Dave Duerson went from a star safety in the NFL to a successful businessman only to have his life fall apart in his final years, likely because of a disease few understood at the time. In a final indignity, the former Chicago Bears great’s integrity is assailed in a movie portrayal.
Dave Duerson was the glue of the Chicago Bears defense
The Chicago Bears hit the jackpot with their 1983 draft class, selecting seven players who would become starters on their Super Bowl XX championship team following the 1985 season. One of them was safety Dave Duerson, a third-round pick out of Notre Dame known for his instincts on the field and intelligence off it.
Duerson became a starter in the Super Bowl season as Todd Bell held out in a contract dispute. He turned into an instant impact player, starting 70 games in his next five seasons and earning invitations to four Pro Bowls. Defensive tackle Steve McMichael called Duerson, who was equally adept at playing either safety position, “the MVP of our defense.”
Duerson made 11 interceptions in his first two seasons as a starter. He set an NFL record for a safety in 1986 by recording seven quarterback sacks. Later in his career, Duerson earned a second Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants. He retired after the 1993 season with 20 career interceptions.
Off the field, he won what is now known as the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 1987. Recipients since have included Drew Brees, Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, and J.J. Watt.
The Pro Bowl player struggled late in life
Dave Duerson made a smooth transition after retiring from football at the age of 32, staying connected to the game at one point by serving on a panel that evaluated disability claims by retired players.
He briefly owned a small group of McDonald’s restaurants and then purchased a majority stake in a food processing company. He sold that interest in 2002 and started Duerson Foods, but it wouldn’t be long before his life fell apart.
Duerson Foods ran into financial trouble, was placed in receivership, and was sold off. Personal bankruptcy followed, and he was divorced from his wife of 25 years, Alicia, shortly after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of domestic battery. He confided in friends that he sometimes struggled with confusion and complained of persistent headaches.
Then, the football world awoke to shocking news one day in February 2011: Duerson had committed suicide, shooting himself in the chest.
‘Concussion’ was unfair to Dave Duerson, his family says
Dave Duerson’s decision to shoot himself in the chest rather than the head was not a random one. Before he pulled the trigger, Duerson messaged his family to ask that his brain be used for research at Boston University, which was examining chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that studies have connected to repeated blows to the head. Neurologists at the university subsequently confirmed he suffered from CTE.
Given the circumstances surrounding his later life, Duerson was a logical choice for a player to be featured in Concussion, the 2015 Will Smith movie about pathologist Bennet Omalu, whose findings of CTE in pro football players brought the issue to the forefront.
However, Duerson was portrayed as something closer to a villain than a sympathetic figure. His family disputed two scenes in particular in the film. In one, Duerson callously brushes off former player Andre Waters, whose application for disability benefits was rejected by the panel on which Duerson served.
“Got a headache?” Duerson asks Waters. “See a doctor.”
The next scene shows a newspaper report that Waters committed suicide, creating the impression that Duerson shared blame for the former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back’s death.
“They needed a villain, someone to take the fall,” said Tregg Duerson, son of the former Chicago Bears star, “and he’s not here to defend himself.”