Imagine Briggs' thrill when he finally got the chance to have lunch with Junior Seau. He sounded like an awestruck kid recalling that day.
As with the rest of the NFL, it hit Briggs hard when Seau, 43, took his own life Wednesday by shooting himself in the chest. Like many other amateur physicians, Briggs assumed Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and that a brain injury from 19 NFL seasons contributed to his belief that suicide was the only option.
But I didn't call Briggs only so he could eulogize a fallen idol. I called to ask how Briggs could criticize Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma's season-long suspension as "a bunch of b.s.,'' yet overlook how the penalty made the game safer so perhaps future ex-NFL players don't fall into the apparent emotional abyss Seau did.
It seemed like whining about getting caught running a red light a day after a deadly accident at the most dangerous intersection in town.
Was it ironic or hypocritical that so many players such as Briggs ripped Commissioner Roger Goodell for being heavy-handed with Vilma within hours of mourning the loss of an ex-player possibly suffering from CTE? Both?
"Player safety is best taken care of by providing health insurance for players' lives,'' Briggs said. "Come on. It's like asking a boxer: 'Are your injuries related to taking blows to the head?' We throw our bodies around. It's physical. It's football. You can't stop the violence from happening.''
No, but you can limit it and the league must try — which is why Vilma's penalty was deserved.
Briggs knew we disagreed on this and welcomed the debate. I contend we can preserve football as the beautiful sport of choreographed contact America loves even after the NFL eliminates unnecessary blows to the head and cheap shots. Briggs countered by lamenting hefty fines for unavoidable hits and bemoaning the emasculation of the sport that made him millions.
"Let me make one thing clear: I in no way condone somebody putting money up to intentionally hurt someone,'' Briggs said. "But bounty or not, what did the Saints do on the field that's illegal? All I've seen on TV is clean, physical football. You can get those same highlights from any NFL team.''
I look forward to interviewing Briggs in 10 years to see if he still resents the way Goodell prioritized player safety by punishing intentions as heavily as results.
"It's becoming flag football,'' Briggs said. "We're flying around at 100 mph. In our mindset, to say I need to literally go 5 percent lower (on the body) within a split-second — how do you do that?''
By legislating leaguewide changes more popular with team doctors than players and increasing concussion education. By enforcing discipline in a bolder fashion than other professional sports leagues that, over time, conditions players to avoid the head when tackling. By making decisions on safety that slowly change the football culture at every level.
"What the NFL does doesn't just impact the NFL, it sets a model of behavior for NCAA, Pop Warner, high school football,'' said Jeffrey Mjaanes, the director of the Chicago Sports Concussion Clinic at Rush University Medical Center. "I understand the players' point, but millions of kids watch these guys and it matters what they're doing.''
Since Seau's death, several ex-NFL players have proclaimed they wouldn't let their kids play football. I respect all parents' right to decide the best thing for their children but that sounds like an overreaction, like vowing not to fly again after seeing a news story about a plane crash. My son is 11, and while he prefers other sports, if he were to pursue football I would encourage it based on my own positive experiences. Briggs agreed he never would stand in his son's way because, among other things, football teaches children, "how to get up once you get knocked down.''
With so much concussion awareness, part of me wonders if football ever has been safer. With the sport under siege, parents ask Mjaanes for direction.
"I don't tell kids not to play football,'' Mjaanes said. "But through fair play and proper safeguards, we all need to do it in a way to help protect our brains.''
That's the lesson of the bounty scandal. That's the legacy of Seau, whose tragic death could reinforce that when it comes to head injuries the NFL must continue to be more vigilant — not less.