Dave Duerson: The Ferocious Life and Tragic Death of a Super Bowl Star
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The last years of his life, duerson knew he was in decline. He'd gotten divorced from Alicia in 2009 and fled to Florida in glum retreat, dropping out of sight for months on end. (He'd bought the condo, in the twin-tower Ocean One, in Sunny Isles Beach, as a winter house in 2000, but hadn't much used it until he moved in.) On his trips to Chicago to see his kids, he'd complain to Alicia about persistent headaches and frightening spells of blurred vision. "He thought at first he was getting old, but seemed more concerned as time went on," she says. His memory was shot, he wasn't sleeping much, and he had to ask her directions to get around Chicago – a town he'd known cold for 25 years. "He could hide the changes from friends and such, but he couldn't hide them from me. He'd say, 'Remember the time we did such and such?' as if to prove he wasn't fading, but he was."

He was a step above flat broke and trying to hide that, too. He hocked his wedding ring and Rolex watch, unloaded a newer Mercedes and his beloved Harley, and borrowed heavily against the equity in his apartment, though he'd put the place in trust for his four children. Even so, he couldn't make his child-support payments or keep up with his condo fees, and the stress and shame compounded his symptoms and began, it seemed, to derange him.

Says Ron Ben-David, who took over as building manager at the Ocean One towers in 2008: "I called Dave down and asked him politely why he hadn't paid his dues in almost a year. He told me someone had broken into his closet and stolen three paintings he'd bought in Cuba, and unless we reimbursed him the $7,000, he wasn't going to pay the arrears." But Duerson hadn't phoned the cops about his loss or filed an insurance claim, and ultimately paid his back-maintenance fees via wire transfer. A year later, his checks stopped coming again, and again Ben-David called him down. "He said, 'Well, someone stole my paintings. Aren't you going to reimburse me?' And this time they were worth $30,000."

"He was definitely getting worse. I could hear it over the phone," says Alicia. "He was trying to reinvent who he was at 50, and that's hard even when you're thinking straight." Duer­son talked a lot about having "irons in the fire" – some deals in the works with Costco and the USDA – but nothing ever seemed to pan out. When he filed for bankruptcy in Florida last year, he showed annual expenditures of $74,000, an income of less than $34,000, and a consulting business whose only assets were the furniture and equipment in his study. His one frail hope, a Hail Mary, was to get hired as a coach in the NFL. Last fall he phoned Steve Zucker, his former agent, and asked him to make some calls on his behalf. At the time, he had several ex-teammates running teams – Jeff Fisher, then with the Titans, Mike Singletary, then with the 49ers, and Leslie Frazier, who'd taken over in Minnesota – all three also proud alumni of that great Bears defense of the '80s. "His plan was to get a position-coach thing or a job in someone's front office," says Zucker, once a Chicago superagent who is now in his 70s and mostly retired. "I talked to him all the time and had no idea. He sounded so positive on the phone."

With the exception of Alicia and a couple of his old cronies, Duerson told no one how grim things had gotten or how badly his symptoms had unhinged him. He holed up in Florida, where he avoided his neighbors. Beyond the occasional visit from one of his kids, the only break in the deepening gloom was a last-chance love affair. He'd met Antoinette Sykes in May 2010 at a business conference in Las Vegas, where he gave a talk to aspiring entrepreneurs about growing and selling a million-dollar company. By summer, he and Sykes, who owns her own PR and marketing firm in Washington, D.C., were speaking or texting 10 times a day and flying to each other's homes for weeklong stays. In the fall, he proudly showed her off to building manager Ben-David, calling her his "angel" and fiancée. They were scheduled to be married in April 2011, when his daughter, who would be on spring recess, could attend.

"What we shared was so sacred and joyful," Sykes said over the phone from D.C. "I knew he had headaches and – and a lump on his skull that he was worried about, but what I'm reading in the papers now about his brain, it's thrown me for such a loop. Maybe he wanted to shield me, but he seemed so excited about spending the rest of our lives together. On our last night, Valentine's, he joked that I owed him 29 more because we'd committed to 30 years of wedded bliss. And then I flew home to pack my things to move down there…" She breaks off, convulsing.

On February 17, Sykes woke up in Washington to a text from Duerson. It began, "My dear Angel, I love you so much and I'm sorry for my past, but I think this knot on my head is the real deal." Sykes called him, heard nothing back, and became frantic as the morning passed. Sometime after two that afternoon, she called Ben-David and asked him to knock on Duerson's door. When no one answered, she faxed him her permission to use a spare key. "I got the door open, but there was a chair wedged against it. That's when I called 911," he says. Paramedics and cops arrived and pushed their way in. "I heard them in the bedroom, yelling 'Sir! Sir! Is everything all right?' Then they asked me to leave," says Ben-David. Duerson was found shortly after 3 pm. He had shot himself about 12 hours earlier. Apart from the large patch of blood beneath him, the place was immaculate, said Miami-Dade police officers. Veteran detectives, they said they'd never seen a suicide planned and executed so meticulously.

In the months after his death, Duerson has become a wedge for practically anyone with a connection to the sport. The media has mostly lined up with 'Time' magazine, which called him "football's first martyr." Ex-players have sourly mocked his sanctification, denying him any credit for calling attention to CTE in death when he could have worked for justice while alive. Even his Bears teammates are badly split: Some are saddened and shocked by his death, while others deem him selfish and arrogant – "political to the end," groused a former lineman. The dissonance was put best by his son Tregg, now 25. "I just wish he'd played baseball," he told the New York Times five days after Duerson died. But, he added, sobbing, that his father "was looking for an answer and was hoping to be part of an answer."

At some point, it's hoped, Duerson's motives will matter less than the long-haul impact of his passing. A tremor has gone through the league, deep and wide; players are talking openly about football and brain cells and fretting over their own neural health. "Is it something that I think about? Yeah, absolutely," Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk told the Times. He's one of more than a hundred current and former players who've signed over their brains for postmortem study at Boston University. You'd expect forward thinking from a Harvard grad like Birk, rated the sixth-smartest man in sports by Sporting News last year. But the message is getting across to less cerebral types, too. Jim McMahon, the ex-passer and party monster who loved to celebrate touchdowns with ringing head butts, is battling serious memory problems and has also agreed to send his brain to Boston. "What the fuck do I need it for when I'm dead?" he says. That gesture, if not the sentiment, will be part of the answer to the questions Duerson lived and died to raise.