Far afield: Game changer

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Jason Kelly

Reports that Dave Duerson had killed himself didn’t make me think of football at first. They stirred up vague recollections about business and family problems that made news in recent years. The game’s potential role didn’t register until the chilling detail that he shot himself in the chest, preserving his brain to be tested for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a football side effect.

“Please see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank,” he wrote in text messages to family members and, in case they didn’t go through, in a handwritten note. Results will take months, but if Duerson had the disease — thought to cause dementia and depression among other debilitating effects on the brain — it will add a cymbal crash to the concussive drumbeat of medical evidence. About 20 deceased former football players, including a 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania suicide victim, have been diagnosed with CTE.

Limited but mounting studies of brain tissue have revealed the premature accumulation of a protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease, implicating football’s head-first force in an array of health and behavioral problems. Not just cognitive impairment, but personality changes and increases in violence or substance abuse, depression and even suicide.

Duerson, 50, reportedly had memory loss and increasing difficulty communicating — and apparently he had enough awareness of those problems to speculate among friends that he had CTE. He had an up-close view of its effects. As a member of the panel that considers former NFL players’ disability claims, Duerson knew the frightening details of the disease.

As The New York Times reported, his consciousness of the issue was such that, when the topic of dementia came up at a meeting of former players last year and some in the audience seemed to tune it out, he spoke up: “Pay attention to what this guy’s telling you. It’s stuff you’re going to need to know.”

In retrospect it’s impossible not to wonder how much a long career of high-speed collisions contributed to his post-football struggles, which had increased in recent years. His once-successful company, Duerson Foods, failed. His Highland Park, Illinois, home went into foreclosure. Last year, he filed for bankruptcy.

Most jarring of all: in 2005 he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic battery. That was especially shocking because, as Duerson’s ex-wife Alicia recalled in the Times, he was the type of person whose aggressiveness began and ended between the lines. “He was so sweet and kind. He could leave the game on the field and go back to being Dave.”

It’s possible that the game changed who he was. There is not enough medical evidence yet to connect all the dots, but the outline of the threat is clear. Duerson worked to ease the physical suffering of former players, but his death could do more for the cause than all his efforts in life.

He may have suffered from more than the effects of football, but the startling circumstances of his suicide assure that Duerson will be remembered as one of the game’s greatest victims. In other tragedies like this, football will never again be an afterthought.

Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at jasonkelly545@gmail.com.