(Project Brain Wave) In 2007, at a Senate subcommittee hearing regarding the implications of long-term cognitive deficits as it relates to repetitive trauma to the head in football, Dave Duerson questioned the legitimacy of such a claim by dismissing any thoughts of relation to the game he played and loved to the neurological struggles of his peers. Such an assertion at the time was of course denied by many involved with the game, and was largely considered an attack on the forefront of football’s integrity. During his career, Duerson had at least ten concussions, and lost consciousness during some, according to his family. And yet Duerson’s argument was founded upon the following claim:
“In regards to the issue of Alzheimer’s, my father’s 84, and as I 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.”
2007 was a time of inquiry for the national pride of football, as it found itself under tremendous scrutiny dating back to the finding of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in former Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center, “Iron” Mike Webster. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain that develops as a result of repetitive head trauma. This trauma includes the symptomatic, and asymptomatic concussive blows to the head. It is a disease that is associated with memory loss, impulse control problems, confusion, impaired judgment, aggression, depression, and eventual progressive dementia, most notably characterized by the build-up of tau protein in the brain—an abnormal protein that serves as a decisive key to the mental deterioration of the individual.
What is it that Duerson allowed to blockade his openness to such a proposal? Without a doubt the pride instilled in the football athlete holds true and strong to the immense withholding of responsibility to the game itself. Players will defend their sport, because they feel indebted to the numerous life lessons, experiences, and unforgettable memories that paint the legacies of players such as Duerson. It is also a tremendous rejection of anything that may have been perceived to be a way of life to rather be a way of deferring one’s future to that of an accelerated cognitive decline. It is fear. It is knowing that the unknown could be developing without your awareness. Duerson’s comments regarding the rejection of such a proposal of neurodegenerative implication as a result of playing football signify the feelings of the time. After all, this was only found in just a few of his fellow football retirees. This was something that was not widely accepted or acknowledged by those with medical degrees all throughout, and it certainly was something that the National Football League was not willing to endorse.
But things seemed to have come full circle for Duerson—not in a good way, but rather in that of a self-destructive means of his own neurological decline. On February 17th, 2011, Duerson committed suicide, and on May 2nd, 2011, it was confirmed that Duerson himself had been suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy—the very condition that he believed just four years ago to not be of any relation to the years of concussive and subconcussive hits to his head that he sustained throughout the course of his career.
Nearly two-dozen former NFL players have been diagnosed postmortem with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but no other had acted upon their own suspicion of self-diagnosis like that of Duerson’s predicament. The man that was an All-American defensive back at Notre Dame, and an eleven-year veteran of the NFL with the Chicago Bears and New York Giants—a 1985 Super Bowl Champion with the Bears, and a 1991 Super Bowl Champion with the Giants—had been complaining of headaches, blurred vision, and a deteriorating memory, while also struggling with several bouts of depressive episodes. Something clicked within his own cognitive capacity that maybe what he was going through was what was being investigated in that 2007 Senate subcommittee meeting. Maybe he, too, had been suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
In Duerson’s final note to his family, he requested: “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.”
An unbelievable final request. One that Christopher Nowinski believes to be the reason why he chose to shoot himself in the chest, rather than the brain, to presumably preserve his brain for the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. When you look at the course of events that led to the taking of his own life at age fifty, it seems that Duerson was on a path quite similar to that of the likes of Mike Webster, Terry Long, Andre Waters, and Shane Dronett. A path characterized by clear cognitive struggles, depression, physical altercations, poor risk assessments, and a loss of self.
Many will come to trace Duerson’s decline to an incident that took place at Notre Dame with his ex-wife Alicia Duerson on February 3rd, 2005. Duerson reportedly threw his wife against the wall of the Morris Inn, and was charged with misdemeanor battery by the Notre Dame campus police, ultimately costing him a seat on the university’s board of trustees.
Duerson also saw his successful food distribution business oversight fall to pieces, as poor financial decision-making led to the downfall of his own standing in an industry he came to be quite prominent within. Those close to Duerson said that this issue in particular was a huge blow to his self-pride and confidence, and even furthered the speculation of Dave not being Dave anymore.
The symptoms came about in a rather mild fashion, but gradually escalated to progressive accounts of blurred vision, memory loss, spells of headaches, difficulty spelling common words, and specific reference to a pain building within the left side of his brain. Duerson also had problems recalling locations, and remembering how to get from one place to another that would have ordinarily been quite commonplace to him. He became aware of this and began to write everything down on paper, which was a practice notably used to take notes from conversations because he could not remember what was involved with personal interactions with others. He had showed miniscule trust in his own memory. His ex-wife, Alicia, said that during the time leading up to his February 2011 suicide, “he was unable to do some simple things.”
Those closest to Duerson worried that the Notre Dame graduate with a degree in economics and a certificate from the Harvard Business School’s Executive Program was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The family problems, financial troubles, and feelings of possessing a failing brain consumed him, and even furthered the skepticism of others to believe that maybe he had this disease.
The brain bank at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy declared “moderately advanced” brain damage in Duerson several months after his death.
“Dave Duerson had classic pathology of CTE and no evidence of any other disease,” McKee said, “and he has severe involvement of all the (brain) structures that affect things like judgment, inhibition, impulse control, mood and memory.”
It is a tragic case for the game of football, and for the Duerson family. A man that must have been seemingly been seen as the epitome of pride and success had fallen at such a young age only to leave behind the family and friends that had lived the precious memories of his lifetime alongside him, but also lived the troubling moments of cognitive decline with him from a distance. Duerson’s name will remain on the continued list of former NFL players diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and will be yet another additional reminder to the game that something needs to be done to address this.
According to Bruce Laird, the president of the Fourth & Goal group (a group designed to assist retired football players).
“…more needs to be done to educate currently players on the risks, to enact additional rule changes that reduce risk and protect players, and to improve care for those affected by debilitating football injuries.”
Long-story short—there needs to be a reconsideration of this proposed 18-game schedule for the NFL, and an improvement of the disability system for retired players. As the number of individuals who suffered from CTE increases, so does the number of stories of the families that watch their loved ones loses a sense of identity and decline in a way that diminishes their cognitive capacities. In reaction to the announcement of Duerson’s confirmation of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, his son, Tregg, spoke:
“We have been given the gift of closure…We accept this gift with great humility, as we are mindful of other families that have lost loved ones and still bear the burden of unanswered questions.”
Co-Director, Project Brain Wave