Longform

Dave Duerson's secret life and tragic end

Dave Duerson propped a dining room chair against the front door of his luxe Sunny Isles Beach condo. He carefully laid out personal documents and notes on the dining room table and on the bed in his master bedroom, where a window looked out onto sunny, palm-tree-lined Collins Avenue.

He took a shadow box displaying two Bronze Star Army medals and placed it on his bed. Near the headboard, he placed a neatly folded American flag. The items had belonged to his father, a factory worker, pious family man, and World War II veteran who died two years earlier. Arthur Duerson Jr. was his son's ideal of what a man should be.

Dave added to the tableau his own diplomas — an economics degree from the University of Notre Dame and a certificate from Harvard Business School's Executive Education program.

He always liked to surround himself with signifiers of excellence. On a shelf in his large walk-in closet, Dave had a shrine to his own 11-year NFL career. Three football helmets represented the teams for which he had played: the Chicago Bears and New York Giants, with whom he had snagged Super Bowl rings in 1985 and 1990, respectively, and the Arizona Cardinals. There were also three trophies from his NFL days, including the 1987 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, given for charity work.

Dave climbed into bed alongside the flag, baubles, and certificates. Head cleanly shaven as always, he wore a short beard under his thick mustache. A one-and-a-half-inch scar through his left eyebrow was courtesy of a hard hit on Dallas Cowboys running back Herschel Walker 25 years earlier. "I'm bringing it! I'm bringing it!" he had hollered upon jumping back to his feet, the gash streaming blood.

On this day, he was naked except for a gold chain around his neck. At age 50, he carried more girth than in his playing days but was still buff. "Pushups, situps, and mom and dad," he liked to boast, crediting genetics along with his simple workout routine. The Tasmanian Devil — a natural mascot for a rampaging safety — and two Chinese characters were tattooed along his left shoulder and bicep.

He had sent text messages and left many handwritten notes, one of which simply read, "Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL's brain bank." He referred to a study center at Boston University specializing in the diagnosis of a disease, common in former NFL players, associated with dementia and depression.

Then Dave pulled the green sheets up to his neck and propped himself up on his elbows. He held a .38 Special handgun to his chest and pulled the trigger.

Christopher Priester scanned the well-dressed men milling around the rows of pews. It was funny how a men's retreat at a church — New Mount Olive Baptist, Fort Lauderdale's most prominent black tabernacle — could feel like a speed-dating session. The participants were supposed to talk with strangers about godly matters, but it was tacitly an event for business networking.

One man — tall and beefy, with the statuesque posture of a former athlete — caught Chris's attention. His dome was bald and shiny, and a throwback black dust-broom of a mustache accented a broad-featured face. In a polo, slacks, and leather sandals, he had the air of a titan of industry transplanted from a family barbecue.

Chris introduced himself, and they hit it off instantly. Chris, a six-foot-five former Florida A&M basketball and football player, ran education and athletic nonprofits on the streets of Sistrunk, where he grew up. Dave Duerson, who had just moved from Chicago, astounded Chris by mentioning he was once on the board of trustees for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

The church encounter turned into lunch at the Cheesecake Factory on Las Olas Boulevard, where Dave pulled out his phone to show off Barack Obama's cell phone number among his contacts. It was the summer of 2008, and the Illinois senator was already a global icon. Dave boasted he had worked with Obama in community organizing in Chicago. "It probably doesn't work anymore," he grumbled of the number, putting the phone away.

The two men bonded over a common passion: the belief that salvation for young black men lay in striking the perfect balance of student and athlete. "Books, then ball!" was one of Dave's oft-repeated platitudes. "Onwards and upwards!" was another.

The pair began meeting every couple of weeks for lunch, usually at "the Factory," where they'd take a table outside so Dave could chomp his reeking, mob-boss cigars. He would work his way through a turkey club and talk business philosophy: Cultivate a "critical mass," he'd say, of movers and shakers — mayors, commissioners, pastors — whose influence could give your operation legitimacy. But every vision had an expiration date before your critical mass perceived you were all talk. Said Dave: "You've got three years, my brother."

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Gus Garcia-Roberts