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Jensen: Contemporaries rally around Ryan, question Duerson’s charge

Richard Dent (right) helps carry Buddy Ryan off field after Bears’ Super Bowl victory against Patriots. Dent charge thRyan used

Richard Dent (right) helps carry Buddy Ryan off the field after the Bears’ Super Bowl victory against the Patriots. Dent on the charge that Ryan used a racial slur: “I don’t see that coming from him.” | Mike Powell~Getty Images

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Updated: May 28, 2011 4:50AM

Former Bears defensive ­coordinator Buddy Ryan couldn’t believe the news last Thursday, when he learned that Dave Duerson died of a gunshot wound.

“It was a shock,” Ryan told me Thursday morning, “because I saw him at the reunion [of the 1985 Bears], and he looked great.”

Ryan, though, was even more stunned when I informed him what Duerson reportedly told an author in November 2010.

In an interview for an oral project about Americans turning 50, Duerson told Rob Trucks that Ryan called him a derogatory word for African Americans in their first conversation at Halas Hall.

“He knew I’d gone to Notre Dame, and he asked me if I was one of those doctors or lawyers. I said, ‘Yes, sir,’  ’’ Duerson told Trucks, according to the website “He said, “Well, you won’t be here too long, ­because I don’t like smart [derogatory word for African Americans].”

After I read him that comment, Ryan immediately said, “That’s bull.

“I can’t believe he said that about me, because I was a great fan of his. He played great football. He was a great player. He started for us as a rookie. I don’t know why he would say that. That sounds terrible.”

Duerson also told Trucks that Ryan later expressed regret about calling him the derogatory name.

I believe in respecting the ­deceased.

Duerson’s family and close friends deserve to mourn in peace and reflect on the life of a man who accomplished plenty on the field and served others enough off it to merit winning the prestigious NFL Man of the Year award, later renamed in honor of the late, great Bears running back Walter Payton.

But Ryan and his family are alive, and Duerson’s comment makes a charged claim that — especially if inaccurate — no person would want to hang over them. So I reached out to Ryan, and I reached out to his son Rex, the outspoken head coach of the New York Jets.

‘That’s ridiculous’

“That’s ridiculous,” Rex Ryan told me in a statement through a team spokesman. “I’m 48 years old. I wasn’t around for every ­conversation my father had in his life, but I was around for enough of them and I never heard him use that word.”

Neither did Hall of Fame ­defensive linemen Richard Dent, Carl Eller and Dan Hampton, who all played for Ryan.

“I don’t see that coming from him,” Dent said of Ryan’s alleged use of the N-word. “I didn’t have that kind of issue with Buddy.”

Dent was in Duerson’s rookie class, and he said he never heard the story of Ryan using the N-word, not from Duerson or anybody else.

“This is my first time hearing about it,” Dent told me Thursday evening.

Eller played for Ryan in 1976 and 1977, when the latter was the ­defensive coordinator of the ­Minnesota Vikings.

“I’m not saying that Buddy didn’t say that, because I don’t know,” Eller said. “You never know about a person, but I would find it hard to believe that he was a racist.

“In my years of playing, I thought he was the fairest coach I ever played for.”

Dent and Eller, both of whom are African American, separately said that Ryan was known for his candor and that he wasn’t afraid of confrontation.

Dent said he couldn’t get on the field very much initially because he didn’t execute the trap exactly the way Ryan wanted.

“I was in his ear all the time, ­trying to get on the field, and I ­realized how he wanted me to play it,” Dent said. “He was so particular, and he wanted things done a certain way, and that’s why I wasn’t getting on the field.”

Once he did, though, Dent emerged as one of Ryan’s favorites, along with players such as Hampton and middle linebacker Mike Singletary.

Eller added that Ryan invited discourse with his players.

“Buddy is the kind of guy who would go toe to toe with you,” Eller said. “If Buddy said something like that, he would expect you to stand up and come right at him, because he wasn’t afraid of confrontation.”

Support from Hampton

When he heard about Duerson’s comments, Hampton left me a voice mail imploring me to call him back.

When I did, Hampton passionately defended Ryan.

“I’m outraged,” Hampton said. “Buddy Ryan is no racist. In a despicable manner of getting his revenge, 25 years after the fact, he comes up with this lie to try and hurt Buddy.

“Buddy didn’t care if you were purple, or green, a first-round pick or the last pick, it was about character and how you played on the field.”

Hampton said Ryan confronted Duerson during training camp, when the rookie safety wasn’t ­physical enough during the “Nutcracker” drill.

“[Duerson] dove on the ground,” Hampton said. “Everybody on the team saw him act like a coward in training camp, and Buddy didn’t want any cowards on his defense.

“To his credit, Duerson started hitting, and he started playing ­better.”

In regards to Ryan singling ­Duerson out because he went to Notre Dame, Hampton noted ­another prominent African American player from that school: Alan Page. ­Inducted into the college and pro football Hall of Fames, Page is a justice on the Minnesota ­Supreme Court, and he still regularly ­communicates with Ryan.

Through a court spokesman, Page declined comment for this story. But Hampton noted that Page, after playing for Ryan two years in Minnesota, joined him in Chicago for the final four seasons of his illustrious career.

“I have a hard time believing Alan Page would be following a ­racist around,” Hampton said.

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