Dave Duerson Found to Have the Brain Trauma He Suspected

The diagnosis adds a new and perhaps pivotal chapter to football’s still-unfolding narrative surrounding concussions.  in the chest rather than the head, presumably so that his brain could be examined by Boston University’s , which announced its diagnosis.

About two dozen retired players have been found to have the disease, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but none acted upon his suspicion of it like Duerson, 50, who complained to family of his deteriorating mental state during his final months.

His death reminded the football community that for all the reform in the management of concussions and other on-field brain trauma in recent years, the damage to past players remains a vestige of the game’s more brutal times.

“It’s tragic that Dave Duerson took his own life, but it’s very meaningful that he recognized the symptoms of the disorder — it validates this condition,” said Dr. Ann McKee, the neuropathologist who examined Duerson’s brain. She said she found indisputable evidence of C.T.E. in the tissue samples, with “no evidence of any other disorder.”

Although the precise motivations behind Duerson’s suicide remain unknown, he had complained of headaches, blurred vision and a deteriorating memory in the months before his death.   finished with a handwritten request: “Please, see that my brain is given to the N.F.L.’s brain bank.”

The N.F.L. does not run the Boston University research group but did  last year, after the league acknowledged long-term effects of football brain trauma.

C.T.E., a condition previously associated mostly with boxers and manifested in behavior more commonly known as dementia pugilistica, is a degenerative and incurable disease that compromises neural activity and is linked to memory loss, depression and dementia. Although groups at Boston University and elsewhere are pursuing tests for living patients, the condition can currently be detected only after death, by brain autopsy.

“We hope these findings will contribute more to the understanding of C.T.E.,” the N.F.L. said in a statement. “Our Head, Neck and Spine Medical Committee will study today’s findings, and as a league, we will continue to support the work of the scientists at the Boston University Center and elsewhere to address this issue in a forthright and effective way.”

DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the players association, said in a telephone interview that Duerson’s having C.T.E. “makes it abundantly clear what the cost of football is for the men who played and the families.”

He added: “It seems to me that any decision or course of action that doesn’t recognize that as the truth is not only perpetuating a lie, but doing a disservice to what Dave feared and what he wanted to result from the donation of his brain to science.”

 both active and retired, who after years of news media coverage are more aware that the damage done to their brains could be permanent. Pete Kendall, a recently retired offensive lineman, said, “The whole issue of C.T.E. is something that players young and old have no choice but to think about.”

Duerson’s former wife, Alicia, attended the Boston news conference with their four children. Their son Tregg, 25, made a brief statement, saying, “It is our hope that through this research questions that go beyond our interest may be answered — questions that lead to a safer game of football from professionals to Pop Warner.”

He added with regard to his father, “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.”

Duerson was an all-American defensive back at Notre Dame before spending most of his 11 N.F.L. seasons with the Bears. He played safety on the famed 46 defense that fueled their championship in the 1985 season, and he won the 1991 Super Bowl with the Giants.

Duerson retired after the 1993 season and became successful in the food-services industry before his businesses collapsed, his marriage failed and he went bankrupt. He began showing symptoms of repetitive brain trauma, including memory loss, poor impulse control and abusive behavior toward loved ones.

Another son, Brock, 22, said that the diagnosis of C.T.E. provided an explanation for his father’s decline and final act.

“I don’t want people to think just because he was in debt and broke he wanted to end it,” he said. “C.T.E. took his life. He changed dramatically, but it was eating at his brain. He didn’t know how to fight it.”

Duerson’s case is unique beyond the circumstances of his suicide. Since 2006, he had served on the six-member panel that considered claims for disability benefits filed by former N.F.L. players. Although individual votes are kept confidential, that board has been sparing in awarding benefits, including those for neurological damage.

Duerson himself told a Senate subcommittee in 2007 that he questioned whether players’ cognitive and emotional struggles were related to football.

However, Duerson’s legacy will almost certainly be how he apparently came to believe he had C.T.E., acted upon it and requested that his brain tissue be examined for confirmation and contribution to science.

Dr. Robert Stern, along with McKee a co-director of the Boston University research group, cautioned that C.T.E. could not explain all of a player’s actions.

“When it comes to suicide and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, it is possible that in some individuals the combination of C.T.E.-related symptoms of poor impulse control, depression and cognitive impairment may indeed lead to suicide,” Stern said. “However, we can never clearly point to any cause-and-effect relationship in any one case.”

Duerson Found to Have the Brain Trauma He Suspected

The diagnosis adds a new and perhaps pivotal chapter to football’s still-unfolding narrative surrounding concussions. in the chest rather than the head so that his brain could be examined by Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which announced its diagnosis Monday morning in Boston.

About two dozen retired players have been found to have the disease, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but none acted upon his own suspicion of it like Duerson, 50, who privately complained of his deteriorating mental state during his final months.

His death immediately reminded the football community that for all the reform in the management of concussions and other on-field brain trauma in recent years, the damage to past players remains hauntingly irreversible.

Although the precise motivations behind Duerson’s suicide remain unknown, he had complained of headaches, blurred vision and a deteriorating memory in the months before his death. finished with a handwritten request: “Please, see that my brain is given to the N.F.L.’s brain bank.”

The N.F.L. does not run the Boston University research group but did in late 2009, after the league acknowledged long-term effects of football brain trauma. C.T.E., a condition previously associated mostly with boxers and manifested in behavior commonly known as punch-drunk syndrome, is a degenerative and incurable disease that kills neurons and is linked to memory loss, depression and dementia. Although in vivo tests are being pursued at Boston University and elsewhere, the condition can be detected only after death by brain autopsy.

both active and retired, who after years of news media coverage now understand that the damage already done to their brains could be permanent.

“We have to do everything in our power to not just make progressive changes to minimize risk of C.T.E. in active players, but make sure there’s intervention strategies for those who are exhibiting early signs and symptoms, so that they have access to the services they need,” said Sean Morey, who retired as a player because of post-concussion syndrome last year and since has helped lead the players union’s pursuit of reform.

Morey added: “We have to advocate for the former players who are experiencing cognitive decline and early-onset dementia. Their wives did not sign up to become full-time caregivers. We should adopt a model like the military’s — you break them, you own them. If we can’t find the money to take care of the guys who built our game into a $9 billion industry, then shame on us.”

Duerson was an all-American defensive back at Notre Dame before spending most of his 11 N.F.L. seasons with the Chicago Bears. He was part of the famed 46 defense that powered the Bears’ championship after the 1985 season, and won the 1991 Super Bowl with the Giants. He retired after 1993 and became quite successful in the food-services industry before his businesses collapsed in the past several years.

Duerson’s case is unique beyond the circumstances of his suicide.

Since 2006 he had served on the six-member panel that considered claims for disability benefits filed by former N.F.L. players.

Although individual votes are kept closely confidential, that board has been notoriously sparing in awarding benefits, including those for neurological damage. Duerson himself told a Senate subcommittee in 2007 that he questioned whether players’ cognitive and emotional struggles were related to football.

A Suicide, a Last Request, a Family’s Questions

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.