NEW YORK – In an offseason marked by Junior Seau's suicide and scores of lawsuits over brain injuries, the NFL on Thursday launched a comprehensive wellness program for current and retired players — including a confidential mental health service.
"There is no higher priority for the National Football League than the health and wellness of our players," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in an email Thursday to more than 11,000 players announcing NFL Total Wellness.
"This service is here for you."
An outside agency will run NFL Life Line, a free consultation service to inform players and family members about the signs of crisis, symptoms of common mental health problems, as well as where to get help. Experts in suicide prevention and substance abuse are among those involved in developing and administering the program.
The site also features special video messages from various NFL stars, including Brett Favre, Michael Irvin, Michael Strahan, Herschel Walker, Jevon Kearse and Cris Carter, urging players to get help and know they are not alone.
Gridiron Greats President Shannon Jordan said the program is long overdue.
"Unfortunately sometimes it takes a tragedy to put something together quicker, but we're just happy that it's finally here and we'll keep expanding on it," said Jordan, who is part of the effort.
"There are a lot of pieces that still need to be worked out, but we couldn't be more elated to be able to refer guys to a program like this and hopefully save a lot more lives."
The announcement comes as many training camps are getting under way.
It also comes just days after Ken Stabler became the latest big name from the NFL's past to sue the league over head injuries.
Stabler is the first plaintiff among 73 listed in a federal lawsuit filed Monday in Philadelphia, where other cases involving more than 2,400 players recently were consolidated into one master complaint.
Like Stabler, the other retirees claim the NFL did not do enough to shield them from the long-term effects of repeated hits to the head, even when medical evidence established a connection between head trauma in football and health problems later in life.
Stabler, 66, claimed in the lawsuit he has experienced cognitive difficulties, including headaches, dizziness, depression, fatigue, sleep problems, irritability and numbness/tingling in his spine.
Others raised questions only after their deaths.
Seau's family recently requested that brain tissue of the NFL linebacker be sent to the National Institutes of Health for examination.
The former All-Pro died May 2 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. He was 43, just 2 1/2 years retired from a career that saw him named to 12 Pro Bowls.
His death had similarities to that of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest last year. Duerson left a suicide note, asking that his brain be studied for signs of trauma.
While not mentioning the lawsuits or deaths, Goodell's emailed letter noted that members of the NFL family are not immune to challenges all individuals face.
"Junior's tragedy was unfortunate," said NFL exec Troy Vincent, who will help run the new wellness program. "The attention that surrounded his death . and I appreciate Roger's commitment to this area because his question was a fundamental straight-forward question. 'What else could we be doing?'"
Vincent, vice president of NFL Player Engagement, said the Life Line, run by an outside agency, is one step, as are efforts to take away the stigma associated with mental health issues.
The video messages emphasize that.
Irvin, in a poignant message filmed last month, addressed his "brothers" and urged them to be open.
"We are part of an NFL family," Irvin said. "We do have to look out for one another the way we did on the football field. . We have to share with one another . but we don't talk. We shut up and . we implode. We put ourselves in isolation and that's the worst thing you can do."
NFL executive Robert Gulliver hopes more stars will join in.
"What really struck me is the messages were so authentic and I think that authenticity is part of the culture change," said Gulliver, NFL executive vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer. "For people to share their own life stories ... that authenticity breaks down some of the barriers."
Thursday's announcement came following a meeting at NFL offices attended by Goodell, Dr. David Satcher, a former U.S. Surgeon General, Gridiron Great's Jordan, Vincent and Gulliver.
Satcher has conducted 14 mental health forums for NFL retired players over the past two years and will coordinate more events across the country as well as online webinars.
"It's time for us as a nation to deal more aggressively with issues related to mental health, and by the NFL dealing with it, it's going to encourage a lot of other people to deal with it," Satcher said.
He said one of the best ways to prevent suicide is to reduce the stigma of mental illness.
NFL officials said while Seau's death was very high profile, the numbers across the board are low. They said in the past 25 years there have been 13 documented suicides by those who played in the NFL.
"But one is too many," Vincent said.
Gulliver, who helped spearhead quality-of-workplace initiatives in the league office, will help run the program along with Vincent.
Gulliver and Vincent are charged with establishing an advisory board that will include former players and coaches and medical professionals. The board in part will help develop a training program for peer counselors and transition coaches.
"We want to make sure we're providing the right services, that they're accessible and easy to use," Gulliver said.
The NFL Player Care Foundation will build upon its national health screening program for former players, with Hall of Famers Dick Butkus and Mike Haynes serving as ambassadors.
The league will fund NFL Life Line but Link2Health Solutions and a coalition of mental health leaders will administer it.
NFL Life Line is a phone consultation and web-based service for everyone involved with the NFL, including current and former players, coaches, team staff and family members.
The NFL stressed that all calls and visits to the website will remain completely confidential. It will have online chat capabilities, a self-assessment quiz and list of available programs.
"The thing that's very important, and groundbreaking really, is also its inclusion of family members, having family members be able to call the line as well," said Timothy Lineberry, a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist and suicide expert in Rochester, Minn. "It's a confidential line, and we know that people are willing to call a confidential line to get help and get resources and be able to get somewhere where they can get help."