BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- In the past year, football has been rocked with injuries that go beyond the scope of MRIs and broken bones. The death of former San Diego Charger Junior Seau, specifically, had a jarring impact on a league that struggles with how to help former athletes transition to a life away from the game.
The loss of Seau on Wednesday morning reached from the sandy shores of Southern California to the deep, rich clay of Alabama. University of Alabama coach Nick Saban spent one year with Seau during his brief stint as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins and came away with an indelible impression of the man who wore No. 55 his entire career.
“You always have these guys, if you’re fortunate that are really special people that you have an opportunity to coach or play on your team,” Saban said before the Crimson Caravan event at Cahaba Grand Conference Center in Birmingham. “Junior Seau was one of those guys.”
Saban called the news of his death one of the “most difficult things” he’s had to deal with.
“He was the most popular guy on the team, the most positive, the most upbeat, most enthusiastic, energetic,” Saban recalled. “He was a great practice player, a great football player that loved football as much as anybody I’ve been around.”
Reflecting on the circumstances of his death, reportedly by way of a self-inflicted gunshot, Saban couldn’t help but wonder what if.
“It’s difficult to think that maybe there might have been something to do to help him ...” Saban said, his voice trailing away for a split second. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
Watching out for players
The death of Seau once again put the focus on a game that battles to strike a balance between player safety and the inherent violence involved in a contact sport that values the ability to strike the opposition with ferocious force.
In the NFL, many measures have been put in place to help protect players. In the college game, the momentum seems to be headed that way as well. And for Saban, that’s fine.
“I think player safety has to be the No. 1 concern that we all have,” Saban said to the gathering of reporters in Birmingham. “We all love football. It’s a great game but I think we have a lot of quality people out there, medical people as well, that are all involved in trying to create the best set of rules that we can have that we can keep the integrity of the game but also keep player safety as a priority in terms of any kind of injuries, but most certainly any kind of head injuries.”
Steering clear of the Saints
Saban, though, wouldn’t touch the issue of the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal that alleges coaches encouraged their players to injure the opposing team. Suspended Saints coach Sean Payton maintains a relationship with the sixth-year coach of the Crimson Tide and former UA Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram is a running back for the Saints.
“I got enough problems without trying to create some controversy about something I don’t know enough about,” Saban said sarcastically. “I know Sean Payton is a really good coach and a good friend. I have a lot of respect for the people in New Orleans and the Saints organiztion, players that play at the highest level of the NFL.
“I’m sure they have a lot of qualified people who know all the facts that are making the best decisions that they think are in the best welfare of the NFL.”