Dave Duerson's secret life and tragic end

Dave never was a fan of the NFL's faux-militaristic vibe. So before the 1994 season at the Cardinals minicamp — the team's head coach was now old foe Buddy Ryan, and the staff included his sons Rex and Rob — Dave revolted when ordered to sprint for a job. "You would've thought that I was still a rookie in the National Football League," he later said on his radio show, Double Time With Double D on VoiceAmerica.com. "You get to a point in your career when enough is enough." He walked out of camp, and the game, for good.

For years, people had been talking about Dave Duerson, Chicago Mayor, or Dave Duerson, Fortune 400 CEO. Finally, he had his chance to achieve triumphs that didn't involve wearing a nut cup.

He earned an executive education certificate from the Harvard Business School. He sat on trustee boards for the University of Notre Dame and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, as well as on the controversial six-member panel controlling disability payments to retired players. For his role on the notoriously stingy panel, Dave earned the ire of former-player advocates like Ditka and Bernie Parrish. He didn't take the responsibility lightly. "I got a billion-dollar liability," he'd say of the fund, as if it were his own corporation.

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.

Having bought a Louisville, Kentucky McDonald's in 1994, Dave moved up the corporate food chain the next year, purchasing a majority stake in Wisconsin sausage company Fair Oaks Farms. Ever since his days of visiting his father at the Chevy plant, it had been Dave's dream to hear the whoomp-whoomp of heavy machinery in a factory he owned.

Dave began telling people that his favorite time of year was fall. After all of those years spent working out in empty arenas to prepare for football season, now he could finally enjoy the changing leaves.

But every late winter and early spring — during the height of the NFL playoffs and player draft — Yvette noticed that her retired uncle would "get into a depressed stage... I guess it brought up all those memories and the realization that he wasn't out there anymore."

Much speculation as to whether he was mentally ill has followed Dave's death. "I've thought about that a lot," former teammate Shaun Gayle says, "and I do know this: Playing in the NFL, aside from being taxing on the body, creates a real challenge when you're done. Living up to the standard of excellence you've created, and finding that identity outside of what people have given you, and always wanting to reach back to that former glory — I don't know if you'd call it mental illness. I just know that it's a challenge that can be stoked by isolation."

In 2002, after selling his stake in Fair Oaks Farms, Dave opened his own meat-packaging company, Duerson Foods, in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. Ditching his former partners was a gamble, and he later claimed the decision was partially motivated by Fair Oaks' exclusive-supplier contract with McDonald's. Dave wanted to sell to Burger King too. His goal was to be the number one provider of meat to fast-food chains in the nation.

Before opening Duerson Foods, Dave toured an Iowa slaughterhouse. He worked the messy kill-room floor, electrocuting and butchering cows and pigs, so that he would know every aspect of the business. He made Yvette director of corporate affairs, and her husband Henry became plant manager.

After work, the trio would often get together in Dave's office and drink Jack and Coke while the two men smoked cigars. Sometimes Dave would profess, in his matter-of-fact manner, that he was worried about his brain — in particular the left side.

Sitting on the disability panel, he was well acquainted with the dementia and depression associated with years of hard hits. The study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was relatively new, but there were already horror stories involving the spiraling lives and suicides of former players who had tested positive for the syndrome in postmortem brain exams. Mike Webster lived in his pickup truck. Terry Long chugged antifreeze. Andre Waters shot himself in the head. Justin Strzelczyk smashed head-on into a truck during a 90-mph police chase. Tom McHale overdosed on pills.

Dave used to say of his football career: "It was like every week getting in a car wreck going 40 miles an hour. I know I'm going to have some problems later in life."

According to Henry and Yvette, Dave's mind was already slipping when he opened his new company. Always patient and pragmatic, he became prone to viciousness and tantrums. Even his speech and mannerisms changed. "Suddenly every word was an expletive," Henry says. "He was always agitated and fidgety."

His business discretion suffered. He sank a million dollars from his personal bank account, Henry says, into keeping the fledgling factory afloat. Violating his own business plan, he rushed his celebrity-branded DD sausages onto the market. "We were hemorrhaging money on retail," Henry says. "The little money that came in went to keeping people paid."

Dave claimed a Dutch company that had sold faulty freezers to Duerson Foods in 2003 was to blame and filed suit. After the judge awarded a $34.6 million judgment in favor of Duerson Foods, the American wing of the freezer company simply filed bankruptcy. "He sued a shell company," Henry says. "He won a piece of paper that said '$35 million' but wasn't worth anything."

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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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