SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Former National Football League star Junior Seau, who killed himself last week, was buried on Friday after a private ceremony in his California hometown, with tens of thousands expected to attend a public memorial service later in the day.
Relatives of the former 43-year-old linebacker, who was of Samoan descent, threw lei garlands on his casket during the burial at a cemetery in Oceanside, just north of San Diego. Seau, regarded as one of the best defensive players of his generation, died on May 2 at his home in Oceanside from a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest, according to police. He left no suicide note.
Seau’s death came during heightened scrutiny of the effects of repeated blows to the head in football and other contact sports, and the potential for such injuries to contribute to depression and long-term health problems in players.
Seau, known as a gregarious athlete who gave generously to youth-oriented charities, spent most of his 20-year career with the San Diego Chargers and was selected 12 times for the Pro Bowl, the NFL all-star game. He retired after the 2009 season.
The Chargers are paying for the “Celebration of Life” memorial for Seau on Friday evening and said 30,000 to 60,000 people were expected to pack Qualcomm Stadium for the event.
Former Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts and ex-coach Bobby Ross, who took the team to its only Super Bowl appearance after the 1994 season, were among those expected at the tribute.
Seau’s casket was taken on Thursday night to an Oceanside chapel for a private viewing attended by hundreds of family and friends, many in traditional Samoan dress. Cyrus Satoafaiga, 35, remembered his cousin as an upbeat person.
“Just hanging out at our family cook outs and joking around and making everyone laugh, always making it a joyous time with the family,” Satoafaiga said of Seau.
On Friday morning, at least 1,500 family members and friends of Seau attended a private memorial in Oceanside. Former Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson was among those at the service.
Pastor Shawn Mitchell, a spokesman for the Seau family, said last week that relatives planned to have Seau’s brain examined for evidence of injury. He has since said they were giving the decision further thought.
Sarah Gordon, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office, said on Friday her agency was still awaiting word from the Seau family to have his brain examined. That exam would be done by an outside group.
“Steps have been taken to allow study of the brain tissue if the family wishes, and we will make every effort to support their request,” she said.
In a Los Angeles Times opinion piece on Thursday, former NFL linebacker Riki Ellison said he believed Seau’s death “is the result of sustained concussions to the brain together with the inability to control depression” after leaving an adrenaline-fueled career in professional sports.
In February 2011, former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson shot himself to death and left notes asking that his brain be examined for evidence of injury from his playing days. Last month, retired Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who was among hundreds of former NFL players suing the league over head injuries, killed himself.
The league has focused in recent seasons on health and safety issues. It has cracked down on hits to the head and stiffened rules that bar players from using their helmets as a weapon through head-first contact, which is subject to fines and suspension for repeat offenders.
Despite the high-profile suicides, a study published in January from a division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed retired NFL players had a lower rate of suicide than the general public.
Additional reporting by Dennis Poroy, Troy Anderson and Michael Blake; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney