Dave Duerson's secret life and tragic end

Dave never thought to censor himself around townsfolk and family. He'd recount how acerbic Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan called him a "smart nigger" — a favorite tale — and how Chicago demigod Walter Payton liked to put Icy Hot in teammates' jock straps. Strangers always wanted to know what it was like to win a championship with that "Super Bowl Shuffle" Bears team. They'd ask to look at his Super Bowl ring, and instead Dave would slide it right off and let them put the rock-studded showpiece on their own finger to see what it felt like.

In the years after he moved on from the Bears, he'd loudly share his theory that head coach Mike Ditka dismantled that team because "the guys were getting more famous than him."

When there was a break from the excitement of his presence, Dave would put on his big-brother face and study Yvette: "How are you doing?"

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.

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Yvette thinks those moments — coming home buoyed by success — were the happiest of his life.

Dave had lucked out in his third NFL year when starting safety Todd Bell boycotted the entire 1985 season in a contract dispute. He held his own in a cement locker-room full of outspoken and brilliant human specimens such as Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, Jim McMahon, William "Refrigerator" Perry, and, of course, Ditka. In the background but never cowed, 25-year-old Dave could be found doling out contract-battling advice like he was a salty veteran, or telling a Chicago Tribune beat reporter his plans for Loyola Law School when this football stuff was over.

The '85 Bears clashed — with Ryan and Ditka devolving into fisticuffs on the sideline during a game against the Miami Dolphins — rapped and danced, barked like dogs over writhing opponents, and reinvented the game. Ryan's defensive schemes, with Dave an integral piece, changed modern playbooks. That chaotic contest versus Miami was the team's only loss against 15 wins. They destroyed two playoff opponents by a score of 45-0 on their way to a 46-10 Super Bowl XX victory over the New England Patriots.

For Dave's skull, the hits came harder than in his Notre Dame days. Henry L. Fuse III, childhood friend and Yvette's husband, remembers Dave would have a "big, dark bruise on his forehead" in the days after games. He never thought to keep track of the concussions he accumulated.

"It was called getting your bell rung or getting a dinger," Ditka recalls. "It was a macho thing. The doctor would put his fingers up, and 95 percent of the time the guy was going back in. I do regret how concussions were treated back then."

Adds Shaun Gayle, Dave's teammate on the Bears' defense: "Nobody ever said, 'You know, this is going to have lasting effects on you decades down the line.'"

In 1989, after four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, Ditka called Dave into his office and gave him his release. Not being traded meant Dave would lose $600,000 he was owed for the next season. A rep for the NFL Players Association, Dave was certain he was being punished for being too outspoken. As he left the office, he would later recall, Ditka grumbled, "This'll be the last time I allow a player to get this much power."

A scientist with a petri dish couldn't have created two better adversaries than Dave Duerson and Mike Ditka. They both held grudges, had voices like megaphones, and never forfeited the last word. Eighteen years after being cut from the Bears, Dave blasted his former coach, who had become a crusader for retired players' benefits, to a Tribune reporter: "Mike was not one who gave a damn about the players or their injuries when he was coaching." The pair then had a much-publicized shouting match on a radio show.

Even the death of his old foe hasn't inspired much perspective in the retired coach. Asked if he had heard Dave's frequent claim that he put the kibosh on his superstar players because they outshone him, Ditka exploded during a phone interview with New Times: "The guy's dead. What do I care what he said? You want to believe it, believe it. The guy committed suicide. You think he's thinking rationally?"

Then: "I don't have any more time for this shit. Thank you."

Along with his Bears' job, Dave lost all of his Chicago-area sponsorships. A Chevy dealership collected his loaned Corvette that afternoon. "I got fired six times that day," he would later say. And though he claimed his NFL career was only a lark, "he went into a depression for the first time," Yvette says.

But there was a bit more juice left in his pro football career. He landed a job with the New York Giants for the 1990 season and won another Super Bowl under head coach Bill Parcells. The next season, he began a three-year twilight tour with the Arizona Cardinals.

He kept his home — a grand, marble-floored affair — in Highland Park, a posh suburb of Chicago. During his playing career, he and Alicia had three sons, who were named like American Gladiators: Chase, Tregg, and Brock. They would later have a daughter, Taylor. The kids were members of the Chicago chapter of Jack and Jill of America, a prestigious society for the offspring of the black bourgeoisie.

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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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