Spectator sports created bonds among ancient Roman citizens. The Olympic Games, born from Rome’s mentoring society of ancient Greece, began as a display of athletic prowess honed to precision for the purpose of combat readiness. The intense competitive spirit of Roman versus Roman grew to the point that it caused a schism in the empire’s latter years in Byzantium. Municipal uprisings ensued that eventually influenced the rift between the East and West Roman Empire, laying the groundwork for today’s western culture.
Another by-product of Grecian origin that was embellished by the Romans was a warrior named Spartacus. Spartacus was a captured Thracian from the northern region of Greek civilization, brought into slavery at Rome and trained in the ways of the gladiator. After gaining the mutual respect of spectators and cohorts alike, the charismatic figure led a revolt against the oppression of the empire and with no chance of success, ensured martyrdom for his name.
Fast-forward the timeline a couple of millenia to the 21st century A.D. and the scenario has not fundamentally changed all that much. NFL stadiums are now the venues for modern day gladiators with many similarities to those days of yore only magnified due to centuries of cumulative technological advances, knowledge, business planning finesse, marketing strategies, and a vast expanse of additional resources.
In 2002, Mike Webster, of Pittsburgh Steelers fame, died at the young age of 50. At one time known as possessing “the biggest arms” in the league, Webster made it known that he was aware of his mental deterioration. This phenomenon is now widely documented as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). In Webster’s case, as well as many players of the era, the mental deterioration could just as well be blamed on illicit drug abuse, as steroid use ran rampant in those days as well as a plethora of illegal substances. Doctors say that the post-autopsy examination of Webster’s brain revealed the traumatic effects equal to 22,000 automobile collisions.
Webster was not alone with his mental affliction. The list continues with the likes of ex-Cowboy Larry Bethea, Tom McHale of the Dolphins and another ex-Steeler, Justin Strzelczyk. And more recently, the Bengals’ Chris Henry, the Broncos’ Kenny McKinley, Andre Waters of the Eagles and Terry Long of the Falcons.
Since the Webster findings, the legal aspect of player injuries and liabilities by team owners has blown wide open. Clinical experts hired by the NFL have testified in open court that there is no relation in these cases given the percentage of these events compared to any other statistical sample of the American population. And, that the nature of the personality of a football player necessitates the demeanor and traits that go along with the sport, and thus, one must come to expect repercussions from this personality type who plays with “full abandon.” After all, the intensity of sporting competition is not new to mankind. It’s participants are well aware of the risks and perils associated, yet continue to partake for a variety of motivators including fame, fortune, honor, pride and oftentimes livelihood.
Laboratory studies have identified the presence of a protein labeled “Tau,” which has been often publicized of late, in Webster and similarities noted in a majority of the other subjects leading researchers to the speculation that perhaps there is a common denominator between the dysfunctions.
Out of the blue collar industrial town of Muncie, Indiana, emerges David Russell Duerson. Raised in a family of hard workers and the youngest of a large family of high achievers in athletics as well as academics, he was surrounded by competition from his onset. Dave’s father was a union adherent who spent three-and-a-half decades with General Motors.
Excelling in all popular high school sports in Indiana, Duerson beheld a smorgasbord of opportunities. Not all of them were athletic, as he was a member of the Honor Society. He possessed a bright future in academic pursuits as well. Being awarded “Kentucky Colonel,” the state of Indiana reciprocated by awarding Duerson with its own version of the entitlement, “Sagamore of the Wabash.” The rota of his numerous awards and accomplishments only starts there. He passed on an MLB offer by the Los Angeles Dodgers—perhaps if he pursued it, he’d be alive today—to pursue his primary interest of football.
His charisma was contagious. No one could help but be enamored by his very presence.
After his stellar career, David relied upon his education and business skills to sustain his livelihood. Being a private man, he never really let on about his personal awareness of his mental deterioration. After suffering the setbacks of divorce, the loss of his business, his home and being burdened with exorbitant debt, “Double D” decided to make good on his promise to donate his brain to science and committed suicide by self-inflicted gunshot to the torso in February, sparing only his brain.
One year prior to the Duerson event, articles were published on the ESPN website stating that NFL players vow to donate brains for concussion research, which means this issue will be NFL-related in part long after participating players have perished.
“Dave Duerson’s death has shaken me personally,” NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice F. Smith said. “Men like Dave are what my job is really about.”
As the 1986 “Walter Payton Man of the Year” award winner, it seemed only fitting and proper to see the news that “Duerson’s daughter to receive [the] Payton scholarship.”
Approximately 10 weeks after Duerson’s fateful day, the results of the tests, per his final wish, determined that what he knew to be true. Researchers at Boston University reported CTE with extensive damage throughout every vital region of the brain tissue. The severity of the damage was labeled “moderate to advanced.”
How does the life of Dave Duerson relate to Spartacus? They were both legendary in their causes, is how I see it. What will become of this is yet to be seen, but let us not allow the legacy of David Duerson and the rest, die.
This writing was begun the morning after I first heard the news of the suicide. The finalized reports from Boston University several weeks later provided the momentum for me to proceed. It is not closure, per se. It merely allowed a completion of this post.