Dave Duerson: The Ferocious Life and Tragic Death of a Super Bowl Star
Credit: Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images
As his playing days dwindled, Duerson weighed his options, beginning with politics. "Both the Republican and Democratic parties in Chicago tabbed him to run for office," says Harold Rice, one of Duerson's oldest friends and the man who accompanied Alicia and Tregg to Florida after Duerson's death. "Dave wanted to be a difference maker, but realized pretty quick that it wasn't worth the scrutiny."

Rice, who owned a McDonald's, urged him to enter his business instead. Duerson opened a franchise in Louisville, Kentucky, his first year out of football, then got an attractive offer from a McDonald's supplier: There was an ownership opportunity in a meat-processing plant an hour outside Chicago. Duerson bought a controlling stake and, with his contacts and charm, promptly doubled the plant's revenue to more than $60 million a year. He bought himself a huge house in Highland Park, just up the road from Michael Jordan's place, engraved his jersey number, NFL 22, on the driveway pillars, and spent a bundle on exotic cars, including a midnight-blue Mercedes SL 600 with the vanity plate DD22. By then he'd had four kids with Alicia, had local sports talk shows on both radio and television, and was jetting off to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for months at a time for the executive program there. "Dave loved it at Harvard, getting to network with CEOs and bounce ideas off presidents of foreign companies," says Alicia. "When he took us to Europe, it was first class all the way: stretch limos, four-star dining, and – his big dream – flying in the Concorde."

But friction eventually sparked between Duerson and his partner at the plant, who resented his comings and goings. In 2002, Duerson sold his interest to open his own processing plant nearby. It was the first big mistake in a life of shrewd decisions, and caught Duerson flat-footed, stunned by failure.

From the beginning, Duerson Foods had disaster written all over it. He shelled out millions to gut and double the factory's floor space, then borrowed heavily to buy state-of-the-art freezers from a company in the Netherlands. They were impressive to look at but so unsound that he had to postpone opening by six months. He fell behind on his schedule to supply Burger King and Olive Garden, and soon he was leveraged to the hilt. At his swank offices in Lincolnshire, Illinois, employees, some of them relatives, saw a change. His niece, Yvette Fuse, would call Rice in a panic to say that "Dave was berating people, acting mean." Duerson borrowed more, using his house as collateral, and sued the freezer maker. He won a $34 million judgment, but the company filed for bankruptcy and never paid him a dime. By 2006, creditors were raining down lawsuits, and Duerson, broke and heartsick, shut the plant. He'd lost his mother to a heart attack and his house to the finance company, and his father was ailing with Alzheimer's (he died in 2009). "The pressure on him was phenomenal," said Rice. "It would've taken Superman not to break."

As it turned out, Duerson had broken, if briefly. In February 2005, he and Alicia drove to South Bend for a meeting of Notre Dame's board of trustees, of which he was a member. During a small-hours argument at their hotel, he threw her out the door of their room into the hallway wall. Alicia suffered cuts to her head and went to the ER with dizziness and pain. Duerson was charged with several misdemeanor counts and later pleaded guilty to domestic battery. In an interview, he called that night "a three-second snap," but it was played up big in the Chicago papers and forced his resignation from Notre Dame's board of trustees. Alicia, looking back now through the prism of his death, sees a clear demarcation in his conduct. The old Dave, she says, "would never do that; he never showed violence toward me. It was the changes," she says of his new hair-trigger temper, sudden downshifts in mood, and lack of impulse control – all signs of brain trauma.