Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dave Duerson, 1950 - 2011

     When rookie safety Dave Duerson, a third-round draft pick out of Notre Dame, was informed that he had made the Bears' roster at the close of training camp in 1983, he did not receive the good news from defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan in quite the way that he'd imagined. He wasn't told, "Welcome aboard; we're glad to have you!" Instead, the crusty Ryan told him, "You better be good. I had to cut my best friend to make room for you." Ryan was referring to Doug Plank, the human missile whose uniform number had given the famed "46" defense its name.
     Duerson, who passed away last week at the age of 50, turned out to be pretty good. He played seven years for the Bears, the last five as a starter. He made the Pro Bowl in 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988. In 1986, he set a record for defensive backs by recording seven sacks. In 1987, he received the NFL's Man of the Year award, which goes to the player who best combines excellence on the field with a commitment to community service (the award was renamed for Walter Payton after his passing in 1999).
     Duerson "stepped in and did a great job for us," said Bears head coach Mike Ditka. It was no fault of Duerson's that he was not as famous in Chicago as most four-time Pro Bowlers would have been, because the Bears of those days were well stocked with larger-than-life characters (starting with Ditka himself) who, intentionally or not, tended to attract the spotlight.
     After leaving the Bears, Duerson served as a backup with the New York Giants and the Phoenix Cardinals, wrapping up his 11-year career in 1993. He was one of only three 1985 Bears to earn two Super Bowl rings. It is well known and still lamented that the Super Bowl XX champions never returned to the pinnacle--but Duerson picked up a second ring with the 1990 Giants, as did Richard Dent with the 1994 49ers and Jim McMahon with the 1996 Packers.
     The intelligent, ambitious Duerson became a successful entrepreneur after his playing days, and for some time he was viewed as a role model for retired athletes wishing to make a smooth transition to other careers. Duerson later suffered reversals that included financial difficulties and a domestic-battery complaint in 2005, but former teammates who saw him at the 1985 Bears' reunion last November said he looked fit and seemed to be in good spirits. They were stunned to learn that his death has been ruled a suicide. "I knew he had some problems," Ditka said, "I knew he lost his business. I knew all that. [But] it's just a tragedy."
     "For someone to leave us at age 50, very young, active, and in great shape, that's tragic," said former linebacker Jim Morrissey. "It's way too early for someone to pass. We were just hoping he would have said something, that we could have helped."
     Although Duerson did not reach out for help himself, it's possible that his untimely passing will eventually help others. He donated his brain to further research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disease that has afflicted many former NFL players.

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