Dave Duerson: The Ferocious Life and Tragic Death of a Super Bowl Star

Mj 618_348_the ferocious life and tragic death of a super bowl star
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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.
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.”
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.
His missteps, meanwhile, were beginning to throw shade on his fine reputation in the game – a reputation he’d carefully nursed since the day he entered the league. As a rookie in Chicago, Duerson had been chosen by his teammates to be the Bears’ union representative. He was the son of a strong labor man at General Motors and “wanted to make things better for the guys,” says Alicia.

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.’ ”

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.

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