In 2007, Dave Duerson didn't know what was happening to him. Either that, or he couldn't accept it. A former Viking, Brent Boyd had just testified before a Senate subcommittee that he believed that the depressiion and cognitive difficulties he suffered were caused by his football career. Duerson, a member of the NFLPA's player benefits board, expressed some doubt: "In regards to the issue of Alzheimer's my father's 84, and as I had mentioned earlier, Senator, spent 30 years at General Motors," Duerson testified. "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."
Maybe he was just in denial. By all reports, it was around that time that Duerson began having problems. Headaches, blurred vision. It wasn't too bad at first, especially not for an old warrior who'd battled through pain lots of times in his 11 year NFL career. But it progressed; worse than the blurred vision was the forgetfulness, the inability to spell simple words, getting lost en route to familiar places.
These are hard things to accept, especially when you're a man who considers himself a warrior. The nature of professional sports requires you to cultivate a certain belief in your own invulnerability. You train your mind to block out pain and discomfort, to consider them challenges rather than symptoms. And you continue to push.
But in the end, Dave Duerson had already accepted the reality that was confirmed today: he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease caused by head trauma, and one that's surfacing as being widespread among athletes of contact sports.
On February 17, Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest. It's clear now that he chose this method of suicide (suicidal tendencies are also a symptom of chronic traumatic encephalopathy) to preserve his brain for study. Having been so closely involved in discussions about the disease in his role with the NFLPA, he must have recognized the symptoms as they began affecting his cognitive skills more profoundly. At least it seems he did, at the very end.
But was the suicide a decision that Duerson carefully considered? Or was it the disease's insidious nature, commanding the impulse it is known to create? It's difficult to know for sure. Friends and loved ones describe a man with a lot of plans for his future. He was looking into business opportunities, exploring coaching positions, even considering the political arena.
Those actions could conceivably describe either a man who expected to live on, or a warrior who was unwilling to succumb to the adversity his brain was producing.
What cannot be misinterpreted is that in his final act, Dave Duerson understood that he had been wrong about the proliferation of chronic traumatic encephalopathy among NFL veterans, and he took steps to make that right.
It's now in the hands of the NFL, as well as the NHL, boxing and other contact-heavy professional sports, to decide what to do with the information we now have. It's no longer an option to deny the data that points to the epidemic nature of this disease. Obviously, the games will go on. There's far too much money involved to even imagine these findings will mean the end of these sports.
Young men will continue to use their athletic ability as a means to lift their families from poverty. Wealthy men will continue to pay them, as long as it enriches them both. And we will continue to watch. There's a savage beauty to this competition, one that speaks to us on a very primal level. It's not something we've produced as a society, as much as it is something we seem to require as human beings.
But, like Duerson himself, one thing we can no longer do is ignore the tremendous risk that accompanies their actions, during and after their brief careers as athletes.