Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Gary Fencik called old teammate Shaun Gayle after he heard about Dave Duerson.
The last two safeties from the Bears’ Super Bowl-winning team had been thinking the same thing: safety Todd Bell died at age 46 of a heart attack while driving his car, and now safety Dave Duerson had killed himself with a gunshot wound to the chest.
“I’m watching you,’’ Fencik, 56, said to Gayle.
“I’m watching you,’’ Gayle, 48, replied.
The chaos caused by Duerson’s suicide Thursday night in Miami, and his last wish that his brain be examined for damage possibly caused by blows he received during his long football career, can hardly be calculated.
In short: if you played a long time in the NFL, look out.
Even if you played just a short time in the NFL, or throughout college or in high school, or even if you played pee-wee ball and received concussions or numerous head-rattling blows, beware.
If Duerson’s demise and horrible death at a young age was in part, or wholly, precipitated by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the dementia caused by repeated head blows, who knows how far the ugly tentacles of America’s favorite violent game extend.
“I’m worried,’’ Duerson’s old Bears teammate, Emery Moorehead, said Monday on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.’’
Report after report at the Boston University School of Medicine’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy is showing the brain decay in certain deceased players’ brains, a condition that causes depression, irrational behavior, intelligence decline, anger and many other emotional issues — up to and including death.
Two years ago when I looked through a microscope with head researcher Dr. Ann McKee at her lab near Boston, I was horrified at the slides of brain tissue that revealed clear and obvious CTE damage. I am no scientist, but I can tell you that the difference between healthy brain cells and the diseased ones of former football players was the difference between prime steak and rotten meat.
“It’s terrible, isn’t it?’’ McKee had said.
A stunning donation
Duerson’s brain swiftly went to the BU research center, and co-director Chris Nowinski, who also founded the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to concussion awareness, was stunned by the gift.
Duerson had been the man who awarded Nowinski a National Football Foundation $1,000 academic scholarship in 1997, when Nowinski was a senior at Hersey.
“He presented the award to me at a hotel in downtown Chicago,’’ Nowinski said. “I have a photo of him and me shaking hands. Yes, this shocked me. But we’re always shocked.’’
Nowinski is BU’s front man for requests for brains — indeed, in mid-January he got former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon to pledge his brain to the center — but Duerson’s shot to the chest to apparently leave his brain untouched, is not what Nowinski or the staff had in mind.
“Part of the reason we created the brain registry is so that people can receive help rather than take their lives,’’ he explains. “A disease is not a sign of weakness.’’
What would he have preferred Duerson did?
“Call a suicide hotline,’’ he says. “There are people out there who can help. We’re urgently working on treatment, for ways to heal the brain. We want these players to stick around and be there.’’
When I last talked to Duerson, it was outside Soldier Field several years ago. The personal and business issues that would be dragging him down had been reported, and our talk was tainted with that unspoken awareness. Yet Dave was in seemingly good spirits.
Always smart, outspoken
He was chewing on a cigar. He was smart and driven. He was charming and outspoken. The way he always was. But maybe, I thought later, he was not as centered on his issues as he should have been.
“No, not really, I didn’t see a change,’’ says Fencik when asked if he noticed anything about Duerson’s mental state in recent years. “I think he was trying to restart his career in the fast-food franchising business when he went to Florida. But why Florida, I don’t know.
“He was smart, a lot of pride. But with Dave, I don’t know what to say. All of us, we’re replaying, ‘What could we have done?’ Not as teammates, as friends.’’
Duerson was a big hitter, a banger. Those kind don’t even know when they’ve had a concussion. They don’t rest. They’re like sharks.
Duerson’s fall from grace was a sheer one, a plummet.
“He had it all,’’ says longtime Chicago sports voice Chet Coppock. “Notre Dame, two-time All-America, thirrd-round pick, Super Bowl champ, wife, family, beautiful house in Highland Park. Everything in the world going for him. And then the mother of all spirals.’’
Duerson had been Coppock’s presenter when Coppock was named the 1987 Man of the Year by the Chicago chapter of the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame. “So cordial, so gracious,’’ Coppock said. “Always a first-class act.’’
But when it goes, it goes.
It could have been the weight of bankruptcy and loss that caused Duerson’s depression.
Or it could have been the brain damage, something that supposedly was causing him headaches and vision and word loss.
“We won’t know for a couple of months,’’ Nowinski said. “And then it’s up to the family if it gets made public.’’
Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic researcher, is generally credited with being the first man to see CTE in a deceased football player’s brain.
“It takes from five to 20 years to manifest itself,’’ Omalu said of the head trauma. “And then the brain cells start dying. And that’s when the people crash.’’
Duerson certainly did that.