What Did Jack Kerouac and Junior Seau Have In Common?
So what do Jack Kerouac and Junior Seau have in common?
Who is Junior Seau, you might ask? He’s a Hall-of-Fame linebacker who played in the NFL for 19 seasons, retiring in 2009. Three years ago, after years of battling CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), Seau put a shotgun to his chest at committed suicide at the young age of 43.
CTE is a fairly new discovery in the football world. It’s brought on by years of repeated brain trauma–either concussions or simply getting hit in the head over and over. Hundreds of players have been diagnosed with CTE, or shown symptoms consistent with the condition, either post-mortem or after retiring. Famous players like Tony Dorsett, Bernie Kosar, Jim McMahon, and Brett Favre are part of that list. The condition has become quite a controversy, with some players retiring very early in their careers out of fear of suffering from CTE later in life.
So what’s all this got to do with Jack Kerouac?
It might be a lesser known fact that Kerouac played football in high school and, briefly, at the University of Columbia. While football brought on its own share of injuries, Kerouac was known to get a little violent while barhopping. The New Yorker tells the story of Joyce Glassman, who wrote about some of her experiences with Kerouac in her memoir, Minor Characters.
In Glassman’s telling, Kerouac and Corso had been barhopping in Greenwich Village. At Kettle of Fish, on MacDougal Street, a stranger accused Kerouac of insulting him. When Kerouac and Corso left the bar, the stranger and his friends surrounded them, and the man threw Kerouac to the ground and beat his head against the curb. (There are other versions of the story, but Kerouac’s correspondence suggests that Glassman is mostly correct.)
Over Kerouac’s protests, Glassman writes, she brought him to a nearby hospital. She was worried that he had a concussion. But, according to the doctors, Kerouac had suffered only cuts and bruises. He was given some medicine and a bandage on his forehead.
Within days, Kerouac began to suspect that he had been misdiagnosed.
Then, there were Kerouac’s football injuries, the most egregious of which occurred while he was playing at Horace Mann prep school. The New Yorker summarizes Kerouac’s telling of the story in his autobiography Vanity of Dulouz:
Playing for Horace Mann, the prep school he attended for a year before matriculating at Columbia, Kerouac takes off on a long run. About to score, he feels a pull at the back of his neck—one of his opponents grabbing him by the shoulder pads and yanking him to the muddy turf. He loses consciousness. Once he wakes up, his coaches deem him fit to return to the game. Standing in the huddle, he asks himself, “What are we doing on this rainy field that tilts over in the earth, the earth is crooked, where am I? Who am I? What’s all that?”
In his article for The New Yorker about Kerouac and his football days, Ian Scheffler poses the question, “Did the effects of cumulative damage to the brain over Jack’s lifetime … contribute to his deepening alcoholism and depression?” One neurosurgeon believes he has the answer:
“Kerouac had all of the symptoms of C.T.E.,” Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, told me. “I don’t think it’s possible, especially since you cannot be certain about the presence of C.T.E. without examining somebody’s brain, to other than speculate about whether he may have had some of his issues as a result of brain trauma. My gut feeling is he did.”
Scheffler shared his findings with Christopher Nowinksi, a CTE activist and he agreed. “He’s got a similar brain-trauma history to many of the former athletes that we’ve diagnosed with C.T.E.,” Nowinski said.
“Does he have to have had C.T.E.?” Cantu asked. “No, but even just post-concussion syndrome, following his more serious head traumas, could have given him troubles with cognition, could have given him troubles with heightened depression, could have given him troubles with heightened impulsivity.… That could have been just post-concussion syndrome, and yet it could have been even beyond that—C.T.E. It’s one of those things where, I mean, the symptoms are identical to what we see, and so I think it’s impossible to say one way or the other.”
Does anyone else find this fascinating?
Kerouac was playing football 80 years ago, in the 1930s. He passed away in 1969, depressed and alcoholic. And just within the last decade have doctors started to see the connection between repeated head trauma and long-term depression, alcoholism, and addiction.
Kerouac was, most likely, in the same boat as so many former and current NFL players, battling the same symptoms. He fought through those problems and produced some incredible literature, most notably On The Road. Little did he know that his 5 years of football could’ve brought on all the problems he experienced later in life.