For more than 60 years, the owners had run roughshod over the players, shackling stars to teams and imposing whatever terms they liked in collective negotiations. Duerson deftly held the Bears together through the bitter 1987 strike and beyond, and became a key adviser to, and close friend of, Gene Upshaw, the union's chief executive. "The two of them traveled together, even during the season, to talk to players about their rights," says Alicia. "Dave believed in the cause with all his heart and set himself to learning about labor laws so he could explain it clearly to the guys."
In 1992 and 1993, the players finally turned the tables in a pair of historic trials in federal court. Duerson was a featured plaintiff in one, and his tour de force performance on the witness stand helped fray the owners' resolve to keep on fighting. "He was so knowledgeable on the facts and spoke them so beautifully that you could really feel the tide start to turn," says ESPN.com legal analyst Lester Munson, who covered the trial for Sports Illustrated.
The owners grudgingly cut a deal, awarding free agency and a broad slate of rights to players. Among the key gains was the creation of a board to hear the disability claims not only of active players but of retirees whose injuries prevented them from holding a job. The board was composed of six trustees (three each of management and union members, the latter being appointed by Upshaw), and the disability money, many hundreds of millions of dollars, was funded almost entirely by owners.
Right from its inception, though, an odd thing happened: In case after case before the board, former players were denied assistance or put through a maze of second opinions and paperwork. Men with bent spines and diced joints were told they could still hold a paying job and so were ineligible for aid. Then there were the veterans coming forward in their 40s and 50s with the brain scans of aging boxers who also had their claims voted down by the board. "They made it real clear that they'd fight me to the death, like they did with Mike Webster," says Brent Boyd, a Vikings guard in the '80s who suffers from clinical depression related to brain trauma. (Webster, the Hall of Fame center of the Steelers, was profoundly impaired by CTE and lived out of his truck at times before he died at 50.) "They were supposed to push for us, but were in the owners' pockets. You had to live in a wheelchair to collect."
In 2006, a particularly fraught time in the struggles between veterans and the players union, Upshaw decided to name his old friend Duerson to the pension board. This seemed a peculiar choice at best: Duerson had been out of the sport for a decade, was tarnished by the recent incident in South Bend, and ran a company that was coming apart. Any doubts about Duerson – and Upshaw's critics had plenty – were quickly ratified by his demeanor. The man who'd been so eloquent in federal court under the grilling of NFL lawyers was barging around town like a pit bull on crank, attacking former players at every turn. At a congressional hearing in 2007 to investigate the ex-players' charges, Duerson started a shoving match with Sam Huff and Bernie Parrish, two former greats speaking out for injured vets. He maligned Brent Boyd to a Senate committee, questioning whether his documented brain woes were actually caused by football. He took to talk radio to disparage Mike Ditka, saying his old coach, who'd raised money for vets, had never cared about his players' health. The worst of it, though, was his sliming of Brian DeMarco, a crippled veteran with several crushed vertebrae who'd gone public about his rejection by the union. Duerson tore into him on a call-in radio show, deriding him as a liar and an insurance fraud, then appeared on a Chicago TV program to ambush DeMarco in person.
His mad-dog behavior was very much in line with the way he voted on claims. Says Cy Smith, the lawyer who won a landmark lawsuit on behalf of Mike Webster's estate: "I get dozens of these files coming across my desk – stark, sad cases of guys really banged up – and the vast majority of these judgments are 6–0 against the players. That's a gross breach of practice by the board and a clear pattern of bias against paying." That Duerson was siding with management – and, apparently, Upshaw – is no surprise to his critics. Says Huff, the New York Giants Hall of Fame linebacker: "Dave wanted Gene's job when he finally stepped down, and was saying and doing whatever Gene wanted, or whatever he thought he wanted." Indeed, Duerson told people he'd been handpicked by Upshaw to succeed him as union chief, a position that paid nearly $7 million a year and was essentially a lifetime appointment. When Upshaw died in 2008, Duerson didn't get the post (attorney DeMaurice Smith did), though he retained his seat on the board.
Whatever Duerson's motives for voting against veterans, they ran counter to a life spent helping others. At Duerson Foods, he'd paid the healthcare premiums for his factory-floor workers and footed the college tuition for kids from inner-city Chicago. That doesn't assuage the retired players he turned down, whose rancor isn't softened by his death. "He caused more suffering personally than all the other board members combined," says Boyd. Adds John Hogan, a lawyer who assists former players with their disability claims: "He really could've changed the story for vets, and done it from the inside without saying mea culpa. He didn't have to indict the system. All he had to do was say, publicly, ‘I'm sick, and I need help like these other guys.' "