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Hayes: Duerson’s suicide rattles ex-Bear Plank

Opponents often had duck when safety Doug Plank was closing them during his career with Bears from 1975 ’82. Plank

Opponents often had to duck when safety Doug Plank was closing in on them during his career with the Bears from 1975 to ’82. Plank may have suffered up to 30 concussions. | Sun-Times

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Updated: May 31, 2011 4:46AM

The photograph was of Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ricky Bell, who was falling down backward, his torso and neck twisted as he tried desperately to see what was coming up behind him. Everybody who watched the Bears during that era knows what Bell was anticipating.

Flying into the frame and straight at Bell’s exposed back was Doug Plank, head down and helmet first, like a heat-seeking missile.

“Counting high school and college, I played for 15 years,” the former Bears safety said. “Conservatively, I had at least two concussions a year. Twice I was knocked cold, once in high school and once in college. The rest were collisions where I either didn’t know who I was or where I was.”

That’s 30 concussions, many of which were accompanied by classic symptoms.

“I remember one game I got hit, and it was like one of the movies where a grenade goes off and the soldier hears ringing in his ears and everything slows down,” Plank said. “I’ve had amnesia, tunnel vision, shooting stars. The shooting stars were better than fireworks. It looks like you’re in the most brilliant meteor shower of your life.”

Current and former NFL players are used to hearing horror stories of former players whose lives have crumbled, often as a result of deteriorating physical and mental conditions resulting from years of delivering and absorbing punishment on the field. Hearing about the suicide Thursday of ex-Bears safety Dave Duerson rattled Plank.

Cause for concern

We don’t know if Duerson suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease associated with repeated head injuries that can result in depression, dementia and even suicide. That diagnosis won’t be available for a couple of months. But the possibility that Duerson was experiencing symptoms that might have contributed to his suicide is enough to spook Plank.

“It gives me concern,” said Plank, who had left the team before Duerson was drafted in 1983. “I obviously realize how many times I’ve been knocked out. Sometimes we all had bouts in our life where we lose our balance or have a little dizziness. Sometimes, with a history of so many concussions, you hope it’s not the beginning of the onset.”

Although it’s difficult to imagine anything — even a labor stoppage — derailing the most popular and prosperous professional sports league on the planet, the concussion crisis threatens the game on every level. After coaching in the Arena Football League and serving as an NFL and college assistant, Plank understands the issues like few others.

He traces the head-hunting culture he once symbolized to the cushion- and air-filled helmets that came onto the scene when he was coming of age.

The added protection resulted in generations of players being taught to lead with their heads. That’s when players started leaving their feet to deliver head-first blows, launching themselves the way Plank did when he blasted Buccaneers tight end Jimmie Giles on “Monday Night Football” in 1980.

“I put on one of those new helmets one day, and I felt like I was sitting in an SUV,” Plank said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I wish I had this around when I was playing because I would’ve felt like I was driving an SUV and nothing was going to hurt me.”

Time to eliminate prep kickoffs

He believes eliminating kickoffs on the high school level might be one answer to make the game safer because that’s when many high-speed collisions take place.

But there are no simple answers in a violent sport. Plank recalls a play that best illustrates the dilemma.

“One of the best plays I was known for [at Ohio State] was the final game of the year against Michigan my sophomore year,” Plank said. “They handed the ball to the fullback, and I met him at the 1-foot line. I could have tried to cut him so he falls into the end zone, or I could try to hit him helmet-to-helmet and stop him in his tracks.”

Plank chose the latter, helping the Buckeyes to a memorable victory. Despite what we have learned since, elite players then and now would do the same, regardless of the consequences.

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