initial hesitations regarding his football future, Ian felt he owed it to himself to stay. He didn’t come this far to give up now. Watching Junior drew Ian from basketball to football as a high-schooler. He knew Junior wouldn’t have wanted him to step away.
“Definitely his heart was heavy, but he just worked through it,” Jordan said. “He led the state in sacks with, I think, 19 that year.”
Junior’s parents came to most of Grossmont’s home games. One of Ian’s uncles had sent five of his own sons to play for Grossmont. Another was a linebackers coach at the school. Everyone knew the Seaus and extended family on the El Cajon, Calif., gridiron outside of San Diego. That helped Ian blend in, as he prefers, rather than stand out because of his last name.
He avoided the questions about his uncle that inevitably came at future stops, but he didn’t expect that three letters would become so central to his and his family’s story.
“As a family, we didn’t know,” said Mary, Ian's mother. “Concussions? What? CTE? Brain trauma? What do you mean?”
* * *
When Ian receives articles about the dangers of brain trauma from his mom, there are mainly two ways he responds.
“Wow, Mom. That’s a great article,” a hint of sarcasm present since Ian knows the dangers are there but doesn’t want to psych himself out. He’ll skim the story, digesting the main symptoms he needs to watch for. Other times it’s, “Mom, that has no relevancy whatsoever. That article’s from 2000.”
He knows his mom is just being a mom, one who doesn’t want her son to end up like her brother.
Mary, Ian and Shannalei delved into brain trauma research themselves in the middle of 2015. Mary started the Mary Seau CTE Foundation in memory of Junior to inform others about the dangers of brain trauma. She educated Ian with PowerPoint presentations, spiels and those article links via text so he could better understand what had driven his uncle to suicide and what he was getting himself into.
The Seaus learned about football’s harsh realities in the worst way, and then they were forced to understand why. Ian has received a full-on schooling even after graduating college, his mom educating him on everything down to the systems the brain controls.
When she mentions the brain regulates sexual hormones, he laughs. After all, he’s still a kid, naive to life in the NFL but hardly naive to the drawbacks it brings.
When Ian told his mom he wanted to pursue an NFL career, she was skeptical, not entirely because of what it did to her brother. She didn’t want her family to give off a contradictory message, with her devoting time to her foundation while her son devoted his life to football. Eventually they compromised, with Mary allowing her son to play at his own risk.
“The information that I give him is just awareness and education,” Mary said, “just to let him know what’s going on in the world.”
She stresses that dangers aren’t restricted to football. Fall off a ladder, brain trauma. Get in a car accident, brain trauma. Ian has never suffered a concussion, his mother said, only a hand injury in college and a foot injury this summer with the Bills. He’s not scared, more so aware, and he thinks there’s a fine line between the two that’s propelled him to pursue an NFL career.
One of Ian’s Nevada teammates didn’t toe that line. He quit in college, Mary said, and she reached out to his family with praise. She advised them to keep a watchful eye on him 24 hours a day. She warned of the potential dangers in the years after brain trauma, specifically citing the hypothetical of driving a car off a cliff, as her brother once did. ESPN reported that friends of Junior’s believed it to be his first suicide attempt.
* * *
When Mary gives her CTE seminar to the public, there’s understanding, but also rejection. She’s been yelled at by mothers who think she’s trying to parent for them. One time after a speech, a mother and father approached her to say they were still letting their son play football. She warned them that with her seminars and other methods of raising awareness, people aren’t justified in suing because they know what they’re getting themselves into. The father wasn’t pleased.
“I might as well have been dead that day,” Mary said, “because he just gave me that look.”
Since Junior’s suicide five years ago, CTE has only become more relevant. After it gained notoriety from his death, player lawsuits against the NFL, more notable deaths related to CTE and more early retirements have sustained the discussion.
“Junior was beloved,” said Chris Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. “A lot of people first heard about CTE through Junior Seau.”
Two days after Dr. McKee’s study of those 111 former NFL players came out in the New York Times on July 25, Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel retired at the age of 27. Among others to cite concerns about brain trauma as reasons for retirement include former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who retired at age 24 in 2015; former Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah, who stepped away at age 30 in 2016; and former Bills linebacker A.J. Tarpley, who quit at age 23 later that year.
Ian, at 24, knows the numbers and still carries on, hoping it's with the Bills.
“As of right now I’m trying to make a team,” Ian said, “trying to go out there and ball out.”
CTE is still a disease that can’t be diagnosed until after death. Former Eagles’ safety Andre Waters killed himself at age 44 in 2007, the first CTE-related death to reach national media. Former Bears safety and players union leader Dave Duerson was found to have CTE after shooting himself in the chest at age 50 in 2011. Junior took his own life after months during which reports say family and friends noticed signs of depression and erratic behavior, among other common CTE symptoms.
Symptoms can take years and decades to surface after trauma occurs. But they’re on the mind of players like Ian right now, even when he’s just trying to make it to the final cut deadline at 4 p.m. Sept. 2.
“Once you reach the age of consent, I cannot judge you and tell you what to do,” said Dr. Bennet Omalu, who is credited with discovering CTE.
At a time when there’s more awareness around the game's risks than ever, Ian feels equipped to face them.
“A lot of people think my uncle’s death sort of brought big awareness to it, so people are wondering and thinking about it,” Ian said. “ … It’s just starting to come up big.”
With Ian feet away talking about his uncle’s death, a group of Bills’ offensive linemen vault their bodies into sleds after practice.
This is the balance players today are tasked with finding, encapsulated in a moment: Acknowledging the dangers, like Ian is doing now, and putting their bodies at risk, like the linemen, because the sheer desire to compete is what got them here in the first place.
“It’s just another one of those things where either you’re gonna get people that are willing to listen,” said Ian’s sister, Shannalei, “or you’re gonna get people that are gonna shut the door on you.”
* * *
The Bills opened the door to a fledgling NFL career Ian hopes to continue into the regular season. The choice he made five years ago at this time to return to the Grossmont College field has paid off, a healthy track record allowing him to make it this far.
His future on the Bills is what’s at the forefront of his mind right now. He is one of seven defensive ends fighting for presumably four spots.
The texts from his mother and worries about CTE can wait for another day; he’s trying to make an NFL team. But lingering in the back of his head, sometimes more prominent than others, are thoughts about further down the road.
What if Ian suffers his first documented concussion? How about if he starts to see symptoms? What if his family sees behaviors in him that Junior exhibited?
Ian doesn’t want those answers just yet.
“I try not to pay too much attention to it,” he said. “At the end of the day, I know when I start a family and I’m starting to go down that path, that’s when I’m gonna know to walk away from the game.”