A study of NFL players who played in the league between 1959 and 1988 for a minimum of five seasons concluded there were only 12 instances of players who took their own lives. That number seems difficult to understand with the continued news of one ex- or current NFL player taking their lives making headlines today. The recent losses of former Heisman trophy winner Rashaan Salaam and Chargers star Junior Seau were well publicized. Compared to the stone age of news pre-1990s, it is understandable that the awareness of players taking their own lives is higher now. Not only can we watch news 24/7, but social media allows fans to comment on news like never before. The NFL is also bigger than ever, and football has truly taken over as ‘America’s game’.
Despite NFL player losses being higher profile than in decades past, there is no doubt head trauma has played a part in the downfall of many ex-players. Dave Duerson and Drew Wahlroos are just two ex-players to have taken their lives, and had their brains sent to Boston University to be studied. It is estimated linemen butt heads a minimum of 1,000 times a season, and each hit effects the brain. In 2015, it was reported 96% of former NFL players had some type of brain damage.
Other players, like James Hardy showcased mental health issues yet never got the help needed. Add in the pressure to perform, maintain their bodies and make money, and the stress an NFL player has on his shoulders is far from glamorous.
For the 15 ex-NFL players that follow, taking their own life was the tragic end to a life given to the NFL.
15. Lawrence Phillips
Lawrence Phillips was given the keys to the St. Louis Rams’ backfield, but unfortunately the former All-Big 8 player had difficulty getting his NFL career into gear. Selected sixth overall in the 1996 NFL Draft, Phillips was scheduled to be the Rams’ starting running back from day one. Despite the excitement that surrounded his signing, Phillips was a troubled man, and had got into legal trouble during college after assaulting his girlfriend at Nebraska. Despite rushing for 632 yards and four touchdowns in his rookie year, Phillips couldn’t straighten his life out. After a string of crimes, he was convicted to 31 years in prison. Phillips allegedly ended his cellmate’s life in 2015. Less than a year later, and awaiting trial for the crime at Kern Valley State Prison, Phillips was found unresponsive in his cell. According to reports, the former NFL player had a note taped to his chest that read: ” Don’t resuscitate”.
14. Junior Seau
For two decades, Junior Seau was one of the NFL’s most dominant linebackers, and during his 13-year career with the San Diego Chargers, Seau was voted to the Pro Bowl in 12 consecutive seasons. After leaving the Chargers in 2003, Seau continued to play at a high level for both Miami and New England although a Super Bowl ring remained elusive. As Seau got older, he was still the heart and soul of the teams he played for and was a key component of the Patriots defence in the late 2000s. Seau retired in 2010 after father time and injuries caught up to him. Just a year later, Seau was found unresponsive in his California home, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. After examination, it was determined Seau had developed CTE, and the former NFL player’s family has since sued the league over brain injuries suffered by Seau during his career.
13. Aaron Hernandez
A first team All-American at Florida, Aaron Hernandez enjoyed two stellar NFL seasons with the New England Patriots. The tight end’s 2010 rookie campaign saw him catch 45 passes for 563 yards. A year later, Herandez made 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven touchdowns. However, trouble off the field was never too far from the player. After a few closes calls with police, Hernandez was arrested in 2013, and after a high-profile court case, Hernandez was convicted in April 2015. The former Patriot was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole although his conviction was up for appeal. In April 2017, Hernandez was found unresponsive hanging in his prison cell. The former tight end had used his bedsheets to fashion a noose, and hanged himself from the prison cell’s bars. After he took his life, doctors discovered Hernandez was suffering from severe CTE following the examination of his brain. According to Hernadez’s attorney, Jose Baez, doctors found Hernandez to have had the worst case of CTE ever found in a 27-year-old.
12. Rashaan Salaam
Rashaan Salaam became the first, and to date only, Colorado Buffalo to win the Heisman Trophy. The running back tallied a whopping 2,055 yards and 24 touchdowns during the 1994 season as he led the Buffaloes to a Fiesta Bowl win and a final ranking of No. 3 in the nation. Drafted by the Chicago Bears at No. 21 overall, Salaam becoming the youngest NFL running back to tally 1,000 yards as he rushed for 1,074 and 10 touchdowns in 1995. It was all downhill from there. Injuries and substance abuse caused him to start just six games in 1996 as he rushed for less than 500 yards and just three scores. In December 2016, Salaam’s body was found in a Boulder, Colorado park, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
11. Dave Duerson
Dave Duerson was a member of the Chicago Bears feared ‘Monsters of the Midway’ team. Drafted in 1983, Duerson went on to play 102 regular season games for Chicago. Duerson was a key figure in the Bears Super Bowl XX win, and in 1990 he duplicated the feat as a member of the New York Giants as a back-up safety. His post-football career saw him invest into several businesses, and Duerson appeared to have made the transition from pro football player to businessman successfully. However, all was not going well for Duerson by the time 2010 rolled around. The former NFL safety was complaining to family members about his mental state regressing rapidly. He had blurred vision, incredibly painful headaches and memory loss according to his family. After months of not feeling well, Duerson took his own life. Moments before it happened, Duerson had sent a text message to his family, informing them he wanted his brain to be studied by Boston University’s School of Medicine. When it was studied, Duerson was found to have had CTE.
10. Kenny McKinley
Kenny McKinley played a minor part in the Denver Broncos’ history. The fifth-round pick played in just eight regular season games in 2009, and returned three punts and seven kickoffs. In September 2010, just 11 days after the NFL season began, McKinley took his own life. It was later discovered that McKinley had racked up a considerable gambling debt. The wide receiver’s gambling addiction was known to a few friends, and his former teammate Tom Brandstater loaned McKinley $65,000 to pay off Las Vegas casino debt months prior to his passing. He was also depressed over his injuries and their impact on his NFL career. The three items were the perfect storm, and with a gun he purchased from Broncos teammate Jabar Gaffney, McKinley took his life just one month after having knee surgery.
9. O.J. Murdock
O.J. Murdock never played a minute of football in the NFL, and due to that fact, many fans won’t recognize his name. Murdock, who was at South Carolina at the same time as McKinley who was his close friend, left the school after being suspended for an arrest. He later resurfaced at Fort Hays State, a Division II school in Kansas, where he excelled. Murdock was invited to the NFL Combine after starring at Fort Hays State as a senior. He made 60 receptions for 1,290 yards and 12 touchdowns. Although he wasn’t drafted, the Tennessee Titans signed him as a rookie, but Murdock was placed on the injury reserve list after hurting his Achilles tendon in preseason. He went on to miss the entire season, but the Titans still had high hopes for the wide receiver. Murdock didn’t report to training camp on July 27, 2012, however. Three days later, he was found in the parking lot of his former high school. The Titans wide receiver had taken his while sitting in his car. His 2012 passing made headlines as Murdock became the sixth active or former NFL player to take their life in a 24-month period.
8. Ray Easterling
Ray Easterling played for the Atlanta Falcons throughout the 1970s. The former safety’s NFL career was long before studies on concussions and brain trauma shed light onto CTE and head trauma. Back when Easterling was a student at Richmond University and a player for the Falcons, a dizzying head shot was just known as getting your bell rung. Players would return to the game shortly thereafter and continue on playing. There is no telling how many concussions Easterling could have suffered throughout his time as a player from childhood to the end of his NFL career. By 2011, in his early 60s, Easterling was feeling the full effects of his career. The former Falcon was part of a lawsuit against the NFL on head injuries. In 2012, suffering from dementia, Easterling took his own life. For nearly 20 years, Easterling had suffered from depression and insomnia; two symptoms connected to CTE.
7. Jovan Belcher
On the cold Kansas City morning of December 1, 2012, Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher ended his life. However, Belcher didn’t just take his own life, but his girlfriend’s too. Signed as a rookie free agent by the Chiefs in 2009, Belcher played in all 16 games for the team between 2009 and 2011. It is Belcher’s last day, that cold Missouri morning, most football fans will always remember. Distraught over the deterioration of his relationship with girlfriend Kasandra Perkins – the mother of his infant daughter – the NFL player shot her 10 times as his mother looked on. After shooting Perkins, Belcher drove to the Chiefs training facilities. There Belcher encountered team general manager Scott Pioli, owner Clark Hunt, head coach Romeo Crennel and linebacker coach Gary Gibbs. As Belcher knelt down and put the gun to his head, the four tried to talk sense into him. However, Belcher couldn’t be persuaded, and he put the gun to his head and fired. Despite the awful tragedy, the NFL nor the Chiefs canceled the team’s next game; which took place one day later.
6. Terry Long
Terry Long was a fixture on the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line for eight seasons. His time with the team came during a low period for the Steelers following the successful 1970s. Long only got the chance to play in four postseason games, but he remained a lasting figure with the franchise. In 2005, Long took his own life by ingesting antifreeze, and according to reports, didn’t die of ‘football-related injuries’. Although his passing wasn’t related to football, the South Carolina medical examiner that performed Long’s autopsy did believe head trauma played some part in his decision despite other factors being at play. Prior to Long’s passing, he had been arrested for fraud after he attempted to scam an insurance company by setting fire to his own chicken processing plant. In addition, Long had recently separated from his second wife. It was believed the combination of factors along with depression led to Long’s demise.
5. Mike Wise
Mike Wise took his own life long before the recent spell of current or former NFL players taking their own lives began. In 1992, the former Los Angeles Raiders defensive end left us at the age of 28 with his NFL career at a crossroads. In 1991, Wise faced injury problems which forced him into being a backup lineman for the Raiders. In the offseason things got worse as he and the team’s hierarchy fought over a new contract. In early August 1992, with his body breaking down from injuries, Wise was cut from the Browns. He returned to his home in Davis, California not knowing how he would make his next paycheque. It was that uncertainty that led Wise to put his house up for sale. On August 21, 1992, Wise was found dead in the home by a real estate agent. It was concluded that the former defensive lineman had shot himself in the head with a handgun.
4. Drew Wahlroos
Drew Wahlroos took his own life on September 2, 2017, becoming one of the most recent NFL players to do so. The former Colorado Buffalo, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams linebacker suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It is believed the former undrafted player left instructions to have his brain examined for CTE. Although he joined Tampa Bay following his career at Colorado University, Walhroos didn’t feature in an NFL game for the team. He later moved to Europe and played with the Amsterdam Admirals in 2003. He returned to the US in 2004 and signed with the St. Louis Rams. In two seasons, the linebacker played 21 times for the team with most of his appearances coming on special teams. Wahlroos brain will be examined by doctors at Boston University, who state 99% of the brains they examine have CTE.
3. Paul Oliver
Paul Oliver was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the NFL Supplemental Draft in 2007. The former Georgia University safety played four seasons for the Chargers and tallied four career interceptions. However, after 57 NFL games, Oliver’s career ended after the 2011 season. He started just one game for the Chargers that year; although he did play in 13 games. In September 2013, while in his home in Marietta, Georgia, Oliver took his own life. Oliver’s family filed a lawsuit against the NFL, San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints – Oliver briefly played with the team before being cut – due to concussions and head injuries. The suit claimed fraud and negligence were to blame for the former NFL player’s decision to take his own life.
2. Kurt Crain
Kurt Crain was a sixth round NFL draft pick of the Houston Oilers in 1988 and much was expected of the former All-American. However, the linebacker never played a down for the AFC team. A season later, Crain was suiting up for the Green Bay Packers. Yet, once again, he never played a down and at the end of the season, he was released by the Packers. Crain was able to translate from a player into a successful coach. In 2008, the former All-American joined the coaching staff at South Alabama. After several seasons with the school, Crain began to suffer severally from prostatitis. The infection caused Crain to have much of his prostate removed as he underwent three surgeries in the space of 12 months. In April 2012, after suffering from prostatitis for some time, Crain took his own life.
1. James Hardy
In June 2017, the body of former Buffalo Bills wide receiver James Hary was found unresponsive. The Bills’ 2008 second round draft pick had ended his life by drowning, and authorities discovered his body up against a dam in the Maumee River in Indiana. When he was found, medical investigators stated the former Indiana All-Big 10 player had been in the water for several days. Hardy’s family had reported him missing in late May. The former NFL player had played just two seasons in the league, both with the Bills. He featured in 16 games, although he started just three; making a total of 10 catches for two touchdowns. He bounced around the indoor and arena football circuit, before finishing up his career in 2013. Not long after, Hardy made headlines for an attack on the police as they responded to a call at his house. Hardy was later admitted to a mental health facility and mental issues that were never diagnosed or treated are believed to be what drove him to his demise. He was 31 when he passed.
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