Adding to the irony of the trip was the fact that I also received a text message from a friend informing me that former Notre Dame/Chicago Bears football Star Dave Duerson had just been found dead in his condo. So, on a trip past Notre Dame on my way to Chicago, I receive both an email from Lou Holtz and a text message about a former Notre Dame/Chicago Bears star who'd just died that day. Perhaps this was a signal from a higher power that I needed to dig further into the issue.
I've never met Dave Duerson and I only know of him through a mutual acquaintance. But what I can say is that based on what I've seen and heard of Dave both publicly and privately, he was an outstanding human being. Duerson was not just a sports superstar, he was also the kind of black man who generates extreme pride in those made aware of his accomplishments. While being named Mr. Football for the State of Indiana, Duerson passed up the chance to play Major League Baseball right out of high school. He was also a member of the National Honor Society and The Musical Ambassadors All-American Band.
Duerson was an All-American at Notre Dame in 1981 and 1982. He graduated with honors with a BA degree in Economics, and was the team captain in 1982. Duerson was later drafted by the Chicago Bears, where he made the pro bowl on four separate occasions, set a record for the most sacks in a season, and played on the 1985 Chicago Bears team, which is considered by some to be the greatest team in NFL history. Duerson walked away from the game after 11 seasons with two Super Bowl rings, one from the 1985 Bears and the other with the 1990 New York Giants. He was even named NFL Man of the Year in 1987.
After his football career was over, Duerson went on to become a mostly successful businessman. He owned several McDonald's franchises and a majority interest in a sausage company that grew dramatically over a six-year period. It wasn't until he attempted to start Duerson Foods that he first met with business failure. But from what I've learned, the failure of the business was due to a fatal error made by one of his suppliers, causing him to lose several significant contracts. Duerson took the supplier to court and won, but by then, it was too late to correct the damage. So, between us, I don't consider his "failure" to be a failure at all.
In light of all his achievements in life, most of us were shocked and saddened to hear that Duerson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Some may, perhaps correctly, link Duerson's suicide to the fact that his business and marital problems were causing him duress. But while most of us can't figure out why Dave decided to kill himself, the most interesting aspect of the Duerson suicide actually came from text messages Dave sent right before he died.
Shortly before killing himself, Duerson sent messages to his friends and family asking that his brain be donated to science. The former NFL star wanted to make sure that his brain was used to study CTE: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. CTE is a condition caused by a series of collisions, leading to serious long-term neurological problems, including dementia, depression and occassionally suicide. This condition has affected quite a few former NFL players, many of whom have died early deaths or displayed odd behavior as they've gotten older. One example is former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters, who killed himself in 2007. The 44-year old Waters was found to have brain tissue that resembled that of an 85-year old man with Alzheimer's.
At this point, the NFL is working to add two additional games to the football season. Critics argue that this only increases the likelihood that players will continue to have serious brain injuries similar to those experienced by boxers who take too many blows to the head. One of the biggest problems with the NFL's "Tough guys play through pain" approach is that one concussion after another, combined with highly questionable health care protection for players after retirement, leads to a large and unseen number of former players who are no good to their friends, their families or themselves. Many of them are financially destitute, broken down shells of the men they once were, not quite able to understand why they have a hard time walking straight or thinking through complex concepts. It's incredibly sad to watch, especially since so many young black males grow up dreaming of NFL glory.
The death of Dave Duerson was incredibly tragic on a multitude of levels. Duerson, at the age of 50, had a lot of good years left in him. I also wonder if his greatest contributions to the world were meant to be experienced on the football field. Sure he was a great athlete, but he could have also been a great doctor, lawyer or professor. But by playing a sport that encouraged him to beat up and destroy his most valuable asset (his mind), Duerson became a black male athletic statistic and casualty of another NFL fantasy gone bad. I will never encourage any of my children to play football.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the Athlete Liberation and Academic Reform Movement (ALARM). To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here. To follow Dr. Boyce on Facebook, please click here.