Dave Duerson: The Ferocious Life and Tragic Death of a Super Bowl Star
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If you're the kind of fan who keeps a mental lineup of ex-players headed for bad endings, Dave Duerson was the last name to make your list. Virtually from birth he'd been a special case, a gold-star guy who didn't bull through problems so much as soar above them. The youngest of four children born to Julia and Arthur Duerson Jr. in working-class Muncie, Indiana, he was as exceptional off the field as he was on it. A big, powerful kid with a nose for the ball and the long-stride speed to get there first, he dominated boys two and three years older in football from the time he hit sixth grade. (He excelled at baseball and basketball, as well.) Even then, though, his dreams were broader than jock stardom. Among friends he talked brashly about owning his own factories and running for the Senate someday. Duerson made the National Honor Society in high school, learned the trumpet and tuba by the age of 15, and toured overseas in an ambassador's band while earning 10 varsity letters.

With his pick of football factories like Texas and USC, Duerson chose South Bend for its glorious campus and network of corporate contacts. "From when I met him in seventh grade, he was positioning himself for a career after football," says Dave Adams, Duerson's teammate at Northside High and his roommate at Notre Dame. He interned at a law firm, then for Indiana Senator Richard Lugar.

"Sports were the springboard," says his ex-wife Alicia, who met him at a bowl game his freshman year. "He made so many plans for such a young age and had the brains to pull it all off. He had a photographic memory, which used to make me mad, because he'd barely study and get A's, where I'd be up a week of nights and be happy to get a B." A four-year starter at Notre Dame and a team captain, Duerson was as proud of his degree in economics as of making All-American, which he did twice.

Duerson was nothing if not complicated. He had, besides ambition and swagger to burn, a deep well of kindness and soul. You could see it in the way he honored Muncie, returning each summer to run a camp for poor kids in memory of a high school friend who'd drowned, and you could hear it later from the teens he sent to college after making it big with the Bears. "Everything he did was a teaching tool," says Michael Gorin, a family friend and retired teacher from Muncie whose son Brandon attended Duerson's camp and went on to play nine years in the NFL. "He had the Super Bowl rings but kept harping on academics. My son says they talk about him at Harvard."

Harvard would come later, after Duerson got done playing and commuted to Cambridge for an executive program at the business school. Long before that, though, he got a brawler's education when he showed up at Bears training camp as a third-round pick. He should have gone higher in the '83 draft, but his talk about law school and political aspirations probably set him back a round or two. Buddy Ryan, the great, brutish coordinator of Chicago's 46 defense, loathed rookies, especially rookies with more on their mind than earholing Packers. "He knew I'd gone to Notre Dame and asked if I was one of those doctors or lawyers," Duerson said in an interview he gave last year for a book about Americans turning 50. "I said, 'Yes, sir.' He said, 'Well, you won't be here long, because I don't like smart niggers'" – a comment Ryan has denied making.

Dan Hampton, a Hall of Fame lineman on that absurdly dominant Bears defense, offers a different take. "Buddy didn't care if you were black, white, or green: He wanted smashmouth, and Duerson wouldn't nail guys. In practice, Buddy'd yell, 'That shit ain't cuttin' it! You dive on the ground again, I'm firing you!'"

Duerson submitted to doing it Ryan's way and became a ferocious hitter. He mostly covered kicks his first two seasons and backed up Pro Bowl safety Todd Bell. Then, in '85, Bell held out for more money, and Ryan had no choice but to start Duerson. "I played through that whole season with [Buddy] telling me that he was rooting for me to screw up," Duerson said in a 2005 interview. "So I became an All-Pro myself." On that banzai unit, which jammed the line with 10 men, Duerson came screaming off the edge on blitzes. In 1986, his second season as a starter, he had seven sacks, a record for defensive backs that stood till 2005. He made the Pro Bowl four years running, a breakout star on a squad of loud assassins. Tellingly, it was Duerson who, with linebacker Otis Wilson, developed the unit's calling card. After an especially vicious shot, they'd stand over their victim, barking and baying like junkyard dogs.

Of course, football has a way of evening things up between predators and prey. In his 11-year run with the Bears, Giants (where he won another Super Bowl, in 1990), and Cardinals, Duerson suffered multiple minor concussions, though he was never knocked out cold. Emerging after games in a pair of dark glasses and wincing against the dusk, he'd complain of nausea and ringing headaches, says his ex-wife Alicia. "Dave would get concussed on the first or second series and play the whole way through, or get a dinger in the second half and be back at practice Wednesday morning," she says. "Dave had one speed, and that was full-out."

In the years to come, he'd have cause to rethink that, at least when it came to his kids. His middle son, Tregg, now a bank analyst in Chicago, was a highly regarded prep-school running back who'd go on to play defensive back at Notre Dame. One game in high school, Tregg was dazed from a tackle and wobbled off the field. Watching from the stands, Duerson ran down to the sideline and snatched Tregg's helmet so he couldn't return; at halftime he whisked him off to the hospital to be checked out. Tregg had a concussion. "Just to be on the safe side," says Alicia, "Dave wouldn't let him play for three games."