WASHINGTON (CBSDC) — Junior Seau had moved on to the Miami Dolphins by the time Lorenzo Neal joined the San Diego Chargers in 2003. But the longtime fullback was very familiar with Seau, having faced him routinely since entering the NFL in 1993 as a member of the New Orleans Saints.
No, they didn’t go to the same college. No, they never shared a locker room. But the NFL is a small fraternity, many times built on strong relationships. Neal had that with Seau.
He joined 106.7 The Fan’s LaVar Arrington and Chad Dukes Thursday afternoon to discuss Seau’s suicide and wound up giving chilling glimpse into the not so glamorous life of a professional athlete.
The expectations are high. Fans don’t understand. You earn millions of dollars, thrive off crowd, love the locker room, are portrayed as a gladiator. And one day it comes to an end and reality sets in.
It’s a difficult transition for anyone deal with.
Despite the trials and tribulations, Seau continued to thrive in the Southern California community since exiting the game following the 2009 season, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities.
“The community of San Diego lost a builder… they lost their leader,” Neal said of his fallen friend, whom he considers to undoubtedly be a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection.
Like many who are coping with a loss of a loved one through suicide, Neal added he didn’t see this coming. Although there had been speculation that the perennial Pro Bowl linebacker attempted to take his own life in a 2010 accident, nothing was ever proven and Seau was steadfast that he had simply fallen asleep behind the wheel.
Further, things seemed to be going according to plan in recent weeks as the father of three wore a smile on his face regularly and showed no signs of distress in public.
“Three weeks ago I had breakfast with him, just me and June, and just coffee between a couple of buddies,” Neal recalled. “And you don’t see it.”
What Neal didn’t see was the dark side of life of a retired professional athlete even though he is one himself. Masking the pain is a matter of routine.
Although he didn’t see that his friend was in trouble, he certainly knew what he was going through. There are thousands who do. And they are all former players.
“If any guys can tell me that they’re not depressed, I think that they’re lying,” Neal told Arrington and Dukes. “I’ll call BS. Joe Montana, all these great athletes, I don’t care who you were. I don’t care how much money . . . When you leave the game you are depressed you can’t play any more.”
Arrington, who played seven season in the NFL including six with the Washington Redskins, agreed with Neal’s assessment.
“There are realities in having to deal with the fact that at one point you had thousands and thousands and thousands of people cheering for you and now it’s gone,” he said. “Maybe that’s not even the whole thing about it . . . There’s just something about the total aspect of being a part of a team that you really, truly miss. I mean, I miss being in the locker room with the guys. I miss being at the Pro Bowls, messing around with y’all. Those are things that can really have an impact on how you live your life and ultimately how you feel.”
Beyond the comradery in the locker room and the accolades and jokes shared in Hawaii, many former players also have a difficult time transitioning away from the thousands of fans cheering for them on Sunday afternoons. Ironically, it was those same fans who created a very real and very large burden for players, even if unintentionally.
In candid and raw fashion, Neal expressed what many before him were never able to. The 41-year-old California native eloquently and emotionally put into words the pressures that come with being a professional athlete.
So often they are put up on a pedestal, thought to be superior to mortal men. The reality is outside of their athletic gifts, there is nothing extraordinary about them. Athletes are people who feel, who hurt, who worry, who share the same emotions as every person in this experience called life.
His words follow:
“We’re grown men, playing a kid’s game and getting a king’s ransom. And what people don’t understand, for that four hours that people [come watch us play], that four hours they’re not thinking about their bills. They’re not thinking about their ex-wife, their girlfriend, their kids… They are living through us. They are watching a game being performed at a very, very high level and they are dreaming.
“It’s tough because as a player, they don’t understand that if you have a bad game you’re thinking about your wife is thinking about leaving you. That the kids are sick. You’re thinking about so many things. You’re having that uncle that you have to get out of jail. But we can’t go and start expressing that. You have to put on that fake smile every day and go out into the public and say, ‘Oh, it’s okay.’
“Who do we vent to?
“They don’t know about the financial adviser that’s got your money and is turning and burning your money. And he’s doing that and they say, ‘Oh, well shame on that guy.’
“They don’t know that we didn’t go to school to become accountants and financial guys. There are so many things that people don’t realize.
“And for that 60 minutes or for that four hours they’re watching us perform, they don’t care about our problems. They feel that we’re not human. They say, ‘Look, you’re a grown man. You’re getting all this money. You’re supposed to make all my problems go away. I don’t care about any of that.’
“And that’s why as athletes you have to be able to compartmentalize… After you leave that field you have to turn it on and turn it off. And it’s tough. And it’s tough. . .
“There are other things involved that other people sometimes don’t realize. And it’s hard because people look at us like gladiators and we’re beyond reproach and we’re going to live forever. And they don’t understand we’re still human. And it’s tough.”
Forget the riches, the cars, the jewelry. Neal says there is only one thing that people need the most.
“See, everybody wants millions of dollars. But what do you really need?” he pondered. “You need certain things. We need love, man.”