Dave Duerson's secret life and tragic end

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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.


Dave Duerson

View our Dave Duerson slide show.

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."

"I followed the Dave Duerson Map of Business," says Chris, who recently won a United Way grant just before the three-year mark. "He was my mentor."

Dave was a frenetic networker. One time they had lunch at the Seminole Hard Rock Resort & Casino. "Dave worked his way to the back office to chat up the chief," Chris recalls, "trying to strike some business deal."

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."

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."

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.

"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.

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?"

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.

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.

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."

That was also the year when Dave's 81-year-old mother, Julia, died. Soon afterward, Yvette called him with a mundane issue involving selling meat to the Chicago public school system. Dave flew into a screaming rage, and before the conversation was over, he had fired his niece and her husband. "Dave had never even raised his voice at me or cussed at me," Yvette says. "Now he's having us escorted out of the plant by security... I don't think he had fully grieved his mother."

Two years later, Dave was arrested for pushing his wife against a wall at a hotel in South Bend, where he was staying on Notre Dame business. He pleaded no contest and resigned from his alma mater's board. In a later interview, Dave called the episode his "biggest regret," but he was less contrite when speaking with South Florida friend Chris Priester. "He told me she was loud-talking and screaming, and how embarrassing it was," Chris says. "He said he just tried to get her out of the way."

In 2008, Alicia Duerson filed for divorce after 25 years of marriage. In court filings, she claimed Dave was an adulterer who was "guilty of extreme and repeated physical cruelty" toward her. Dave admitted to the philandering but claimed she had cheated too.

By then, Duerson Foods was in receivership. He pulled down a $120,000 salary as an executive for Archibald Frozen Desserts, but soon he lost that position. He moved to his family's old vacation spot, the condo in Sunny Isles Beach. An alliance of Wisconsin businesses continued to pursue Dave, filing suit in Miami-Dade County in an attempt to collect a $573,000 judgment stemming from an unpaid business loan.

In November 2009, his father, Arthur Jr. — always his hero — died at age 86. Ten months later, Dave filed for bankruptcy. According to court papers, he claimed a personal loss of $5,106 in 2009 and an income of $16,800 the next year.

His only significant asset was the uncollectable $35 million judgment. He also listed a $30,000 "possible claim" against Ocean One, his Sunny Isles condo building. Dave claimed that a downstairs neighbor broke into his unit and stole three rolled-up abstract Cuban street paintings from his bedroom closet, says building manager Ron Ben-David: "It didn't make sense."

Dave's brother Michael and sister Viola both filed claims in local court demanding access to their father's last will and testament, which Dave controlled. He was funding his South Florida lifestyle, it appears, by milking Arthur Jr.'s estate.

Dave missed child support payments for his 15-year-old daughter Taylor and still owed Alicia $70,000. In December 2010, two months before his death, she filed a claim in court for "concealed" assets he hadn't declared in bankruptcy. They included a Rolex watch, his Man of the Year trophy, and his two Super Bowl rings.

Yvette, who mostly lost contact with her uncle after his meltdown at the meat plant, thinks she understands why South Florida appealed to him. "It's like he knew something was wrong with him, and he wanted to get as far away from friends and family as possible," she says. "He didn't want to be a burden when all his life he had been the one to help us with our burdens."

Says friend and former Philadelphia Eagle and Cleveland Brown Ray Ellis: "He didn't want to crumble in front of an audience."

In October 2010, responding to growing concern over the fate of football players, the NFL made new penalties for excessively hard hits and helmet-to-helmet collisions. "This sucks!" Dave wrote on his Facebook page. "This is a game of collisions!"

The next installment of his weekly online radio show was probably the liveliest Dave ever aired. He lambasted the rule changes as an "overreaction" and counter to the gridiron old school: "Ninety percent of the time, we're going to explode on the guy because that's the way this sport was built!"

You could almost hear his pugnacious smile as he puffed his cigar. "I'm so fired up. I just fired up my Rocky Patel, and I'm pulling on it long and hard."

Everybody has their story about the last time they saw Dave Duerson: at his favorite Miami Beach cigar bar or recording his radio show or in a Chicago hotel lobby in November 2010 at the 25th anniversary reunion of the 1985 Bears, where he purportedly buried the hatchet with Mike Ditka. All the accounts are the same: Dave was smoking stogies and cracking jokes.

Rev. Patricia Lesesne had recruited Dave as a partner in her fledgling Pompano Beach-based charter school company, Best4Broward. On February 14, they talked on the phone. "He gave me some amazing advice, as always," Lesesne says. "[News of his suicide] seems unreal. If someone were to tell me that this didn't happen — that it was all a joke — I would believe that."

The night of Tuesday, February 15, Dave unlocked the door to Ocean One's unit 603 and entered his apartment. According to surveillance cameras, he never emerged again.

At 2:45 p.m. that Thursday, Dave's worried fiancée, Antoinette Sykes, who was in Chicago, called building manager Ben-David and authorized him to enter the apartment. He dialed 911 when he felt something blocking the door. Miami-Dade Police officers discovered the immaculate suicide scene.

As Dave had requested, tissue from his brain was sent to be tested at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Those results won't be available for at least another month.

Because his meager belongings are still under bankruptcy claim, the locks on Dave's apartment have been changed, and his 21-year-old son Brock was recently denied entry.

A week after Dave's death, sports blog Deadspin posted an interview he had done with journalist Rob Trucks the previous November. In the candid chat, Dave professed he never expected to live beyond age 42, retold the story of Buddy Ryan and the racial slur — an account angrily denied by Rex Ryan — and even took aim at his own family for scheduling his father's funeral on Dave's birthday.

Asked what she thought of the interview, Yvette doesn't hesitate: "It was stubborn, confrontational, a little bit full of crap."

She squeezes more affection into those words than one might think possible. "That was the real Dave — the Dave I knew."

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