Bernstein: Dave Duerson’s Selfless Last Act

By Dan Bernstein–

It took some time and information before the report started to make any sense.

The Miami-Dade County medical examiner had confirmed that former Bears safety Dave Duerson committed suicide last week by shooting himself in the chest. It was something that had to be read a second time for confirmation, since that one, specific detail was so jarring.

People don’t do that. Why would he?

When the late David Foster Wallace spoke to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005, he said “Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master. This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master.”

Duerson chose otherwise, but not because his master was any less terrible.

NBC 5’s Peggy Kusinski reported Saturday evening that Duerson had sent a text message to loved ones asking “that his brain be left for NFL research, emphasizing he wanted the ‘left side’ checked out in particular.”

The Center for Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University’s medical school will study the brain over the next several months. Of the 14 brains of former NFL players examined already, 13 were found to have CTE – the buildup of sludgy, brown protein that causes dementia and depression, and is believed to be a factor in suicides.

For years, the NFL had pretended that football was not bad for your brain. Mounting evidence to the contrary was dismissed regularly by corrupt league doctors, as they followed the playbook of the tobacco companies as long as they could. Former players crippled by the game were seen as a threat, so their requests for aid were long ignored, and the link between repeated blows to the head and brain damage was denied.

It took a concerted effort by the NFL Players’ Association to expose the harsh, obvious reality. As a disability panel was formed and individual cases of debilitated former players were detailed, it became impossible for the league to play dumb. Commissioner Roger Goodell has turned the NFL in the right direction by acknowledging the inherent dangers and vowing to help protect and inform players.

One of the three union representatives on that disability panel was Dave Duerson.

He had been a part of countless meetings, investigations and arguments over the ruined lives of demented players seeking assistance. One case after the other with so many aspects in common: what begins as a happy, successful retirement devolves into financial problems and personal strife, with the root cause being the deterioration of the brain. The punchy ex-NFLer is, itself, a cliché – but it is another example of “a great and terrible truth.”

And this is why his suicide will reverberate through the ranks of current and former players, and may be looked back upon as a watershed moment for football.

He knew. He was aware.

The last statement he made was that football helped destroy him.

As his own life was unraveling – the domestic assault charge, divorce, his once-robust business failing, his home in foreclosure – he was seeing the same story he knew all too well.

This marks the first time that a former NFL player has taken his own life not just because of the aftereffects of football, but because of the knowledge and perception of them.

We may remember this not only as tragic, but sadly heroic.

More from Dan Bernstein
  • Jaimie in Hoffman Estates

    Wow, i was shocked to hear of DD’s death, being a suicide. Its really too bad, guess this will fire up concussion talk again?

  • jon

    Haha, I predicted today’s blog would either be a Duerson grave stomp or a Kaner bash piece. You never let me down Danny.

    • Beverly Brewmaster

      You call that a grave stomp? “We may remember this not only as tragic, but sadly heroic.” Boy, Dan really let Duerson have it there!

    • Murphs Mustache comb

      @ jon Dumb @ss cracker

    • Peter (in Rogers Park)

      What “grave stomp”?

      Kaner’s self-destructive behavior/alcoholism is so blatant that it doesn’t really require an opinion piece to put it in perspective.

  • Curt Motisi

    I am too much of a pessimist, and a jerk to believe it. I do not doubt football can hurt people physically and mentally in the long term, but it seems convenient in this case. What is the difference he is gone, and it is sad in any event.

  • Jay's Insulin Pump

    It sounds to me like the NFL already has plenty of information pointing in the same direction. 13 of 14 is around 93%, not exactly on the fence. My guess is when this research is done, we’ll be at 14 of 15.

    “Of the 14 brains of former NFL players examined already, 13 were found to have CTE – the buildup of sludgy, brown protein that causes dementia and depression, and is believed to be a factor in suicides.”

    I know that current player safety is a major concern, as well it should be. But, when are they going to realize how many former players need help beyond just physical medical care? Duerson needed mental help. He made that perfectly clear in the last few years of his life when he started to exhibit abnormal behavior. I can’t believe how many reports I’ve heard in the last few days describing situations (including the domestic abuse) in which Duerson acted out of character. I’m sure he’s not the only one. It’s great to be proactive, but they also need to be reactive for those whose lives are already in jeopardy.

  • Wailin Willie

    All Berny Boy ever does as a Sox fan is criticize the Cubs. This DD suicide may be a little diversion for him. I know in real life Berny tends to be a bit nerdy.

    • Ralph T

      Your first sentence is completely false. Do you even listen to the show?

  • crash corrigan

    It’s tragic, of course, but suicide is not painless, nor is it noble in this case. I’m sure the family and friends of Duerson will miss him terribly. And medicine is advancing and in 10 years or less, there might be therapy to help relieve or even cure what DD feared he had. Killing yourself is not a noble gesture, unless you are a soldier falling on a grenade to save others. He should have faced the future with courage, not fear and certainly not suicide.

    • Northwest Mart

      Dan’s saying he is “a soldier falling on a grenade”. Not only will the research on his brain save lives but the act itself will force the players and organizers of all levels of football to reevaluate whether they should play and under what rules. Thus saving lives and preventing debilitating injuries.

      I’m going to pull a Joe Namath and guarantee (with no penalty for being wrong) that the league will not get or maybe even push for an 18 game season after this incident.

      • Reading Rainbow

        That’s such a bad argument. 1) Sure evidence can point towards that condition, but it’s impossible to know until his brain is studied, which hasn’t been performed yet. In other words, that argument says he did a deed on a hunch and therefore it’s a good deed. 2) To look at the whole picture is so wrong in this type of context to reach the conclusion. I’m not saying you can’t account for this choice in how he ended his life, but to make that the focal point is just wrong. With that argument Bernie shouldn’t be having kids – because in 40 years we won’t have enough food to feed everyone – so he should be looking big picture and helping the future out at major penalty to the current. 3) This comparison is skewed obviously, but shouldn’t we say the same thing for murderers then? If person x goes on a killing spree but at the end feels remorse and feels there’s something wrong with his brain that was contributing greatly to the spree so they kill themselves and request their brain to be studied – is that the thing we should take away from everything. That person x knew something was wrong and made a conscious effort to help the future?

        All that was just to rebuff this point. I am in no way trying to diminish the pain of suicide for DD and his family. I have personal experience with depression in my family – if not specifically the trauma caused version that DB is assuming is there. Suicide does NOT make you a bad person at all, but it is not the right answer.

      • Northwest Mart

        He killed himself because he had depression.
        He shot himself in the chest and choose to die painfully for the better of science and awareness on a hunch.

        Unfortunately multiple peer-researched papers on the links between playing football and CTE don’t ring out to all involved as much as self inflicted shot to the chest.

        If his suicide or at least the method of his suicide prevent the suffering of future families as they have to deal with the insanity and early death of there former football player (or potential football player) then yes I think there was something sadly heroic about that. Future family members suffering that was avoided is just as worthy as the actual suffering that is occurring in DD family now.

  • bronzo

    While this is all very tragic and I m pretty sure Dan acknowledge’s this, I hope he rethinks his position on the “Gridiron Greats.” I know Dan hates anything that involves Ditka but this organization specifically addresses the CTE issue. And helps fund research.


    I read somewhere that the teenage brain, has the fewest amounts of filters or, for lack of a better term, “logic defaults.” Distractions are easy.
    Bottom line, a teenager has more tendency to choose two or more stimuli and give them equal (or imbalanced) attention: (e.g. the brain says “there’s a red light/ oh man I need to answer my phone.”)
    It’s hard to steer people in the right direction. A basic bachelor’s degree tells people, “you’ve managed to sit an pay attention to things that aren’t immediately gratifying/ you’ve learned to meet deadlines and appointments.”
    Long story short, it’s either going to have to be at the basic level of football to start to change this game. It needs changing. The NFL could ban helmets. That’d help.
    I applaud High School coaches who’d rather scratch a season than throw out a team that’ll lose 36 consecutive quarters.

  • Mark

    Dave was and is the best of the best,Mark Murrphy robes and Nortown Olds….


    Completely unrelated.
    I tried watching the “heritage classic” (still looking for the pond and the 6th skater. . . . .)
    Here’s a tip: If you’re going to wear the dumbest-looking piece of sports equipment ever, you’d better not give up that many goals, or the T.V. needs to ignore it.
    Every chance they could get, to cut to that revolting mask.
    As my grandmother says, “you’re all a bunch of BOOBIES!”

  • Real Fan

    My prayers are with Dave’s family. I just hope that God allows him into heaven even though he committed suicide.

    • Larry Horse's water trough

      Save the bible thumping for church.

  • Michael

    Do you think that this may have an impact on the CBA negotiations? If it is proven DD had TE I would imagine the NFLPA would run with this to prove their case as to why they need more money….

    • Chris in Scottsdale


      That’s a REALLY good point. Duerson was a shewd businessman- he became one of the more successful former players around. Did he know that his suicide would impact labor negotiations? I wouldn’t put it past him for a second.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Sad, yes.
    Tragic, yes.
    Heroic, no.
    Selfless, no.

  • puddin' head

    i think anyone who takes away from themselves the gift of life is seriously messed up in the head i don’t feel anyone can blame it on head injuries as i would be willing to bet more people who have not played football have taken their own life than those who have played football………..the dreaded brown sludge might be caused by something other than a whack to the skull

    • Dan's Back

      Actually, suicide among former players is much higher than the national average, so you would lose that bet.


    Boy, the ‘hawks just can’t put on the cabana wear and lounge for a period.
    St. Louis has coaching issues. I’m not sure it was a good idea for them to “ride the hot hand” of Bishop.

    Let’s go back to yesterday’s game. The announcers loved the “poor Penguins” angle. I tuned them out, until Kane’s shootout goal.
    Did they not know that the Penguins weren’t facing the, quote, real Blackhawks?


    I was just about to make that a wyc? But I think it’s going to go live on Friday Fung this week.

    Oh well, it’ll save me the time looking up who called the game yesterday.


    I think it was Champ Kind.

  • joemills

    very nice writing Mr. B

  • AT3374

    Sad to hear all this about DD , but there is nothing HEROIC about taking ones life .

  • Patrick ODonnell

    Let’s not make statements of fact that conscussions lead to depression now as some definite causal relationship. Dave may very well have had a Seratonin/Norepinephrine imbalance his entire life, and that along with many genetic factors, linked to depression and his upbringing and lifestyle, “TE” was an accompanying factor in him taking his life.

  • Beardy McWierdington

    In my opinion, Bersie $ucks solo, as much as Terry is old and crotchity, his snarky comments really carrry the show in my opinon.

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    […] Bernstein: Dave Duerson’s Selfless Last Act By Dan Bernstein– […]

  • Hatethefools

    Sad, Daves part of some great childhood memories….RIP

  • Jon, Montgomery

    just read the blog. it’s an interesting topic, but a sad story and may Dave RIP

    but Dan, for you to say in ANY way that this was “heroic”…. is despicable….

  • Jon, Montgomery

    late breaking news. carmelo anthony has been traded to the new york knicks

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