She texted back and heard nothing, then called their son, Tregg, who was just ending his workday as a bank analyst in Chicago. They called again and got voice mail.
The next and last message they received from Dave Duerson was meant for them, their family and perhaps all of professional football. It was written in his hurried hand, repeating his text message in case it had not been received, and found in the South Florida condominium where he placed a gun to his chest and last Thursday.
“Please, see that my brain is given to the ’s brain bank.”
Alicia and Tregg Duerson cannot know and do not care to guess what his intentions were in this final request. What they do know is that, they said, it brings them some solace in a sad and confusing time.
“I think it’s just an example of the type of person he is,” Alicia Duerson said. “In his time, he put the future in front of him — future generations of football players in front of him. I’m just so proud of him at this moment.”
His family said that Duerson, the 50-year-old former Bears safety who graduated from Notre Dame, had been finding it hard to remember names and to put words together. They described a devoted father of four who had spent countless hours with the football players union, where he became familiar with the plight of retired players dealing with physical decline and .
Sitting with his mother on the deck of his father’s building Monday night, Tregg Duerson sobbed. “He was looking for an answer,” Tregg said. “And he was hoping to be a part of an answer.”
The pertinent question is whether Duerson had chronic traumatic , the degenerative brain disease recently found posthumously in about 20 retired players, a disease that has been linked to , cognitive impairment and occasionally suicide. That determination will be made over the next several months by doctors at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, who recently began receiving financial support from the N.F.L.
The broader issue, given the growing number of football players developing dementia or other cognitive problems, is what the cost of football will eventually be for generations of retired players, and how the game might be made safer for active players, from professionals to children’s leagues.
Duerson’s final letter, consisting mostly of personal comments that relatives declined to make public, did describe and pain, Alicia Duerson said, “on the left side of his brain.” The implication, by to research, was that his problems, and perhaps his suicide as well, stemmed from his football career.
“I would have to guess it was a statement about football and its impact on the brain,” said Robert Smith, a former N.F.L. running back, who served with Duerson on the panel that considers former players’ disability claims. “It had to be. And, his belief that it contributed to his final despair.”
A hard-hitting but nimble from Muncie, Ind., Duerson was an all-American at Notre Dame and a two-time champion, first as part of the 1985 Bears’ famed 46 defense, then five years later with the Giants. He met Alicia during his freshman year at Notre Dame; they divorced last year.
“He was hitting so strong and hard, and he was so aggressive as a defensive back that after the game I was really afraid to go up to him,” she said of their first meeting, after a Notre Dame football game. “He was like: ‘What’s wrong with you? Come over here, let me give you a hug.’ He was so sweet and kind. He could leave the game on the field and go back to being Dave.”
When Duerson left the field for good after the 1993 season with the , he was succeeding in the food service business. He also stayed active in players union affairs.
Duerson eventually joined the six-man volunteer panel that considered retired players’ claims under the N.F.L.’s disability plan, in addition to the 88 Plan, a fund that has assisted more than 150 families caring for retired players with dementia since its inception in 2007. Duerson read applications, testimonies and detailed doctors’ reports for hundreds of players with multiple injuries, including those to the brain that in some cases left players requiring full-time care. He had to vote on whether these people received financial assistance.
In 2007, two Congressional committees held hearings into whether the disability board was unfairly denying benefits. Duerson testified before the Senate Commerce Committee alongside Brent Boyd, a former lineman whose depression and cognitive impairment had been ruled unrelated to his playing career, therefore warranting significantly lower benefits. It is unknown how Duerson voted on Boyd’s case. He did get into a testy exchange when Boyd, then 50, asserted that his condition — and that of other players with dementia — was caused by football.
“In regards to the issue of , my father’s 84, and, as I had mentioned earlier, Senator, spent 30 years at General Motors,” Duerson said, according to the hearing transcript. “He also has — he also has Alzheimer’s and brain damage, but never played a professional sport. So, the challenge, you know, in terms of where the damage comes from, is a fair question.”
Around this time, Duerson’s life began changing course. His company, Duerson Foods, was forced into receivership. His 17-room home in Highland Park, Ill. — the one with “NFL22” carved on a driveway pillar — went into foreclosure. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor domestic-battery charge after pushing Alicia during an argument, leading him to resign from Notre Dame’s board. Duerson filed for personal bankruptcy last September.