(The Root) — We don't know why O.J. Murdock took his life Monday. We don't know the problems he faced and considered unmanageable. We don't know the emotions he felt and considered unbearable.
But we do know that Murdock, 25, was an NFL player. And that alone is reason for concern, considering the recent string of suicides among former NFL players, combined with the slew of concussion-related lawsuits filed against the league.
Unlike former star linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide with a gunshot to his chest in May, and former star defensive back Dave Duerson, who took his life in similar fashion in February last year, Murdock didn't appear interested in leaving his brain to science. He shot himself in the head.
He also didn't have a long NFL career behind him, preparing for just his second year with the Tennessee Titans after missing his entire rookie season with an injury. That's another factor that separates him from Seau, Duerson and Ray Easterling, a former defensive back who committed suicide at the age of 62 in April.
Spurred by the suicides, concussion lawsuits, negative publicity and genuine concern, the NFL last week launched a hotline to help current and former players. The NFL Life Line offers around-the-clock crisis support from independent health professionals in conjunction with the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The hotline was announced one day before the New York Times reported that Easterling suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that is widely connected to athletes who have absorbed frequent blows to the head. His widow, Mary Ann Easterling, said the autopsy "verified everything. I expected all along that this is what we would find. Ray had suspected that … The extent of the damage to his brain made me very sad. It amazed me to think about what he dealt with every day inside his head. It left me a little speechless."
We'll never know if Murdock would have taken advantage of the hotline — which was announced four days before his death. But at least the possibility exists for other players, who certainly must wonder about the possible connections between football, brain trauma and suicide.
Sports neurologist Jeffrey Kutcher regularly treats current and former athletes in his University of Michigan clinic. He said that questions are on the rise, which could lead to more examples. "The fear is they're going down this [Junior Seau] path and they are going to commit suicide," Kutcher told Yahoo Sports. "You've given them a road map to the next step."
Sometimes we can't read the signs until it's too late. Murdock sent text messages to coaches and friends in the hours leading to his death. He thanked a sports reporter who covered him in high school, and also thanked a former high school coach, ending that message with these words: "I apologize."
"I wish he had called instead," said Al McCray, who coached Murdock at Middleton High in Tampa, Fla., and at Fort Hays State in Kansas.
A former middle school coach, Aesha Bailey, said that Murdock issued a mysterious apology during a recent phone conversation. "He just kept saying, 'I'm sorry, coach. I'm sorry,' " Bailey said. "That's all he said."
More than 100 friends, relatives and classmates gathered to say the same thing during a candlelight vigil Monday night. Whether football played a role in his death was insignificant at the moment.
But until we learn otherwise, the question will linger … in this case and perhaps more to come.