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A Legacy of Damaged Dreams

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Dave was born and raised in Indiana.  He was an excellent student; it came naturally for him.  Likewise, he was a determined and stellar athlete, staring in football, basketball, and baseball in high school. Like many other boys growing up in America in the carefree 1960s and 70s, Dave had dreams. He dreamed of playing a game he loved in front of thousands of raving fans and winning at the highest level.

Dave was so talented that in 1979 he was named “Mr. Football” for the state of Indiana. He went on to play college football at the University of Notre Dame, where he earned a BA in Economics and graduated with honors. He started all four years for the Fighting Irish, and earned recognition as an All-American in 1981 and 1982. Dave was a captain and the team’s MVP as a senior in 1982. There’s no doubt that Dave was fulfilling his childhood dreams.

Picked in the third round of the 1983 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears, Dave was selected to four consecutive Pro Bowls. He won two Super Bowl championship rings; one with the 1985 Bears and and the other with the 1990 Giants. During the 1986 season, Dave set an NFL record that stood for 19 years for most sacks in a season by a defensive back – seven of them. At season’s end, Dave was named first team All-Pro by Pro Football Weekly, the Pro Football Writers Association and The Sporting News and second team All-Pro by the Associated Press. In 1987, Dave was the recipient of the NFL Man of the Year Award. In his 11 seasons, Dave recorded 20 interceptions, which he returned for 226 yards, and 16 quarterback sacks. He also recovered five fumbles, returning them for 47 yards and a touchdown.

He was the winner of the Edward “Moose” Krause Distinguished Service Award in 1990, issued by the Notre Dame Monogram Club, of which he was a past president. He was also a member of the University of Notre Dame Board of Trustees from 2001 to 2005. Dave was not only a talented athlete; he was a relentless student and life-long learner.  Additionally, he was committed to his alma mater, and his community.  He routinely donated his resources to help others.

Related: The Kiss: A Legacy of Sweet Success

After football, Dave, smart and tenacious, operated several businesses and franchises and eventually started his own food distribution company, in 2002. He had fulfilled life-long dreams as a gifted, top-tier pro athlete, which had propelled him to achieve success as a businessman and philanthropist.

Dave Duerson was living his dream and the world was a better place because of it. Eventually, however, Dave’s dreams turned into a nightmare.

On May 2, 2011, neurologists at Boston University (BU) confirmed that Duerson suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy – CTE – a progressive, degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of repeated head trauma, like repeat concussions. Later research from BU suggested CTE came from “impact to the brain,” known as sub-concussive impact, not just concussions. The common denominator in CTE sufferers is repetitive hits to the head, like those experienced by military veterans and contact-sport athletes. Obviously, Duerson (and millions of others) had received many blows to the head while playing football.

Duerson’s mental pain and suffering after football is well known and well documented. It effectively ruined his life and culminated in the worst possible scenario. His illness grew more intense and difficult to understand, exhibiting classic CTE symptoms of anxiety, depression, memory loss, and dementia. In 2006, Duerson Foods was forced into receivership. He was in a downward spiral.

Dave Duerson was found dead at his Florida home on February 17, 2011. The Miami-Dade County medical examiner reported that Duerson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his chest.  Why the chest?  Because he wanted to preserve his brain. He knew something of his illness that others did not know or simply ignored. His football career had come with a price. He left behind three sons and a daughter from his marriage to ex-wife Alicia.

He left a message, saying he wanted his brain to be used for CTE research at the Boston University School of Medicine. The excellent student athlete knew what he was going through and wanted to contribute to its full understanding for others. He knew what his dream had cost him.

Related: Jackie Robinson: A Legacy of Optimism

David Russell Duerson’s legacy, begun November 28, 1960, is a work in progress.  His legacy is far-reaching, exceeding his greatness on the football field, and growing greater still with every advancement in the study and awareness of CTE.

A May 2011 New York Times article by Alan Schwarz quoted son Tregg Duerson, saying, “It is my greatest hope that his death will not be in vain and that through this research, his legacy will live on and others won’t have to suffer in the same manner.” The research continues, as does Dave Duerson’s legacy.

The next time we discuss dreams, not just sports dreams, but all sorts of dreams, do we talk about the price to achieve those dreams? Are we prepared to consider all the potential outcomes of pursuit?  Can we even understand what is truly at stake? Can we continue to investigate evidence that demands a new modus operendi, but continue to do the same thing because “that’s how we’ve always done it,” or  “the positives out-weigh the negatives?” Are we listening to all voices — some of which are shouting from the grave?

And this is why, Legacy Matters…

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