Release: Friday, September 21, 2018 (ESPN)
Directed by: Kirby Bradley
When ESPN Films announced they would be making a documentary about Junior Seau, the megastar linebacker who played for over a decade for the San Diego Chargers and who tragically took his own life in 2012, I figured pretty much right then and there it wouldn’t be the easiest thing to watch. Boy I hate being right sometimes.
I have no particular allegiance to west coast football. Maybe the Seattle Seahawks, but then that was when it was the Legion of Boom, when Pete Carroll, that wily old dog, still had in his bag of tricks Richard Sherman, Cam Chancellor, Michael Bennett and one or two other defensive monsters. I don’t subscribe to the 49ers and I’m certainly no diehard Raiders supporter. I am even less knowledgeable about the San Diego Chargers and, embarrassingly, Seau’s time there — what he meant to his teammates, the organization. He was a citywide icon whose brutal style of play betrayed his warm personality. Yet I had only ever affiliated him with the New England Patriots. That image of him facedown on the turf in agonizing playoff defeat is the most vivid one I have of him as a player.
Seau is a moving tribute to the man that gave me a better idea of his character, both on and off the gridiron. It addresses the challenges he faced in his personal life, coming from a large Samoan family whose lofty expectations, especially those of his father, and financial strife instilled in him a sense of responsibility from a very young age. The fifth child born to Tiaina Sr, a rubber factory worker and custodian, and Luisa Maugu Seau, who worked at a commissary in SoCal as well as a laundromat, Junior, naturally gifted as he was, worked relentlessly to develop himself into a pro-caliber player, ultimately going fifth overall in the 1990 Draft. Blending together blistering highlight reels with emotionally charged interviews with family (his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend, along with his sons who have the VERY difficult task of reading to camera a few select entries from their father’s diary, which grows increasingly disturbing as time goes on), along with friends and former teammates, director Kirby Bradley delicately constructs a celebration of a life that must necessarily also look at the darker side of the beloved defensive linesman, attempting to make sense out of what happened to him in his post-playing days.
Only in the aftermath was it revealed one of the most indomitable spirits the NFL had seen in years had been suffering from a degenerative brain disease known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which, once-upon-a-time, went by the somewhat less threatening name Punch Drunk Syndrome. The same disease riddling the domes of other former football greats who had either taken their own lives or had passed from other causes only for it to be discovered in them as well. At the time it was really only associated with boxers, but of course CTE doesn’t discriminate, for the cruelly sluggish, subtle incipience of the symptoms (forgetfulness at first, drastic personality/behavioral changes later) is incurred by repeated blows to the head, something that may be pronounced in football and boxing but is absolutely not limited to those arenas. In 2016 BMX bike rider Dave Mirra took his own life, without warning, after a lengthy career in which he sustained countless concussions. As of this writing he is the first known action sports star to have developed CTE.
What Seau isn’t — and somewhat surprisingly given its unique position what with the subject being both alarmingly young (he was only 43) and one of, if not the highest profile player thus far to have died as a result of CTE — is a savage condemnation of the league and in particular Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose lack of response to the mounting statistics linking football with brain damage surpasses naivety to the point of bordering on inhumanity. Perhaps positivity outweighing negativity is apropos for its subject, an upbeat teammate, devoted husband and energetic father who had time for everyone and then some.
The slow slide towards the inevitable is what makes this 30 for 30 a particularly disturbing account. It isn’t simply that we know the ending already; it’s all the little gory details of a life coming undone at the seams that is just horrifying to watch. News reports of domestic violence and of an inexplicable vehicular incident are brought back up, and for what seems like an eternity Seau feels punishing in its own inability to explain. To Bradley’s credit he intentionally does this, wisely sidestepping controversy brought on by forcing theories or summarily dismissing all behavior as a direct result of vicious football hits. This is a complicated story with a number of dynamics at play, both personal and circumstantial — new and unfamiliar stresses bearing weight on his later years, as well as the loneliness of his struggle, his inability to reconcile not just being a famous football player and deep down knowing he needed help, but specifically being Junior Seau — someone who could not say no to helping someone else in need.
In the end though, for as rough as the going gets, Seau educated me and the sheer volume of praise he receives from both his contemporaries and his former teammates (then-Chargers QB Drew Brees and retired defensive linesman Marcellus Wiley) proves that his sickness never stood a chance of actually being the thing that would come to define him. There is a beautiful scene at the end where scores of fans take to the cerulean waters of the San Diego coast, where Seau often went to surf and to be at peace, and the prevailing sentiment here is undeniably one of profound love. That goes a long way in off-setting the waves of misery we must endure along the way.
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Recommendation: Seau is an emotional ride that will most immediately attract the attention of the Chargers faithful and passionate football fans on a broader scale, but I think this film also does a great job of telling the tragedy of Junior Seau from a fundamentally human perspective.
Running Time: 90 mins.
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