Mark Carrier has now lost two of his best teammates in the worst imaginable way and as he sat at his desk Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium he wondered.
It had been less than 24 hours after perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau allegedly shot himself to death and more than a year since former Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson did the same. Duerson requested his brain be donated to the NFL's brain bank to study the literal impact of football and Carrier offered caution.
"We don't know what happened in Junior's case. It could always be a possibility, but let's find out what happened," said Carrier, the Bengals secondary coach.
Carrier, 44, replaced Duerson's four Pro Bowls with three of his own while becoming one of the most feared hitters of the '90s. Duerson had the same fierceness in the '80s and Seau roamed the turn of the century for a startling 20 years with first-ballot Hall of Fame ferocity.
Sure, Carrier says. He thinks about it. He can also joke about it. "Three that I can think of," Carrier said when asked how many concussions he had. But he can't joke about it with his wife.
"I think my wife is more worried about that at this point because as a player you just accept it," Carrier said. "I know I had three good (concussions). I might have missed the rest of that game, but I never missed the next week. I used to joke with my wife if I forget to do something, 'It's from the hits I took in the head.' But that's too sensitive of a subject now. Can't joke about it now."
Nor does Carrier think anyone should. He's grateful that there are more restrictions and guidelines and not just in the pros. His 14-year-old daughter just suffered a concussion playing soccer "and they shut her down for a week," he said.
And his league is doing the same thing. A different league than when he retired after 11 seasons in 2000.
"Bigger, stronger, faster, and the collisions are harder," Carrier said. "(The NFL) is trying to do everything it can to regulate as best they can without messing up the game. It's going to happen, but the precautions compared to years ago are so much better now."
Seau and Carrier came out of USC together the No. 5 and No. 6 picks, respectively, in that 1990 draft and he remembers them getting on the phone congratulating each other and saying how ironic it was they went back-to-back. Seau stayed home in San Diego and Carrier went to Chicago, where Duerson taught him the Bears way still shiny with the legendary 1985 Super Bowl season.
"Duerson helped me get acclimated; he took me under his wing," Carrier said. "Then I realized they picked me to replace him. They let him go after training camp, but even when he ended up with the Giants he still treated me great. I'm forever grateful for Dave."
When Carrier was still playing, he talked to Seau often and he was a staple at his charity golf tournament and dinner. When Carrier got into coaching, the calls weren't as frequent, but the feeling was the same. They followed each other's careers and the last time they spoke was after what turned out to be Seau's last game, when Carrier's Ravens knocked the Patriots out of the 2009 playoffs.
"You have kids, you get busy," he said. "If you knew Junior, you had a friend. He made you feel very comfortable. He was like he always was. Enthusiastic. Upbeat. Even though he had just lost a playoff game.
"I think that's what the guys that haven't been around him the last couple of years are wondering. What happened? What was going on? Why couldn't he reach out? There were a lot of people that were there for him."
Because when Carrier thinks of Seau, he thinks of the smile.
"His enthusiasm. His excitement for the game. He loved to play," Carrier said. "No matter where you went to play or who you were playing, you wanted him to be with you. You knew he had your back and that he was going to be the best athlete on the field. His love of the game was contagious."
One game? It has to be the Cal game. At Berkeley.
"Cal was always a big game. They always felt slighted because they felt they were the kids 'SC never recruited," Carrier said. "It was always a hot, heated game. A fight breaks out. Who's in the middle of it? Junior. And he's throwing guys around left and right and I'm thinking, 'Thank God he's on my team.' "