Dave Duerson's secret life and tragic end

The Los Angeles Dodgers offered Dave a signing bonus to pitch for them. But when the Dodgers' scouts told his father there was "no time for college," Dave later recounted to HistoryMakers, "that was a very short conversation."

He enrolled in his home state's University of Notre Dame on a football and baseball scholarship. Once there, football dominated his schedule, and his baseball prospects faded away.

Dave would later say that, for the career longevity, he wished he had chosen baseball. Decades down the road — after the undiagnosed concussions, headaches, mood swings, memory loss, erratic behavior, and, finally, the suicide — his family would agree.

Dave Duerson, Muncie Indiana's golden child, was an All-American safety at the University of Notre Dame. View our Dave Duerson slide show.
Photo courtesy of the Duerson family
Dave Duerson, Muncie Indiana's golden child, was an All-American safety at the University of Notre Dame. View our Dave Duerson slide show.
Dave treated his niece Yvette like a little sister.
Photo courtesy of the Duerson family
Dave treated his niece Yvette like a little sister.

"I just wish he had played baseball," Tregg Duerson bitterly told a New York Times reporter days after his father's death. But Dave couldn't have known at the time that it was a decision spring-loaded with consequence.

Dave and Rod Bone, his roommate and fellow safety on the Notre Dame football team, used to play a game-within-a-game every time they put on their pads. They would watch each other's tackles on wide receivers. "When a guy had the hardest hit of the day, there was no vote necessary," Rod says. "We knew it."

The stakes were bragging rights until the next game or scrimmage, when they would lower their heads, straighten their spines, and blast their way once again through offensive opponents. "We would run as fast as we could, and when we hit them, we didn't stop," Rod explains. "We aimed to run over them rather than into them."

Dave worshipped the brutal hit. Every Friday night before a game the next day, he re-read They Call Me Assassin, the memoir written by longtime Los Angeles Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum, who in 1978 left a wide receiver paralyzed from the neck down after a tackle. "We all looked up to Jack Tatum, because Jack Tatum would hit you and you were out," Rod says. "We wanted to be Jack Tatum. A hard hit felt good. It didn't hurt. If you hit right, people just bounce off of you. We assumed that the helmet was good enough."

"I've expressed several times," Dave explained on his online radio show in October 2010, "there is nothing like hearing the air rush out of another man."

Not every hit could be performed to perfection, but that's what smelling salts and the sideline "finger test" were for. The word concussion was rarely if ever used. There was no thought of lasting side effects. "Every once in a while, you'd see double and feel fuzzy or dizzy," Rod says. "It was part of the game. The trainer would hold up two fingers. If you saw four fingers, you'd close one eye until you saw two fingers. Then you'd get back in there."

Away from the game, Dave was paced and meticulous. While his teammates were demolishing cafeteria food, he chewed with the belief that each bite should be put away before the next began. He went to church every week and was an advice guru to his teammates. Adds Rod: "He was very popular with the ladies."

In 1981, Notre Dame lost the Sugar Bowl to the University of Georgia. Walking with his teammates back to the hotel from New Orleans' Superdome that night, Rod was stopped by two pretty young women, one of whom flirtatiously eyed Dave. "Who is that guy?" she asked. "I want to meet him."

Rod introduced the girl — a Houstonian named Alicia — to Dave. Rambunctious and assertive, she was his perfect foil. "They locked on to each other," Rod says. "It was instantaneous." Alicia transferred to Notre Dame, and the pair would marry two years later.

Dave started all four years at Notre Dame and twice was named an All-American. After graduating with academic honors in 1983, he entered the NFL Draft. The night he was to be chosen, Dave disappeared. He wasn't in his dorm room, says Rod, and didn't go home to Muncie. It's unclear where he was during the almost three rounds before he was chosen by the Chicago Bears with the 64th pick. "We were all excited about it, but he wanted to be alone during the draft," his niece Yvette says. "I think he was worried he might not be drafted, and he didn't want that to happen in front of us. Dave's whole life was about avoiding failure."

When Uncle Dave drove home to Muncie for a visit on a bye week, Yvette usually knew the moment he rolled into town. The phone would start ringing off the hook. "Girl, I just seen Dave Duerson."

A good chunk of the town's population made parts for Mustangs and Corvettes, but it wasn't often that a brand-new one roared through the streets. And anvil-headed Dave — with that reflective orb of a dome, that mustache, and little round sunglasses — was now an icon in his hometown.

"Hey, niece, you want to go for a ride?" he'd ask at Yvette's house, always his first stop. They'd drive all around town in his sports car, making impromptu visits to his parents, siblings, cousins, and friends. At some point, he'd get his Pizza King fix. Even living in Chicago, capital of the deep-dish pie, Dave always craved Muncie's chain-restaurant slices.

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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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