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The NFL brain bank is located at Boston University Medical Center, where researchers study the brains of former football players for evidence of damage. Dave Duerson knew of this place well.
He was a member of six-man volunteer panel that considered retired players’ claims under the N.F.L.’s disability plan, in addition to the 88 Plan, a fund that has assisted more than 150 families caring for retired players with dementia since its inception in 2007. Duerson read applications, testimonies and detailed doctors’ reports for hundreds of players with multiple injuries, including those to the brain that in some cases left players requiring full-time care. He had to vote on whether these people received financial assistance.
During his time on that board, he learned of a type of brain damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which has played a role in the depression or dementia from which many former football players suffer.
CTE first acquired public recognition when it was identified in the brain tissue of former Philadelphia Eagles player Andre Waters after his suicide in 2006. There have been other cases of CTE found in the brain tissue of former football players who committed suicide. It has been a murky concept for years, its connection to football injuries denied by most involved with the game, including medical personnel. Determining the presence of CTE can be done only on a deceased brain. As recently as 2009, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would not acknowledge any such a connection when questioned by lawmakers.
Yet recent studies have forced the NFL to accept the fact that football players are at high risk to CTE based on the nature of the game, and that it needs to police the actions of its players on the field for their protection. Unfortunately, in the case of Duerson, that realization came far too late.
Susan Walsh/AP Photos
Yet few noticed anything wrong with him. Outwardly, he appeared to everyone the same upbeat Dave they had become accustomed to. Yet his ex-wife, Alicia, knew something wasn’t right. She told the New York Times he had developed a hesitancy in putting words together on paper and in conversation. He also had short-term memory loss that, she said, “got worse as time went on.”
“I think David knew that inside of him there was something wrong,” she said. As much as Duerson loved football, she said, his final gestures were his way of saying: “I’m a veteran of the game. Something is wrong. Somebody has to step up and acknowledge that.”
Last season, the NFL began passing down stiff fines for helmet-to-helmet hits. Head trauma was not something it could ignore anymore. With Duerson’s tragic death, the debate has been thrust to the forefront.
When asked by the CNN interviewer whether traumatic brain injury can be avoided in football, Ditka answered with resignation: "Can they stop it? I doubt it ... The better the equipment, the less fear you have of hitting with it, especially with the helmet.
“I mean it is what it is. I don't know how you're going to change it because it's part of the game of football. You know, you're taught from the time that you're a kid: You strike, you keep your head up, you stick your head into the opponent – and, basically, that's what happens."
Duerson knew all of these facts, and it’s amazing to consider a man could feel his brain deteriorating, cognizant of how it was beginning to fail. Instead of going through what he witnessed so many former players go through – headaches, memory loss, depression, dementia – he chose to make himself a martyr for the game of football. His death should not go in vain.
It was said best by Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times:
“If (Duerson) properly identified his symptoms, and the Boston University doctors confirm this in the next several months, no amount of rationalizing or perseveration on head-injury issues — past or present — will be acceptable.
“The ticket-buying, TV-watching public, as shallow and oblivious as it can be about anything that disrupts its game-watching and team-worshiping, will not keep funding the future agony of athletes it adored. If the Duerson incident is as it seems, and we do not pressure it to be addressed in much more than lip service and phony studies that take months or years, then shame on us.
“A man apparently killed himself to be heard. What more does it take?”
There is hope on the horizon though. Current research with military personnel has uncovered a simple blood test that reportedly detects changes in brain chemistry in mild cases of head trauma. In addition to detection, bone marrow stem cell research has also showed promise in remediating the symptoms prevalent in Parkinson's-like syndromes. Additionally, the NFL gave the Boston University Center a million-dollar gift in the hopes of finding better ways to prevent and treat concussions.
His death has also raised concerns about the safety of children playing the sport, with legislation recently passed to help prevent instances of concussion with athletes at the high school level and below.
While it took the tragic death of a beloved former football player, hopefully the health of future football players will be given priority over everything else.
Dave Duerson was buried Feb. 26, 2011 at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side. Among the many former Bears in attendance were former linebacker Otis Wilson and recently inducted Hall of Famer Richard Dent, both of whom were pallbearers for Duerson’s casket.
Duerson's Son, Brock Duerson
Paul Beaty/AP Photos
Wilson, his voice initially weak and halting, thanked God for his friendship with Duerson. He told Duerson's family in the front pews they could turn for support to the Bears, including those from the 1985 Super Bowl team, who were gathered in the audience.
"Dave might not be here. But you've got a lot of brothers over there," he said, pointing to a group of players.
Duerson's son, Brock, talked of plans to start a foundation to aid athletes dealing with brain injuries and mental illness.
"Under unusual circumstances, my dad decided to donate his brain, and I'm proud," he said.
Duerson became only the second player from the 1985 Bears Championship to pass on. The first was arguably the greatest player in NFL history, Walter Payton, who died of a liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis. Payton’s own appeals – and after his death, his foundation's – for greater awareness of the need for organ donations are widely credited with bringing national attention to the problem. One of those who supported the cause was Duerson, who at a memorial service for Payton at Soldier Field in 1999 held up to the crowd his driver’s license, showing that he was an organ donor.
After Payton’s appeals, donations in Illinois skyrocketed, and the regional organ bank of Illinois was overwhelmed with calls. In response, the City of Chicago inserted organ donation requests into city-vehicle-registration mailings in early 2000, and by August 2000, 13,000 people had signed on to the program. The foundation continues to run a program that Payton organized to donate toys to underprivileged children across the Chicago area each Christmas. The family established the Walter Payton Cancer Fund in 2002.
Much good came from Payton’s death. Let’s only hope we can say the same for Dave Duerson.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.