In reacting to the suicide of Junior Seau, one of the game's most ferocious competitors, current and former players are doing something rarely seen on the rugged NFL landscape.
Dropping the tough-guy act.
"Note to all my former teammates and opponents: Swallow macho BS + go see a doctor," former 49ers lineman Randy Cross wrote on Twitter, part of a torrent of emotional pleas. "Seeking help isn't weakness. It's for all those that love you."
Seau's death at age 43 might prove to be a tipping point for the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell, who already were facing a legal challenge from more than 1,000 former players alleging that the NFL failed to properly treat concussions and attempted to conceal possible links between football and brain injuries.
While several other ex-players contacted by this newspaper credited the NFL for making strides in player safety, it's clear the loss of one of the sport's beloved giants has triggered an unprecedented level of introspection and heartfelt sentiment in a culture known for neither.
"Honestly, I've been in that situation where you do feel like giving up because nobody understands the world that you live in," former 49ers receiver Terrell Owens said on ESPN radio in Dallas. "I think there are a lot of people that have been at that point. Me, other players. People look at us as invincible beings when we're playing such a macho game."
Several of Seau's friends and former teammates wondered
"I've talked to former teammates who've struggled mightily," Gary Plummer, a longtime 49ers linebacker, said. "Not just within a year of being out but several years. One guy felt he was wandering aimlessly. It needs to come to light that this was not an isolated incident."
Seau, the beloved All-Pro linebacker best known for his 13 seasons with the Chargers, was found at his home with a gunshot wound to the chest. The San Diego County medical examiner's office ruled the death a suicide.
Seau's method fueled suspicion that he was following the lead of Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bears player who shot himself in the chest, presumably so that his brain could be examined by researchers.
Kyle Turley, an NFL lineman for 10 years, has been diagnosed with a progressive brain disease that he believes also afflicted his friend Seau. He told USA Today that he thinks this is a crucial awakening.
"I believe Junior's death will be remembered to be the turning point in this fight against CTE, and will wake everyone up," Turley said. "He had too many things to live for to do this. If Junior could wake up today, he wouldn't have done it. But something at that moment got severely crossed in his brain that allowed him to make that decision that life wasn't worth living anymore."
Researchers might study Seau's brain for signs for the degenerative cognitive condition found in about two dozen former NFL players, including three who have committed suicide since 2006: Duerson, Andre Waters and Ray Easterling.
Harry Carson said such deaths, while tragic, can no longer be described as stunning. "In the past I would have been shocked," the Hall of Fame Giants linebacker told the New York Post. "But I'm not shocked anymore."
Carson told the Post that he predicted a rash of NFL suicides because of the neurological damage that can occur from playing the game. Carson, as a young player in the early 1980s, said he contemplated suicide while driving over the Tappan Zee Bridge. But then he envisioned leaving his infant daughter without a father.
"I knew years ago that there would come a point in time where, whether it was transitioning to the game, or there would be guys having these neurological issues, that players were going to be committing suicide," Carson said. "I said that years ago."
As the family considers CTE testing on Seau's brain, other players noted that past concussions are only one way of explaining the future Hall of Famer's apparent mental state. "Stress, money stress, family stress," former running back Tiki Barber said on CNN. "You're surprised, but you're not surprised because there are so many factors that lead toward athletes falling into deep, deep depressions and not having a way to get out of it."
Roger Craig, the longtime 49ers running back, said in a phone interview that he did not want to speculate about what was going on in Seau's head. But, in general, he said post-career depression is common among his peers.
"A lot of guys die -- not go under, but die mentally, die inside," Craig said. "It's a big letdown when you retire. And you're just a baby, you're still so young."
Craig kept charging ahead after his last snap in 1993, finding competitive outlets as a top executive at the Tibco software company and as a veteran of 17 marathons and counting. ("I have medals all over my wall," he said with a laugh.)
But Lorenzo Neal, a close friend of Seau's, told NBC Sports Talk that Seau struggled during his transition to life after football.
"The first year was tough," said Neal, who played 16 years in the NFL before retiring after the 2008 season. "You watch the game that you've been part of for so long ... and it's gone. ... You've been put on a pedestal, and it's taken from you, your time has expired -- your shelf life. And people don't understand."
Plummer and Craig suggested the league could do more to help players after retirement. "There is no exit strategy from the NFL. It's 'You're done,' " Plummer said. "You don't even get an apple and a road map."
Jon Alston, a former Stanford standout who went on to play for the Raiders, left football after the 2010 season because of repeated concussions. The blow that finished him off was relatively mild -- and it troubled him because it still left him with headaches.
"I could have tried to fake like I was OK and continue to play, but I had a decision to make, and I had a decision to make quick, and based upon my knowledge of what's happening in people's brains and CTE," he said. "I knew that the only right decision, if I cared about my future health, was to say something."
Alston, now 28, had founded his own production company, Dream America Pictures. The news of Seau's death was particularly jarring to him because the dynamic linebacker was one of the reasons he wanted play in the NFL in the first place.
Now he hopes that Seau can provide a different kind of inspiration.
"I figured it would take larger-named guys, tragedies, that would really start to bring light to this issue," he said. "This is terrible to see. But CTE is real. (When) they look at (your brain) and you're a 43-year-old that looks like an 85-year-old, you're in the early stages of Alzheimer's. That's dangerous.
"And when you leave the game, the love of your life, that game, you are going to experience a depression. It's like a divorce. Imagine CTE and trying to transition to another world? It's trauma. It is a form of trauma."
It's one Turley, 36, says he battles daily, taking the medication Depakote to help prevent him from a fate like that of his friend Seau.
"I do feel my brain is a ticking time bomb," the two-time All-Pro told USA Today. "If I don't take medication, I very well could in the same situation as Junior is in. It is very scary for me and should be for others."
Whether Seau's death prompts rule changes or other major shifts remains to be seen. But the loss of an icon caught the attention of locker rooms across the country.
"I haven't been concerned (in the past)," 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin told this newspaper the day after Seau's suicide. "But I will admit I have never thought about the risks as much as I did yesterday."