On Feb. 17, Alicia Duerson received a text message from her former husband. Only that text wasn’t a typical Dave Duerson message. He was asking his former wife to make sure his brain was donated for research after he passed. She called their son, Brock, and the two tried in vain to reach him. Tragically, they never heard from him again.
Shortly thereafter, Florida’s Miami-Dade County police department were made aware of a body found in a Sunny Isles Beach apartment. It was the body of Duerson, a former safety for the Chicago Bears.
Next to his body lay a note, on it scribbled one sentence: “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.”
Dave Duerson, age 50, had fatally shot himself in the chest.
David Russell Duerson was born Nov. 28, 1960 in Muncie, Ind. He was attracted sports at a young age and by high school, he was playing football, basketball and baseball for Muncie Northside High. He excelled at each sport, so much so that in 1979 the Los Angeles Dodgers offered him the opportunity to play for the franchise as a pitcher and outfielder. Duerson declined, as football was always his passion.
Of the many sporting accolades he earned during high school, the most impressive was being named 1979 Indiana Mr. Football. He was also a member the National Honor Society and The Musical Ambassadors All-American Band.
Dave Duerson in 1980
He grew up just a few hours south of the University of Notre Dame. When Irish coaches offered him a scholarship, Duerson accepted. He was a four-year starter at Notre Dame from 1979-1982. He was named an All-American his junior and senior seasons, while also being named team captain and MVP in 1982.
Tom Thayer, former Bears tackle and teammate of Duerson’s at Notre Dame, recalls him being ahead of his years.
"When I met Dave, I was an intimidated freshman at Notre Dame and although he was also a freshman, he was a man among boys," said Thayer, who roomed with Duerson for one year in college. "I always remember him as that super-confident freshman. I never saw Dave when he wasn't up."
It was then that Duerson met his future wife, Alicia.
“He was hitting so strong and hard, and he was so aggressive as a defensive back that after the game I was really afraid to go up to him,” she said of their first meeting, after a Notre Dame football game. “He was like: ‘What’s wrong with you? Come over here, let me give you a hug.’ He was so sweet and kind. He could leave the game on the field and go back to being Dave.”
Duerson was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the third round (64th overall) of the 1983 draft. It was an epic draft for Chicago, one that netted them not only Duerson but also Richard Dent, Willie Gault, Mike Richardson, Jim Covert, Mark Bortz and Thayer. That draft was the foundation upon which a championship team was built.
For his first two seasons, Duerson played a backup role to safety Todd Bell. In 1985, Bell held out due to a contract dispute and Duerson was inserted into the starting role. He would never again go back to the bench.
He played an integral role in the 1985 Championship team. In Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense, the 6-1, 203-pounder was asked to play more of a linebacker’s role, which suited the hard-hitting safety just fine.
The 46 defense significantly altered the alignment and responsibilities of the strong safety. Traditionally, in the 4-3, the strong safety lined up well off the line of scrimmage on the side of the tight end, whom he usually had to pick up in man coverage. Otherwise, if the defense was in a two- or three-deep zone, he would line up near the hashmark and drop deep at the snap of the ball.
In the 46, Duerson, as the strong safety, aligned on the side of the formation opposite the tight end, head up on the offensive left tackle, exactly four and a half yards off the line of scrimmage. Rex Ryan, in his book “Coaching Football’s 46 Defense,” calls the strong safety’s alignment “the hallmark of the 46 defense.”
That defense presented an eight-man front and, with the center and both guards covered, was extremely difficult to run against, especially inside. Duerson had responsibilities similar to the weak side linebacker. He didn’t need great cover skills, but he had to be strong on the line of scrimmage. Duerson had good size, was smart, tough, physical and, most importantly, was an excellent tackler. He was also an effective blitzer. His 7 sacks in 1986 were a then-record for defensive backs.
Michael J. Minardi/Getty
For his efforts, Duerson was selected in 1985 to the first of four consecutive Pro Bowls.
"He was a hell of a football player," former Bears coach Mike Ditka said Friday. "He came in at the right time for us because that's when Todd Bell held out. He fit right in, became a starter. We liked everything about him at Notre Dame. He rounded out that defense. He fit in perfectly with Gary Fencik back there and was one of the leaders of our team."
Every player on that team had a nickname, and Duerson’s was “Double D.” The following two seasons, he was named as an AP Second-team All-Pro selection. And in 1987, he received the NFL Man of the Year Award. He was also named the NFL's Humanitarian of the Year in 1988 and Notre Dame's Monogram Club Member of the Year in 1990.
He was let go by Chicago after the 1989 season, and earned his second Super Bowl ring as a member of the New York Giants in 1990. He finished his career after three years of service with the Phoenix Cardinals.
He retired in 1994. In his 11 seasons, Duerson recorded 20 interceptions, which he returned for 226 yards, and 16 quarterback sacks. He also recovered five fumbles, returning them for 47 yards and a touchdown.
Duerson was known for giving back to his community. He founded two substance abuse programs; promoted Special Olympics; offered free football camps in Chicago and Muncie that taught football fundamentals while promoting the importance of education and teaching kids about substance abuse prevention; served as chairman of the board for the Dave Duerson Foundation, an organization that provides support for students pursuing entrepreneurial studies; was a member of Notre Dame's athletic mentoring program; and served as a national trustee for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
"When I think of Dave, I think of class," Bears Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary said. "He was the classiest guy I knew. He was always trying to help everyone. He was always encouraging young guys to finish their education."
Double D earned an economics degree from Notre Dame in 1983. In his post-football career, Duerson became a very successful businessman. Even before he finished playing, he had he became a McDonald’s franchisee, owning three restaurants in Louisville. He went on to earn a certificate from Harvard Business School's Executive Education program in 2001.
Eventually he was approached by Jack Greenberg, then vice chairman of McDonald’s, who told Duerson “there was an opportunity to purchase most of Brooks Sausage, which then became Fair Oaks. It was the first minority supplier in the McDonald’s system,” Duerson told the Chicago Tribune in 2007.
He sold his McDonald’s franchises and joined Fair Oaks as president and CEO, growing its annual sales to $63.5 million from $24 million. In February of 2002, he sold his stake in that company and started Duerson Foods.
Duerson started with a 38,000-square-foot shell of a building. He blew out the north and east walls and added about 40,000 square feet.
“When we built this, it was the most state-of-the-art meat plant on the planet,” he told the Tribune.
The plant was supposed to open on Feb. 1, 2003. But the opening was delayed until Aug. 1 of that year because of problems with a freezer supplier, which caused lenders to get nervous.
“Aug. 1, the day we opened the plant, was the day Associated Bank was to release my working line of credit (of about $1.5 million), and they informed me they were not going to allow me to use my line of credit,” Duerson said.
Instead, he was forced to mortgage his Highland Park house.
“They said, ‘What we will do is give you a half a million against your house,’ and it’s not like I had a choice,” he said, noting that he had poured nearly $6 million into his business.
He also said he was told, “We’ll give you a half a million for a year, and we want out.” Duerson then started looking for another lender.
Duerson Foods sued the freezer company in April of 2004. Later that year, a U.S. district court in eastern Wisconsin said Duerson was entitled to $34 million in damages. But the judgment hasn’t been paid, his bankruptcy record shows.
Shortly thereafter, Duerson’s life began to spiral downward. In 2006, Duerson Foods was forced into receivership and most of its assets were auctioned off. His 17-room home in Highland Park, Ill. — the one with “NFL22” carved on a driveway pillar — went into foreclosure. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor domestic-battery charge after pushing Alicia during an argument, leading him to resign from Notre Dame’s board. Duerson filed for personal bankruptcy last September.
Click here for Part II
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.