7 | Dave Duerson: Long-Term Brain Damage in Football
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7 / Dave Duerson Long-Term Brain Damage in Football February 17, 2011 Sunny Isles Beach was about as far from Soldier Field—both geographically and figuratively—as a football fan could imagine. Yet that warm, relaxed Florida locale—not the stadium where Dave Duerson was feared by offenses as a famed defensive back for the Chicago Bears—is where the injury that could change the sport forever occurred. His condo in Sunny Isles Beach is where Duerson chose to commit suicide. According to Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune, Duerson’s ex-wife Alicia received a text message at 3:00 that morning. “I love you. I always loved you. I love our kids,” Duerson texted. Three days earlier, Duerson had talked to his three sons and one daughter for the last time. He wished them a happy Valentine ’s Day and told them, as he told Alicia, that he loved them. After Alicia tried to call him several times with no answer, she received a final text from Dave Duerson. “Please, see that my brain is given to the N.F.L.’s brain bank.”1 To understand why the four-time Pro Bowl safety would make such a request, we must look back at his football career. Despite being a four-year starter at Notre Dame, team captain, and all-American selection, Duerson fell to the third round in the 1983 NFL draft. Talk of the Fighting Irish star’s future legal and political ambitions might have played a role, but defensive teammate Dan Hampton had a different view. In an interview with Paul Solotaroff in Men’s Journal, Hampton recounted how Duerson initially seemed too soft to defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. “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!’ ”2 Duerson grew to accept Ryan’s charge, and he became known as one of the fiercest hitters in the sport. In only his second season as a starter on that famed Bears defense, Duerson recorded seven sacks. Those seven sacks were the most by a defensive back ever in a season, a record that would not fall for almost 20 years. 104 / That’s Gotta Hurt In hindsight, it’s probably easy to see that those hits took as much of a toll on Duerson as they probably did on the recipient. Alicia recalled that the blows did little to deter her ex-husband. “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 recounted to Solotaroff.3 Did Dave Duerson’s suicide result from damage related to those concussions? “I don’t want to say that was the reason,” Alicia Duerson told the Chicago Tribune. “I don’t want to give a reason because I don’t know. I only know what he told me—‘Get my brain to the NFL. I think there is something wrong with the left side of my brain.’ ”4 Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune provided an account of Duerson’s careful planning of his final act. At 2:30 p.m., Duerson’s fiancée, Antoinette Sykes, called Ron Ben-David, the general manager of Ocean One, the condominium where the former Bears star now lived. She asked Ben-David to check on Duerson because she had not heard from him. Ben-David knocked on the door and got no response. Minutes later, two security guards reported that Duerson’s SUV was parked in his spot. Sykes granted Ben-David the right to enter the condo. He and the guards tried to use a key to enter, but the door wouldn’t open. Ben-David called 911 at 2:51 p.m. Fourteen minutes later paramedics arrived, followed shortly by police officers. They pushed through a chair that was keeping the door from opening. The officers found Duerson lying under a sheet in a pool of blood. In one of the notes he left, Duerson described his family issues, his financial trouble, and his growing mental issues. And as he expressed to his ex-wife, he stressed that he wanted to donate his brain to science.5 By shooting himself in the chest, Dave Duerson gave researchers the ability to study his brain. Roughly...


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Subject Headings

  • Athletes -- United States -- Biography.
  • Athletes -- Health and hygiene.
  • Sports medicine -- History.
  • Sports injuries -- History.
  • Sports -- United States -- History.
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