Sports fans can't be blamed for not paying more attention to the death of Dave Duerson.
The former Pro Bowl safety was a fiery field leader on a 1985 Chicago Bears defense famous for backing up its bluster with vicious efficiency. Duerson didn’t dance or preen after sacking the quarterback on a blitz. He barked, as a junkyard dog would.
But that “Super Bowl Shuffle” group disbanded decades ago. While Duerson had been an indispensable cog for the Bears – and went on to earn a second Super Bowl ring with the 1990 New York Giants – he wasn’t a Hall of Famer who gained household-name status through endorsements.
Besides, the details of Duerson’s death – he was killed by a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest – were revealed late Saturday night, during one of those chaotic sports weekends that found basketball, baseball, hockey, auto racing and golf converging.
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So as Blake Griffin was winning a slam-dunk contest at the NBA All-Star weekend by jumping over the hood of a parked Kia, to the tune of a choir singing “I Believe I Can Fly,” and Trevor Bayne was turning 20 and preparing for an implausible Daytona 500 victory, the news of Duerson’s suicide garnered few headlines.
But know this: Nothing should have more of an impact on the NFL – specifically, the owners’ wish to expand the regular season from 16 to 18 games – than Duerson’s decision to end his life at age 50.
His was a riches-to-rags saga: A three-sport high school star and honor student, he graduated from Notre Dame with an economics degree.
Following a pro football career that included a 1987 NFL Man of the Year award for his charitable contributions, Duerson began a small business that gradually grew into a big business. He lived in a luxurious home with his wife and four children, in an upscale Chicago suburb. He was appointed to Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees.
And then his life came apart. The business tanked. The home was put up for foreclosure. A domestic-violence arrest – he pleaded guilty to pushing his wife – led to a divorce and his resignation from the Board of Trustees at his beloved alma mater.
An imposing athlete fast enough to return punts and strong enough to deliver the sort of gong-show hits expected of a linebacker, Duerson still impressed ex-teammates at reunions as one of the fittest, smartest, most self-assured guys in the room.
It was an act.
That beautiful mind apparently was broken in ways Duerson sensed but could never prove.
The fact he chose to shoot himself in the chest was significant.
Before his suicide, Duerson sent texts to family members asking that his brain be donated for research of CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain condition believed to be caused by major collisions.
One of the first diagnosed victims of CTE was the great Steelers center Mike Webster, whose brain was examined after his 2002 death from a heart attack. Webster’s erratic behavior – he had been homeless for several years, despite offers of assistance from family and friends – was traced to the sustained punishment he took to the head. (Some doctors estimated that over a 25-year football career that began in high school, Webster endured the equivalent of 25,000 car crashes.)
Since Webster, some 20 other deceased NFL players were found to have symptoms of CTE – including former Eagles safety Andre Waters, who killed himself in 2007. (Waters was 44. His brain tissue resembled that of an 85-year man with Alzheimer’s.)
None of the league’s CTE victims realized they had a brain disease inflicted by the collisions their sport demanded. But Duerson, active in the NFL Players Association long after his retirement, no doubt was familiar with the degenerative condition that had turned a happy life, rich with personal and professional accomplishments, into a nightmare.
“It ought to terrify anyone that’s played the game,” former 49ers guard Randy Cross told the New York Times on Sunday.
While reports of Duerson’s knowledge of brain trauma surfaced as a suicide motive, the stalemate continued between the NFL owners and the players association over a new collective bargaining agreement. No issue is more cumbersome than the league’s desire to replace two exhibition games each season with two meaningful games.
The longer the season, the more every player absorbs hits to the head. The more hits to the head in successive weeks, the greater the risk of the kind of middle-aged dementia once only associated with boxers who took on too many opponents on a too-aggressive schedule.
As long as football remains a full-contact game – beginning in the trenches, where 320-pound men barrel into other 320-pound men – there’s no fail-safe method to prevent the concussions that can scramble a brain. But rules have been tweaked.
The head slaps that Webster took over 25 years are illegal, as are the helmet-to-helmet hits commonplace during Duerson’s era. The rules can be tweaked some more.
Helmets can be made safer, too, for both the tacklers and the tackled.
(Why is it that the most dramatic advances in sports-equipment technology have been limited to golf clubs?)
But the first priority is do some simple math: If a 16-game season already presents potential dangers to the long-term mental health of a player, an 18-game season presents even more potential dangers.
If the players compromise on this issue, shame on them. If the owners press the issue, may their first encounter in the afterlife be the 22-year-old Dave Duerson, barking at the gate.