Dave Duerson: The Ferocious Life and Tragic Death of a Super Bowl Star
Credit: Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images

Editor's Note: On May 2, 2011, doctors at the Center for Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine announced that Dave Duerson was suffering from a “moderately advanced” case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a disease linked to repeated blows to the head whose symptoms can include memory loss, depression and dementia – when he committed suicide three months earlier. 17 months later, after four years of research, Duerson's CTE was confirmed in the scientific journal 'Brain.' In February 2011, Paul Solotaroff and Rick Telander covered Duerson’s once-charmed life and sad end.

Dave Duerson set the scene with a hangman's care before climbing into bed with the revolver. The former Pro Bowl safety for the Super Bowl–champion 1985 Chicago Bears drew the curtains of his beachfront Florida condo, laid a shrine of framed medals and an American flag to his father, a World War II vet, and pulled the top sheet up over his naked body, a kindness to whoever found him later. On the dining room table were notes and a typed letter that were alternately intimate and official, telling his former wife where his assets were and whom to get in touch with to settle affairs. He detailed his motives for ending his life, citing the rupture of his family and the collapse of his finances, a five-year cliff dive from multimillionaire to a man who couldn't pay his condo fees. Mostly, though, he talked about a raft of ailments that pained and depressed him past all tolerance: starburst headaches and blurred vision, maddening craters in his short-term memory, and his helplessness getting around the towns he knew. Once a man so acute he aced his finals at Notre Dame with little study time, he found himself now having to dash down memos about what he was doing and when. Names, simple words, what he'd eaten for dinner – it was all washing out in one long wave.

No one had to tell him what those symptoms implied or what lay in store if he stuck around. Once a savage hitter on the best defense the game has ever seen, Duerson filled the punch list for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the neuron-killing condition so rampant these days among middle-aged veterans of the National Football League. Andre Waters and Terry Long, both dead by their own hands; John Mackey and Ralph Wenzel, hopelessly brain-broke in their 50s. It was a bad way to die and a worse way to live, warehoused for decades in a fog, unable, finally, to know your own kids when they came to see you at the home.

Among the personal effects Duerson arranged that night in February was the master clue to the act he'd soon commit, Exhibit A in a life turned sideways: his 1987 NFL Man of the Year trophy. It was a testimonial to a former colossus, a player whose brilliance on the football field was a taste of much grander things to come. Future meat-processing magnate and potential congressman, or successor to Gene Upshaw as director of the NFL Players Association – that Dave Duerson was all forward motion, the rarest amalgam of outsize smarts and inborn ambition. This version, though – the one slumped in bed with the .38 Special to his chest – this one had run into walls, head lowered, and he, not the walls, had buckled first.

Still, when someone turns a gun on himself, there are bound to be messy questions. Why, given the spate of concussions in the NFL season just past, would Duerson elect to keep silent about his suspected ailment at precisely the moment he should have spoken? Why would a man who knew as much about brain woes as anyone who's ever played the game, having served for six years and read thousands of case files as a trustee on the NFL's pension board, not have sought treatment and financial compensation from the very committee he sat on? And why, bizarrely, did he deny those very benefits to the men who needed them most, brain-dimmed veterans living in pain and squalor and seeking relief from the league?

Perhaps to stanch these questions, Duerson dispatched a blitz of texts in the last couple of hours of his life, some of them making an emphatic plea: Get my brain to the NFL's brain bank in Boston. The meaning of the texts seems plain enough: I'm sick and my mind's failing from all the helmet-to-helmet collisions in 11 brutal seasons in the NFL. Please see to it that my cortex is studied by doctors seeking treatments for brain trauma – and inquire no further about my reasons. It was a grandiose gesture, killing himself at 50 so that current and future players might be spared this horror, and was italicized by a second theatrical stroke: He shot himself through the heart, not the head, to preserve his brain for science.

But the dramatics of the act didn't sanctify him or absolve him of blame for the part he'd played in the suffering of other ex-players. If anything, Duerson's death has become a referendum on his, and his sport's, brutality, a prism through which to finally take a look at the cost of all those hits.