Dave Duerson’s Story

Dave Duerson’s Story

Note: This post originally appeared in November of 2015, before the release of the movie. It has not been updated.

On February 17, 2011, Antoinette Sykes received a text from her fiancée Dave Duerson that alarmed her:

“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.” 

The knot Duerson referenced was a lump on his hand that he feared was the cause of memory loss, painful headaches and erratic behavior.

Sykes tried, unsuccessfully, to call Duerson multiple times. Separated by hundreds of miles—he n Sunny Isles Beach, Florida,  she in Washington D.C.—Sykes called the building manager of his condominium and faxed permission to enter the unit.

When the manager tried to open the door to Duerson’s residence he discovered a chair wedging the door closed. He called the police.

When authorities entered Duerson’s home, they found him on his bed laying in a pool of blood. He was dead, with a .38 Special handgun nearby.

Detectives said they had never seen a suicide scene that was so well-kept, everything in its place. They also found a letter to his family and this separate note:

Duerson committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. He chose to put a bullet through his heart because he wanted his brain to be given to the NFL’s Brain Bank at Boston University’s School of Medicine in order for it to be studied.

Duerson suspected he was suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease linked to depression, cognitive impairment and, sometimes, suicide. Three months later, doctors at the University confirmed Duerson indeed had been suffering from CTE.

Trauma to his head had caused a protein known as Tau to form around blood vessels in his brain, which killed nerve cells. Over time, the disruptive protein produced rage, depression, memory loss and extreme pain. There is only one way Duerson could have suffered the trauma leading to his specific case of CTE: Playing football.

There is a dramatic irony to Duerson’s suicide, and it is one that Hollywood is utilizing to the fullest in the upcoming movie appropriately entitled, Concussion.

Duerson, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame with a degree in economics, was a brilliant man.

When I first met him in 1987, we were working on a project at Walt Disney World for WBBM-TV. During the long breaks in between videotaping, Duerson would dive into the Wall Street Journal, studying every page as if he was cramming for a final college exam.

Dave and I in 1987

When we spoke football he described with relish his bone-crushing hits. One time, he recalled hitting Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Franco Harris, saying he was “soft… like a sponge.” “After that first hit,” Duerson went on, “he didn’t want anything to do with me. He’d head for the sideline.”

Duerson loved to hit. And, when his first defensive coach with the Chicago Bears, Buddy Ryan, chided him for his interest in business and politics, Duerson would hit his opponents even harder.

The Miami New Times reported that when he was a star player at Notre Dame, every Friday night before a game, he re-read They Call Me Assassin—the memoir written by longtime Los Angeles Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum, who, in 1978, left a wide receiver paralyzed from the neck down after a vicious collision.

Duerson received the proper honors for a man of his athletic skills, business acumen and service to the community. He was a very influential member of the players’ union and was the lead plaintiff and star witness in the union’s monumental free-agency litigation.

Lester Munson, who covers legal issues for ESPN said, “He was so knowledgeable on the facts and spoke them so beautifully that you could really feel the tide start to turn,” in favor of the players’ union.

After his playing career, I saw Duerson again at a fundraising event for Ronald McDonald House Charities. Duerson now had controlling interests in a successful meat company in Wisconsin, with annual revenues north of $60 million. He was, predictably, extremely successful.

That night I saw him in his element. The victories on the football field and the voracious reading of Wall Street Journals had brought him here: operating a successful business, hobnobbing with wealthy and influential people while making millions.

Then things began to change.

His businesses began to fail. He assaulted his wife, which led to his resignation from the Notre Dame board of trustees. The divorce. His huge Highland Park home—near Michael Jordan’s estate—was foreclosed upon. Child support payments were missed. Bankruptcy. Everything was falling apart.

People close to Duerson could not fathom what was wrong. He confided in only a few people about his health concerns, including his ex-wife, Alicia. “He was definitely getting worse. I could hear it over the phone,” she told Paul Solotaroff of Men’s Journal Magazine.

In 2006, Duerson got a call from his old friend Gene Upshaw, the longtime head of the National Football League’s Players’ Union (NFLPA). The two were close, especially after Duerson was the NFLPA’s star witness years earlier.

Upshaw wanted him to serve as a trustee on the very board Duerson’s expert testimony helped create. The board read applications, heard testimonies and studied detailed doctors’ reports to decide if a portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars set aside for disability claims would be designated to players and their families.

 

This is the part of the story that Hollywood picks up on. For some reason, Duerson, who had once used his keen intellect to fight for players’ rights and benefits, took a very strong stance against players who claimed football had left them disabled and unable to work.

The board had already attracted a reputation of being very stingy. Duerson furthered that image. In a February 2012 Chicago Tribune column, former Minnesota Vikings lineman Brent Boyd told David Haugh, “I have dedicated my life for six years to make sure retirees get the benefits they deserve, and Dave Duerson was an obstacle to that goal.”

Hollywood movies are filled with irony. The story of a man denying brain trauma victims their rightful disability funds, when he himself showed the very same symptoms, is irony at its most dramatic.

In Concussion, the role of Duerson is played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. You might remember him playing the sinister Simon Adebisi in the HBO prison drama, OZ.

I have yet to see the movie. It will be released to the general public on Christmas Day. In a version of the Concussion script I read —  SPOILER ALERT —  Duerson is confronted by former NFL player Andre Waters, who has been denied benefits by him and the committee:

Waters: Why is the committee doing  this?

Duerson: There are five other trustees. You talk to them?

Waters: You’re the only one who played; who knows what it is to be us. You and me were the same. Bangers. HITMEN.

Duerson: File the appeal.

Waters: You denied the appeal! Something’s wrong with me, man.

Duerson: You look alright —

The confrontation gets more heated and then Waters concludes by telling Duerson:

Waters: “Deny, deny, hope they die.” That’s what we say about you. Your goddamn motto.

— END SPOILER ALERT —

It’s alleged that Duerson played hardball with the players in an effort to land Upshaw’s job as head of the Players’ Union. Rumors stated that Upshaw was in the pocket of the owners and Duerson was showing Upshaw and the owners that he would play along.

These accusations have never been substantiated.

In the end, both in the movie and Duerson’s life, we are left with a tragic figure: The one-time NFL Man of the Year; a leader both on-and-off the field; a business king respected by his colleagues; and a loving husband and father… who loses everything—his fortune, his self-respect and his life.

It must be said that Duerson’s family has seen the movie and dispute how the film portrays him.

 

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Aldo Gandia

Aldo Gandia

Among my career highlights I have produced two films while in high school that received nationwide attention; leaned out of a helicopter over the Gulf of Suez at the age of 20 to shoot movies of oil rigs; won an Emmy award for a sports special and another for a kid's fitness show; and led a team of very talented creative professionals to produce break-through corporate communications.


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Buddy RyanconcussionDave Duerson

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