Dave Duerson's secret life and tragic end

Dave drove a spotless black Cadillac Escalade, and he and Chris lounged by the pool at his Sunny Isles condo building. Dave usually insisted on paying for their lunches, always with cash, pulling out a fat wad of bills and letting it linger so everybody around could get a look.

He boasted about Duerson Foods, his state-of-the-art meat company. Dave moved to Miami, he explained, to be in the same city as Burger King's global headquarters for negotiation purposes. "I thought he provided half the sausage to Burger King and McDonald's, and all of the Swedish meatballs to Olive Garden," Chris says. "I was like, Damn, this guy's swimming in money."

He was "a young dude at heart," Chris says, and he'd often call from vacations in places like Rio de Janeiro or Santo Domingo, where he'd escape with girlfriends. Eventually, he got engaged to a Washington, D.C. woman named Antoinette Sykes, whom he called "Angel."

Dave Duerson's high school portrait.
Photo courtesy of the Duerson family
Dave Duerson's high school portrait.

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And then, on February 17, 2011, Chris watched stunned while the first reports of Dave's death played on television. Refusing to fathom suicide, Chris dreamed up murder conspiracies. "He must've gotten mixed up with some shady Miami businessman," he theorized. "Not Dave, man," he kept repeating. "No way he did that."

Chris has since learned what Dave was concealing: That he was bankrupt — with no income and heavily in debt — and facing legal action from his ex-wife, brother, and sister. That his lavish South Florida lifestyle was secretly supported by his father's modest estate. And that Dave, despite his braggadocio, was afraid he was losing his mind.

Chris has gone from mystified to "pretty pissed" to his current state: a grave, lingering disappointment. "He's sitting there talking about life like it's grand, and I thought it was," Chris says. "I had no reason not to take him at his word."

The baby of four siblings, David Russell Duerson sometimes had trouble finding players for his football team when he was in his early teens. "We don't have enough boys," he'd dictate to his tiny niece Yvette, who was five years his junior, "so you're going to have to play."

Yvette Leavell was the daughter of Dave's grown sister Viola, but he treated the little girl like his closest sibling. "It was like we were tied at the hip," says Yvette, whose married name is now Fuse. When she had children of her own, Dave was their godfather.

In Muncie, Indiana, where elite basketball players seem to sprout from the soil, and Main Street shuts down for local high school games, Dave was an anomaly: a Hoosier athlete who considered basketball season a period of purgatory between football and baseball. Dave's first gridiron team was the Hines Street Tigers, a group of neighboring kids that played on empty lots against rivals like the Butler Street Bulldogs and the Kirk Street Cougars.

Born in 1960, he was a "runt" growing up, he told an interviewer for HistoryMakers, an oral archive of African-American history. Entering his teens, Dave stood four-foot-eight and weighed 75 pounds. His parents had his pelvis x-rayed, he recalled, to make sure he wasn't a "midget." But he didn't need a growth spurt to dominate his peers, including his brother Michael. "I'd be a first-round draft pick" in neighborhood pick-up games, he fondly recalled to HistoryMakers. "I'd get picked before my brother, who was two years older and a whole lot taller." He got away with hurling stones at cars two blocks away, he added, because "who in their right mind would think that some teenage kid... could throw rocks that far?"

He harbored those types of little boasts for decades. "Dave was just very competitive in everything he did," Yvette says.

With candy as currency, he was a tycoon. Dave would negotiate complicated transactions involving Bub's Daddy, the bubblegum rope to which he was addicted. "He was doing business," Yvette says. "It always ended up that he was chewing all of the Bub's Daddy and I had none."

Dave's father, Arthur Duerson Jr., spent 38 years manufacturing Chevy transmissions after returning from World War II and was a deacon at Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, the epicenter of Muncie's black society. His mother, Julia Leavell, ran a successful catering business for 50 years. The Leavells were a family of ministers and athletes — Dave's first cousin, Allen Leavell, played ten years in the NBA — and it was from his mother that Dave would inherit his rock-solid frame, topping six-foot-one and 200 pounds in his later teenage years. Dave had two brothers and a sister: Michael, Arthur III, and Viola. Though they weren't wealthy, recalls family friend Carl E. Kizer Jr., "the Duersons were considered one of Muncie's finest families."

To its black residents, Muncie — nicknamed "Little Chicago" because it was divisively and forever segregated — felt like a village. And by his high school graduation in 1978, Dave was the golden child. He was a member of the National Honor Society, had traveled through Europe playing the sousaphone as part of the Musical Ambassadors All-American Band, and in his senior year was voted Indiana Mr. Football. He could run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and throw a fastball at 95 mph. "I thought he might go on to be a senator," Kizer says, "or anything he wanted."

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6 comments
Twin2090
Twin2090

Rest in peace dave and may God bless you. Hope you enjoy heaven

Bears Fan
Bears Fan

R.I.P. Dave. I hope you now have the peace you didn't have before.

I too had a friend of mine that played for the Jets in the 80's, Tom Baldwin. He too took his own life. Very sad indeed.

Danny Domer
Danny Domer

His downward spiral started in the incident at the Morris Inn on the campus of the University of Notre Dame - the altercation with his wife resulted in disgrace and ND dumping him from the board and blacklisting him. That's the thanks he got from ND. If it wasn't for how ND treated him, I am convinced he would not have spiraled downward like he did. So sad, so very very sad.

thegreatbillbrasky
thegreatbillbrasky

Come on Gus, it's the University of Notre Dame. This isn't hard...

Ttsturrup
Ttsturrup

my cousin johnny sawyer played for buffalo bills in the 80''s he liked dave duerson commited same act .

 
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