NFL Tragedy–The Death of Dave Duerson

Once again the National Football League flags are flying at half staff as Dave Duerson took his own life at age 50. Duerson was a feared safety on the 1985 Chicago Bears.

Days before he died, he commented on the heartbreaking situation involving William “The Refrigerator” Perry.

Very few people on this planet share my passion for the NFL. Yet the game I love is offering too much heartbreak.

While talking about suicide is not something I would normally do, this situation is different. Duerson deliberately shot himself in the chest rather than the head. He wanted his brain to remain intact. He left explicit instructions to have his brain donated to science. He wanted people to find out if the game of football destroyed his brain.

Again, I love football. Yet I am under no illusions. Football is a violent game. It destroys the body. Now we are learning that it may destroy the mind as well.

It is quite possible that football had nothing to do with Duerson’s death. After all, he had a successful financial life after football before losing it all and filing for bankruptcy. His love life collapsed as well. This obviously could have been enough, as depression sometimes leads people to end it all.

Yet ignoring the possibility that football destroyed Duerson after giving him everything cannot be allowed. Andre Ware killed himself in 2006, and his brain was damaged to the point where the physical ailment led to the mental anguish and despair.

Everything comes at a price, but is winning a Super Bowl at 25 worth dying at 50? I truly pray that the answer is a resounding no.

Trying to balance the need to keep the players safe and the need to keep the fan interest high is a tough balancing act.

The league has made the helmets safer, thrown penalty flags, and levied fines. Players are taught to lead with their shoulder and not the crown of their helmet. They are to hit the opposing players in the chest, not the head. Yet nothing will change the fact that players become human projectiles launching at each other with the purpose of delivering hard hits.

Baseball and basketball have contact, but they are non-contact sports. Every play in football is a collision…every single play.

The NFL markets violence. Analysts celebrate hard hits and ESPN replays them. Football fans love the intensity of 4th and 1 when 22 guys are all bunched up. We love exciting kickoff returns, keeping in mind that devastating blocks and wedges often end the season for players on the losing end of such collisions.

Yet one of the problems is that while the NFL gets virtually everything right, one problem is the code of silence.

For example, Troy Aikman and Steve Young went from dueling Super Bowl champions in the 1990s to successful analysts after their careers ended. Yet their careers ended specifically because of concussions. Steve Young got hit 21 times in his next to last game. Every other play he was getting leveled. The next week he took a few more hits and was knocked out permanently. Aikman stayed in but took similar beatings. In fact, his rookie year when the team went 1-15 saw him getting belted repeatedly.

If anybody should speak up about the effects of concussions, it should be these guys. Yet if they do, maybe they will lose their jobs.

At least now there are some rules regarding concussed players. Even iron man Brett Favre was denied the right to play in his final two games because he failed the concussion tests after being slammed to the ground on his head. Aaron Rodgers just won a Super Bowl, but he barely made it through this season due to concussions.

The problem with concussions is that each concussion is exponentially worse. Retired players today from Merrill Hoge to Al Toon have suffered the effect of concussions once they stopped playing.

Americans love tough guys. We love seeing guys get belted and then get back up and win. We love teams like the 1985 Bears for their swagger and their Super Bowl Shuffle.

Yet now Refrigerator Perry cannot get out of his chair most of the time, and Dave Duerson felt he had to take his own life to get people to pay attention.

With the NFL, like in life, brief outrage and concern is replaced by normalcy and complacency.

In 1986, Cleveland Browns Safety Don Rogers died of a cocaine overdose the weekend he was supposed to be married. Had he lived the Browns may have won the Super Bowl that year. More importantly, he would have seen his wedding day. This was 8 days after Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose only 40 hours after achieving his dream of playing for the Boston Celtics.

Yet 25 years later, despite tougher testing and punishments, a select few players still do drugs.

Alcohol accidents have taken the life of players such as Stacy Toran, who at 24 was shaping up to be a great player. Yet players still drink.

Lyle Alzado abused steroids and then could not stop. He went to his grave telling players that the steroids killed him at age 43. Players still take steroids.

With Derrick Thomas, it was a car crash where he was not wearing a seat belt. Ben Roethlisberger almost died in a needless motorcycle accident.

Yet those are all off the field incidents. Many players do not drink or do drugs and then drive. Many players wear seat belts. Many players are not hopped up on roids.

Yet on the field involves violence. Every section of action is violence.

If we remove the violence, we kill the game. If we don’t contain the violence, we may be killing the very players who play the games.

I have always had the attitude that people complaining about the violence in football should man up and then shut up. Now I am not so sure.

Something has to be done regarding helmet to helmet hits. Even if they did not destroy Dave Duerson’s brain, it is indisputable that concussions can wreck the quality of a person’s life.

We need to do plenty of tests, which is what Dave Duerson wanted. We need to get to the truth of what happened to his brain.

Dave Duerson’s death was a tragedy.

Yet it would be a bigger tragedy if we ignored his dying wish.

If concussions are leading to irreversible and potentially fatal brain injuries, then steps to reduce concussions have to be taken. Period.

Football played the right way will still be violent and still be hard hitting. A player using his shoulder to level a player in the chest will still make a highlight reel. It will just not result in concussions.

Movies such as “Any Given Sunday,” “Varsity Blues,” and “The Program,” have all showed the dark side of football. Yet when the movies are over we just remember the great action and inspiring speeches, and the thrill we get watching a coach kick over a water cooler.

People are not meant to die at age 50. If they were, it would be the average life span, not 78.

Out of respect for Dave Duerson, let’s honor the game of football by making it cleaner and safer. It will still be football. The alternative is too grisly to contemplate.

Farewell Mr. Duerson. You will be missed.


One Response to “NFL Tragedy–The Death of Dave Duerson”

  1. Great post, Tygrrrr.

    I’ll say this – playing football is very dangerous. I played football from the earliest time I can remember until I was 25. This was full-contact, no pads, hardcore, field ball. But there was one last game. Having already seriously damaging my neck years earlier, I threw a 20 yard bullet, that went a little astray as I pulled back from it, rather than letting it fly. It was intercepted. I did not attempt to stop the run-back. I was in too much pain. I had pulled open a fracture in my C7 and had what they call a “freeze.” A bad freeze. It was severe. Usually a freeze will recede after about ten minutes. Mine went on all night long. Thankfully, I woke up reasonably okay. A few years later, I had treatment. I didn’t really help. I’ll be in pain for the rest of my life.

    There are two important points here:

    Football is not all that violent. It’s not all about violence. It’s about living our American childhoods or vicariously reliving our American childhoods. We are Americans. We all played football when we were kids. We weren’t trying to hurt or harm one another. We weren’t playing for the violence. We were playing for the great run, the great catch, the great stop, the great feeling of playing a great game. That’s what football is all about. I regard it over every other sport.

    Football is very painful, though. You get hurt. Even casual, social players can really hurt themselves. Flag football is better for people like us. I wish I’d learned that lesson younger. Booze is very bad for you also, and booze and football go together like Brats and Bears . Mix booze and football, and young men, and people will get really, really hurt. Combine that with reckless, stupid NFL coaches who use players like wrecking balls, and it’s a recipe for damaged lives.


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