Seau's death hits close to home for ex-Bear

Hunter Hillenmeyer, who has been active in advocating for the NFL to be better equipped to handle head injuries, was saddened at news of Junior Seau's death on Wednesday. Luc Leclerc/US Presswire

Hunter Hillenmeyer, a former Chicago Bears linebacker whose NFL career was cut short by head injuries, expressed sadness -- but not necessarily shock -- at the news of Junior Seau’s death Wednesday.

Seau, a 43-year-old former All-Pro linebacker, was found unconscious with a gunshot wound to the chest by his girlfriend Wednesday but lifesaving efforts were unsuccessful. Police were investigating the possibility that Seau's death was a suicide.

“The first way I heard about it was just a text that said, ‘That’s crazy about Seau,’” Hillenmeyer told ESPN 1000’s “Chicago’s GameNight” on Wednesday. “And what, to me, the scariest thing is that that was all I knew before I checked Twitter or tried to figure out what happened, and I already assumed exactly what it was. I don’t know him personally. I was obviously a big fan of his and the way he played the game.”

Hillenmeyer has been an advocate for protecting the long-term quality of life for NFL veterans since leaving the game in 2010. He is presently involved in a lawsuit with the Bears in an attempt to recover lost wages, due to multiple concussions, the Chicago Tribune reported this past January.

“For me, this tragedy of Seau, the bounty program, it’s all part of the same issue,” Hillenmeyer told “Chicago’s GameNight.” “That there’s an identity crisis going on in the NFL right now. Thus far, in my opinion, the league office has been very reactionary in the way that they have handled it. And this is generations of culture built up here around the way we practice, the way we teach, the way we’re instructed to play the game whether you’re hurt, injured. As long as you can put one foot in front of the other you just go out and play.”

Seau was never listed on an NFL injury report with a concussion during his 20-year career with the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. But his ex-wife, Gina Seau, said Wednesday that he had sustained concussions during his career.

"Of course he had. He always bounced back and kept on playing," she said in a phone interview. "He's a warrior. That didn't stop him. I don't know what football player hasn't. It's not ballet. It's part of the game."

Although Seau spent much of his playing career on the West Coast as a member of the Chargers, news of his death hits close to home in Chicago.

In February 2011, former Bear Dave Duerson committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. Duerson sent text messages to family asking that his brain be examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition linked to more than a dozen deceased NFL players, The New York Times reported in the days following the incident.

“It is scary that there is something systematic going on here, when you compare the eerily similar situation to what we in Chicago just experienced with Dave Duerson,” Hillenmeyer said.

“First off, for somebody to shoot themselves in the chest, there’s just something so graphically wrong with envisioning that, and it’s such an abrupt scene to picture. At the same time, when somebody is in the state of mind that they’re considering taking their own life, then couple that with the fact that even in that altered state of mind that a person is still thinking, ‘Maybe I should shoot myself in the chest so I can serve a greater cause in my dying,’ because he sensed his brain can get examined for CTE or whatever is going to transpire from here. It’s just a terrible, terrible tragic situation.”

Hillenmeyer suffered multiple concussions during eight seasons with the Bears, the Tribune reported. He believes that the culture of the NFL is a root cause of the epidemic of head injuries.

“I think that with the awareness around concussions you’re finally starting to see people realizing that there’s a connection between what’s going on out there and people’s quality of life,” Hillenmeyer said. “But it’s hard to make a 20-year-old, a 25-year-old, a 30-year-old – especially one who is potentially making millions of dollars by doing it -- care about the kind of health they are going to be in 20 or 30 years down the road. If there was one easy solution, I really think we would have figured it out.

“I’m sure Roger [Goodell] probably thinks of it as the biggest issue that he’s dealing with. … I don’t know where it ends and I don’t know how you figure it out from one term to another, but this is the single biggest threat to the long-term viability of the NFL.”

Former Bear Hunter Hillenmeyer discusses Junior Seau's death and the NFL's "identity crisis" on ESPN 1000's "Chicago's GameNight."

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