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Dave Duerson saga a complex tragedy that changed football forever

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander recently collaborated with noted writer Paul Solotaroff for a story about Dave Duerson appearing in the May issue of Men’s Journal. Here are some of Telander’s thoughts after working on that assignment:

* * *

There are now two eras in modern football — before Dave Duerson and after Dave Duerson.

Call them B.D. and A.D., if you will.

But things in our grand American sport will never, nor should they ever, be the same.

* * *

The simple way to describe the Dave Duerson tragedy is this: A smart, talented, driven young man grew up in a Midwestern town, became a football star, graduated from a prestigious college, won two Super Bowls (one with the Bears, one with the Giants), earned his master’s in business from Harvard, raised a family, became a business millionaire, earned great political and ­community respect, saw it all crumble to dust and killed himself.

That may be factual, but in so many ways, it’s not the truth.

Dave Duerson was far too complicated to sum up in a mere run-on sentence of incidents. Indeed, his rise and fall has the earmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy — a complex protagonist displaying the great virtues and frailties of will, resolution, pride, stubbornness, genius, hubris, vanity and then, of course, the foreshadowed (in ­retrospect) and frightful descent into darkness.

On Feb. 17, Duerson shot himself in the chest with a .38 special at his condo north of Miami.

He was 50. As far as anyone knows, he was not in ill health. More precisely, his body — being those organs, bones and tissues ­exclusive of the brain — was in decent shape. On his bankruptcy statement, interestingly, he had listed under yearly medical ­expenses: “$0.”

He had recently made a list of three new goals in his life: One — get a new job (“He was going to get back into the meat business down there, and he had a satellite-radio show that he was doing,’’ says best friend Harold Rice, the chief executive officer of the Albany Park Community Center on Chicago’s Northwest Side); two — he was going to get his weight down to 235 (he had played at 215 and was up to about 260); and three — he was going to spend more time with his kids.

His business problems — a meat-packing plant that went under, personal financial ruin — were manifest, and he and his wife Alicia had divorced several years before. (That they were still best friends before his suicide hints at the complexity of his relationships with the world.) His four teenage and older children loved him, and he traveled up from Florida from time to time to see them at sporting events and to see Alicia. This was despite the fact he had angrily thrown Alicia against a wall, in a sudden and irrational burst of anger, while the couple were visiting Notre Dame in 2005 to attend a board of trustees meeting and to watch son Tregg play football. And despite the fact he had a new girlfriend in Washington, D.C., whom he had said he intended to marry.

Dave had been down, yes. And life was seemingly crumbling about him, if it wasn’t already demolished. And his price was such that the move to Florida was almost as much an escape from his adopted hometown of Chicago and its judgment as it was a place to start over. But as Alicia says, “The financial situation and
all that — he had dealt with

“He came to me back in 2006 when it was all falling apart,’’ Rice says. “And he said, ‘You know what a phoenix is?’ I said, ‘Yes. A bird that rises from the ashes.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s me. That’s what I’m going to be — a phoenix.’  ’’

At the death scene — as tidy and clean a suicide venue as the investigating Dade County police had ever seen — Duerson even had new business cards laid out, ones that ­designated him as an executive of a Florida meat distributor.

In the condo, which Alicia and close family friend Otis Wilson and Rice would visit after the police investigation concluded, there was a bizarre, illogical ­normalcy to the place.

There was a Bible, and books in proper places, towels folded, the carpet vacuumed. His Cadillac Escalade in the downstairs parking lot was freshly cleaned and detailed.

“You would have thought that any second he was going to walk back in,’’ Rice says.

Indeed, Rice was so disturbed by the rationality of the scene — all except the large blood stain on the mattress — that he told Alicia, “This stuff doesn’t add up.’’ He was certain it must have been a murder.

But the security cameras showed that no one had come or gone from Duerson’s apartment in two days. There were long, typed letters from Duerson, but they were not about suicide, and Rice thought they could have been forged.

* * *

And then there was the hand-written note asking that his brain be studied by NFL researchers.

“When I saw that, it was like someone sucked all the oxygen out of the air,’’ says Rice, who still is struggling with his friend’s ­departure.

What Rice feels deeply and what others should assume to be true is harsh yet revealing: “He could not have been in his right mind.’’

And there it is. There is the B.D. and the A.D.

Duerson shot himself in the chest — not a certain or clean way to die — so that his brain could be analyzed without interference to see, to hopefully guarantee, that he was brain-damaged from head blows from football.

For all of his chutzpah — Duerson had vanity plates at various times that read, “DBL-D’’ and “SAUSG-KNG,’’ and he had “NFL 22’’ inscribed on one of the cement posts holding up his ­driveway gate at his home in Highland Park — Duerson cared deeply about others. As Alicia and others have often pointed out, “He wanted to make a difference.’’

His work with the NFL Players Association — he was the Bears’ union rep for his entire career and a close friend of late union chief Gene Upshaw — made him as aware of disability issues as anyone. When he got into his infamous ­diatribe against Mike Ditka regarding health payments to older ­veterans, he was being bullheaded, but he also was doing what he thought was right.

Even if it wasn’t.

First of all, you can’t win anything in Chicago trashing “Da Coach.’’ And second, the issue wasn’t really about “fiduciary responsibility,’’ as Duerson kept stating, nor was it about legalities or grandstanding or protecting interests for management or the union. It was about simply noticing that something in the game was very, very wrong, that staggering, crippled men were becoming the sport’s legacy.

In the end, as in any deep tragedy, irony abounds. For it seems Duerson himself will be the poster man for that discovery, that now-universal realization that nothing is worth sacrificing one’s essence, one’s soul — one’s brain — for.

* * *

Now the signs of Duerson’s creeping brain demise seem more apparent.

Alicia mentioned that when her husband roughed her up that night in South Bend, it was so out of character for him that it even shocked him. “I mean, come on, Dave would never do that,” Alicia says.

The bad business decisions, so slightly irrational and then compounded, now can be seen more logically through the prism of dysfunctional disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease caused by repetitive blows to the head.

Even the mood swings make more sense.

Indeed, Rice remembers an argument he and Duerson had in the late 1990s in which they almost came to blows, an irrational verbal attack by Duerson that abruptly ended when Dave said, “Really, ‘H’?’’

Rice angrily replied, “Dammit, that’s what I’ve been telling you the whole f---ing night!”

Rice sees that moment as ­definitive.

“It was like it just got through to him, like he just heard it.’’

* * *

Collaborating on the lengthy Men’s Journal story with noted writer Paul Solotaroff was an exciting and challenging thing for both of us. How do two writers write one story? We didn’t know. But Paul handled the union and college and Miami stuff, and I mostly handled the Chicago and Bears stuff. Paul put it all together.

We talked all the time, and there were moments of enlightenment, such as when I discovered that Duerson’s gigantic, defective meat freezer was built by a company in the Netherlands that simply dodged the $34 million court ­judgment Duerson won against it, or when Paul found out Duerson and the player reps on the NFL disability panel had unanimously voted against former disabled ­players’ money pleas.

Both of us were moved by Duerson’s story, and I, especially, ­having known Duerson for years, have great compassion for his children, for Alicia and for all those who wondered who this man was at the end. Son Tregg was the one who had to send off the papers certifying that his father’s brain could be studied, and as he copied the forms at a local Kinko’s, he broke down. And wouldn’t any of us.

The autopsy brain results will not be released by the Boston University brain trauma research team, led by Dr. Ann McKee and Dr. Robert Cantu, for a month or more, maybe much longer.

But when the results do come out, I’m betting they show a man whose essence was compromised, a man who no longer knew who or what he was.

It will be a sad thing, for sure.

But, in its way, it will be a great comfort as well as a landmark.

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