Junior Seau, Peyton Hillis and Everybody

What do we owe NFL players? Exactly what we owe everyone else.
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RIP

Image via Byzantium Shores.

Junior Seau was different, and he wasn't. What made him a great football player, even at the limping end of his two-decade career, was a focused mania that was uncommon even in his maniacal, ultra-focused cohort. The uncommon strength and speed and the dazzling combination of fast-twitch instinct and intellect that Seau possessed set him apart from the vast majority of humans on earth, and also from an uncommon peer group that possessed all those attributes in varying measure. But, on the day after Seau's suspected suicide at the age of 43, Seau is returning to everyone and everything else.

His death, and when and how it came, moves Seau from a pantheon and into a different and more inclusive group—players great and obscure, destroyed by the aftermath of their lives in football, or their lives without football. Seau, who was like no other player, is with all these other players, now. The ones who burned up on re-entry from the high infinite of football omnipotence, and the ones suing the NFL for more help with the damage the game gave them, and the ones churning through the sport now. Seau is different, because he was different, but also the same—the same as all of them, and fundamentally the same as all of us.

***

Hewing strictly to a hulk-smash straight-line approach, Peyton Hillis ran into 270 or so piles for the Cleveland Browns back in 2010, and emerged from several of them upright and bound for glory. He badly battered the New England Patriots in Week 8 of that season, rushing for 184 yards, two touchdowns and subsequent heartfelt flex-and-divinity-acknowledgement routines in the end zone. He also lost eight fumbles to go with his 11 touchdowns that season, but these are the Browns and that comes with the territory and anyway those moments when Hillis ran out of a pack with tacklers schrapneled and futile in his wake like Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl were as ripe with delirious implausibility as anything the sport has to offer. Here was an unlikely, relatively rectangular Caucasian blasting through eight would-be tacklers, and jamming something like a couple hundred yards down the input of New England's implacability machine, after years of grunt-y obscurity in college and the NFL. No wonder he won the vote for that year's Madden Football cover over Michael Vick. He earned it. He gave fans something remarkable that year.

Winning that online poll was why GQ asked me to interview him, for a very brief piece. Expectations weren't high for the interview, for reasons that should be familiar to anyone who has read an athlete interview. The singularity of focus it takes to get to even the lower plateaus on Olympus erodes insight on contact, or catalyzes it into vain fatuity among your poetry-writing "good interview" types. Factor in the single-minded bluster and the rhetorical cult of mean-mugging doubter-rebuke and culture of foxhole-bound anti-insight ("I hurt myself for my guys") and muscular Christianity ("I hurt myself for the glory of God"), and it's probably reasonable not to expect much. But Hillis, I found when reading and watching his previous interviews, was different.

Not in the sense that he didn't communicate in short sentences or convey a vast and musclebound religiosity. He did and he does: Hillis is nice and modest and polite and dead certain, and the accent he learned growing up in—and, I found out, maintains during offseason retreats to—Conway, Arkansas is the one that certain types of Republicans evidently believe Jesus himself will have when he returns. But Hillis also periodically popped off with some surprising stuff. In interviews, he talked about not being afraid of concussions or what damage they might bring him later in life, because his life wasn't in his hands: he'd play as long as God wanted him to, and live as long. He trusted in God to do exactly as right by him as God saw fit, and accepted in advance whatever trauma befell his brain on route to his final glory. In 2010, it looked like that route would lead to huge earthly riches, but Hillis had a crazy, terrible year in 2011—injuries legitimate and questioned, three agents hired and fired, a secret marriage and a public endorsement of Ron Paul, some strange alleged talk about leaving the sport entirely and going to work for the CIA, then a heated denial of that. There was something disturbing about it, at least to me: this was, a lot of it, disturbingly erratic behavior. Hillis was indignant in defense of his honor and reputation, but the man I spoke to would not, fundamentally, have been deeply disturbed by it. He is not in his own hands; that was not real, or what really mattered.

This is a lot of faith, if not necessarily faith expressed as those of us more attached to free will might aspire to experience it ourselves. But Hillis also displayed some of the kindlier traits of faith, as when I finally and half-reluctantly asked about The Race Thing with regard to the Madden voting. Hillis dismissed it in an even and un-frosty way. Vick had a great season, too, and is a great player and Hillis actually got to know him some during the offseason and (hold on to your hats) it turned out that Vick was a really nice guy. The racial and semiotic aspect to their online election didn't seem even to have occurred to Hillis, primarily because—and this is very Christian of him, in the very best sense—he thought he had more in common with Vick than he didn't. Not because they were both pro football players and thus both employees of the same corporation/soldiers in the same ghoulish pop war, or because they're both a part of the brotherhood of man, but because they had both had "to rebound from some things."

He came through a lot, going to jail and all that. The dogfighting incident… But at the same time, I came through a lot, too – coming from where I came from, two Heisman finalists [Felix Jones and Darren McFadden] ahead of me in college, and I was kind of counted out a bunch of times, too.

There's something hugely reductive about this equation, of course. Vick made a great fortune with his talent and lost it because of his dedication to an illegal and grotesque hobby that is legitimately, no-sportswriter-rhetoricizing sickening and which embodies and enfolds all the casual and thoughtless cruelty that makes the human race so unbearable and shameful and fucking awful much of the time. Vick re-made that fortune after a spell in jail, because he is still talented and (to all appearances earnestly and honestly) humbled. Hillis, on the other hand, "came from nothing, always had the work ethic and put God first," but also didn't really get a lot of touches in college and had the great personal misfortune to split a locker room with Josh McDaniels and a bunch of crummy blockers during his first pro seasons. So, yeah: somehow both he and Vick overcame all those (not at all similar!) things to almost be on the cover of a popular videogame, and one of them actually did overcome all that to be on the cover of that videogame. Only In America and so on.

And while this is not exactly wrong insofar as both had to work hard and believe in themselves and so on, the equation is also totally innocent of context, which is why its refusal to acknowledge that not every obstacle is the same scans so strange and wrong. I'm inclined to chalk it up to too much football coaching—too many years of loud and under-reasoned exhortations from men who heard the same themselves growing up, too much and too-thoughtless professing the radical utilitarianism of the halftime speech, which breaks down to a simple equation that looks something like: obstacle → surmount. In context, this is probably fine and definitely necessary—the words "structural inequalities" and "toxic discourse" don't really belong in a locker-room speech. Out of context, though, this sort of don't-think-just-do approach needs to be handled carefully. It's not just silly, although it is kind of silly. More saliently, it is so beyond reason that it cannot be reasoned with, and that makes it extremely dangerous. As in: people kill and get killed thinking this way, and do those things because they believe it's right.

And as a general rule America doesn't handle this potent, risky thing with quite enough care, and not just as concerns the NFL. Granted, there is something thrilling about the driving-with-no-hands feeling of operating from pure, righteous instinct. It can be thrilling to watch, too—the real godlike thing about Seau, especially in the latter years of his career, when he dominated through persistence instead of athletic dazzle, was the way he made his body do things it should not have been able to do; it was more fearsome than beautiful, but it pulled awe out of us all the same. SB Nation's Andrew Sharp, in his fantastic essay on Seau, gets at the religious aspect of this; surely this supernatural will has something to do with the agape component in our response to football's graceful violence. But that is also frankly reckless driving. For all the bravery in it, it's also an abdication, a great sacrifice to a small cause; it shrinks the world to a series of obstacles, and the self into something smaller than it should be.

Of course, of course, the correct approach to an obstacle is not—per the enduringly popular caricature of the dithering armchair intellectual—simply to sketch it and puzzle over its contours and origins and maybe convene a multi-day conference on the more interesting questions that it raises in re: its similarity or dissimilarity to other obstacles or whether it's even fair to call it an obstacle at all, really, since etc. and because etc. I have no problem with all that sketching and pondering, of course, but it can be done just as well on the other side, and mixing a certain measure of thought and a certain measure of actual serious action are almost certain to be the only way to scramble up and over.

But the poison fairly burbles from the idea that the only proper engagement with an obstacle is to blow it up and exult in the rubble. And I'm not talking about friendly, goodly Peyton Hillis or furious, war-eyed Junior Seau right now, and it's probably best that I find my way back to that. But the problem with this particular worldview is not merely that its Robocop-ian engage-the-target instrumentalism leaves a lot out and short-circuits a certain basic and healthy human ambivalence. It's that this particularly football approach doesn't necessarily lead anywhere but a few bruising yards into the future, and that it only knows how to deal with obstacles and deal in obstacle-destruction. It's a useful mentality to instill in a soldier or an athlete, in short, but it's no way to tell an interesting story or comfort a bereaved friend or, to take a more urgent example, exist in a world of more complicated obstacles like the post-football lives that have been so painful and so horrifying to the players who saw it fit to leave them. And it is, at a deeper level, brutal and brutalizing.

For the football player's purposes, though, and in the brief and harrowing work life of the football player it makes a lot of sense. Peyton Hillis's job, literally, is to go through obstacles. He does it well and I wish him a long and safe career of doing it. But by adopting that coach's instrumentalism as their own, Hillis and his fellow good soldiers put themselves in the collective care of others—of teammates and coaches and executives and team doctors and ultimately of those of us who foot the bill for the whole brutal, vexingly appealing enterprise. More than once during our interview, Hillis described himself as "a tool," by which he meant not some Joe Buck-ian avatar for the unctuous expression of on-brand corporate will but an instrument made mighty and righteous by its placement in the service of a power that he trusts, without equivocation, to use him as he is meant to be used, and to love him back. This is not a small or a simple thing, and it's both small and simple to think that the readiness with which Hillis offers himself up to his God—a God that spoke to him for most of his career, and here the theologians groan, through the play-calls of a pair of defective Bill Belichick protégés—somehow makes him smaller or simpler. The same goes for the way that Seau risked himself, hurt himself while already hurt, for that season's set of teammates and coaches. They make these choices themselves, but they make them in context.

And we make choices, too. Those of us who watch the games aren't the ones not-quite-asking Seau and Hillis and everyone else to play through traumatic injury, let alone unto/into the impenetrable darknesses that cloud those brain scans, into all those early and miserable and befuddled graves. There's some complicity, but there are also some limits to it. Watching the NFL is a political act in the way consuming anything is a political act, but it's not decisive any more than our participation in the market or a Presidential election means that we suborn laying off tens of thousands of workers to goose a stock price or sending soldiers someplace where they might get killed for the most crudely, cravenly curdled reasons. But those real world horrors and the more or less complicated entertainments reach us on the same screens, and we meet them from the same comfortable seats.

The question, and the one we can answer more or less well, is how we meet the challenge implicit, and increasingly explicit, in all that. How we engage all these more or less fraught transactions—what we choose, finally, to care or not-care about, and how we make that caring or not-caring real in the world—is on us. For all the careless, casual metaphors insisting otherwise, the NFL and war are different things. But in both instances we lose something great, terribly and maybe irretrievably, when we choose to decouple violence and context, to ignore or forget that the people miniaturized on these screens are as real and vulnerable as we are, safe on our side. Those two, war and football, are not the same and of course do not carry the same weight, but they are similar, and the difference between those specific betrayals is one of degree, not of kind.

By which I mean this: The bloodiest and most difficult-to-forgive mistakes get made when we forget that we are all, whatever the role we choose in this particular transaction, in each other's hands. By all means, care about football—I do, despite all the above-enumerated reasons not to and, often, despite myself. And of course choosing to care doesn't mean that we're specifically beholden to Junior Seau or Peyton Hillis or anyone else any more than they're beholden to us—we are all of us free agents, we can choose freely to watch or play. But we betray them and ourselves both when we choose not to care, when we casually saw away at the artery that binds us and them, when we deny the relationship between our choice of entertainment and its costs, and justify all that with whatever solipsisms and tough-talking cop-outs most swiftly get us out of range. When we do this, we give cover to those who violate the trust of the humans who depend upon them to be trustworthy, and we implicitly make possible more of those violations and worse by not explicitly saying that they must stop. We betray so much so casually when we choose to forget about the only thing that's really worth caring about, which is the only thing we've all got, which is each other—which is all of us, all of us together or all of us lost.


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Comments

I really appreciate this piece - took the time to register and login just to say thank you. I caught this article through a link in an SoE article about Ray Lewis. Thank you, thank you for being careful, thoughtful, and insightful.

This is absolutely beautiful, and important, work. Unbelievable job, Mr. Roth.

I think this is my favorite piece on this site so far.