The death on February 17 of Dave Duerson, former Chicago Bears Pro Bowl safety and recipient of the 1987 Walter Payton Man of the Year trophy came as a shock not only in manner, but also in his intent. Police officers who, according to MCT/The Gazette reporter Dan Pompei, have been to many similar scenes never had encountered a suicide “planned and executed so meticulously.”
Duerson had shot himself in the heart to preserve his brain. That fact was evident when he left specific instructions in a text message to his family for his brain to be donated to science. Specifically, his last request, just one month before Brain Injury Awareness Day, was that his brain be donated to the NFL brain bank. This final text message was to ensure his contribution toward understanding the impact of brain injury on football players.
While it is not the intention of this writer to condone suicide for the sake of medical science, it is important to acknowledge that Duerson apparently lived with this condition, and he alone knew what he was up against. However, his contribution, in contrast to many others, may not only offer an intact and preserved specimen of a progressive disease, with a defined spectrum, it might also provide insight into treatment and prevention.
While helping former NFL players on the NFL Player Cares “88 Plan,” an NFL veterans plan for players who have dementia, it is quite possible that Dave Duerson began to recognize the early symptoms in himself. These symptoms often occur across a spectrum in severity and may include slurred speech, poor memory, headaches, along with impulsive or aggressive behavior.
The signs that we see are often referred to as “Punch Drunk” because the person does appear to be drunk. Sometimes, however, the signs and symptoms get worse over time, while others may spontaneously resolve. However, it is the repetitiveness of injury with multiple concussions that is thought to be the cause in the majority of cases. Without early intervention and too quick of a return to play, these symptoms can lead to a condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a syndrome similar to either Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s Disease, although the most prevalent conditions of former pro football players are depression and dementia.
Individual differences and lack of an appropriate brain injury model have always been two major obstacles in determining how the brain reacts to injury. Add to that the fact that many brain-based disorders can only be diagnosed definitively on autopsy.
Therefore, the sports industry and its players have faced a major challenge over when a player may return to the game. It has only been in the past few years that teams have recruited and retained neurologists as consulting physicians, and new time out rules for rest and recovery have been enforced. Meanwhile, the scientific community plugs away at finding ways to diagnose and treat brain injury.
There is hope on the horizon. Current research with military personnel has uncovered a simple blood test that reportedly detects changes in brain chemistry in mild cases of head trauma. In addition to detection, bone marrow stem cell research has also showed promise in remediating the symptoms prevalent in Parkinson’s-like syndromes.
In terms of prevention, it is fair to say that we are still a long way off from eliminating brain injury from mainstream sports. Perhaps as more injury-related evidence becomes available, the attitude towards safety in sport will sway, and people like Dave Duerson will be able to live longer and happier lives.
Walter Payton once said, “Never die easy. Why run out of bounds and die easy? Make that linebacker pay. It carries into all facets of your life. It’s okay to lose, to die, but don’t die without trying, without giving it your best.” Payton was a former Chicago Bears teammate of Dave Duerson’s. He was also a tireless supporter and advocate for charities and organ donations. Payton died of bile duct cancer, a disease that could have been cured by a transplant.
When police finally entered Dave Duerson’s condominium that night they found the Walter Payton Man of the Year trophy sitting on the coffee table. Formerly known as the NFL Man of the Year Award, the award is given each year to a player for his “volunteer and charitable giving.” It is a sad epitaph to the death of Dave Duerson, but in this case eerily appropriate.