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Will Dave Duerson's tragic shot hit home?

When former NFL star Dave Duerson shot himself in the heart in order to preserve his brain for head-injury research, he raised hard questions for the league, its players and its fans.

February 25, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Dave Duerson, shown playing for the Chicago Bears in 1989, shot himself in the heart last week.
Dave Duerson, shown playing for the Chicago Bears in 1989, shot himself… (Associated Press )

There is much more than can be said about the death of Dave Duerson. And so we will.

It was only last week that the former NFL star put a gun to his heart and pulled the trigger. Oh, well. Death at an early age to a former pro football player has become a Page 10 item in the roundup of sports tidbits. Even suicide.

As Roy S. Johnson wrote Wednesday on ESPN.com, "Sadly, the initial word of Duerson's suicide was not wholly surprising. The list of NFLers who have taken their own lives for various reasons is not a short one."

The how and why of Duerson's case sets it apart. The outrage and widespread amazement is not so much about what he did, but how and why. When he shot himself in the heart to preserve his brain for testing, he jolted us all. The action is too horrific. The motive is too unthinkable.

But the journalistic aftermath and public reaction makes at least one thing clear. When Duerson pointed that gun at his chest, he might just as well have pointed it at the NFL. His aim was as deadly as his timing.

In his commentary, Johnson points out that this sort of head-injury stigma was once the sole property of boxing. "Now, the NFL owns it," he wrote.

Football fan Larry Diaz of San Marino wrote, "If you've got a pulse and you love football, your heart skipped a beat when you heard. By now, all you have to do is say 'Duerson' and everybody's got an opinion. For me, the financial pain can't start soon enough for the NFL."

Another, Roger Duncan of Coarsegold, Calif., mused about the apparent difference in the quality of life of senior citizens from other sports, pointing out Yogi Berra's lucidity at age 85, albeit Yogi's own brand. "I can't recall many 85-year-old footballers or boxers enjoying life," Duncan wrote.

The NFL is currently attempting to get the NFL players to agree on an additional two games in the regular season, from 16 to 18. That's two more chances to get your head banged around. Do you think the name "Duerson" might be invoked in negotiations?

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has started the league down the path to addressing the head-injury issue. There were lots of fines for dangerous hits and lots of buzz about the issue. That's important. Also 40 years too late.

Nor is the NFL taking a cavalier approach. League spokesman Greg Aiello, whose job it is to smooth things over and find positive spins, was quoted in the New York Times as calling "the human tragedy gut-wrenching." Good for Aiello, who knows this one won't be easily swept under the rug.

Administrators such as Goodell and Aiello are savvy leaders who feel heat when the furnace is turned up. Their problem is that they work at the behest of 32 owners, most of whom have their main area of feeling in their wallets. In the face of the Duerson case, Pete Rozelle would be banging his shoe on a table. Here's hoping Goodell has some hunting boots.

Dr. David Patterson is medical director of Casa Colina Centers for Rehabilitation in Pomona. He deals daily with brain-injured patients and is acutely aware of the Duerson case and its ramifications.

"I went to the Super Bowl this year, just as a fan," Patterson said. "I went to a reception the day before the game, just to get something to eat. I found myself talking to a man about his brother, who had brain trauma and was acting odd, quirky.

"Before I knew it, a former football player walked up and joined in, then another. Eventually, there were more than a dozen. I became the brain-injury doctor. They all said they needed help. Several said they had cashed in their NFL benefits early and now couldn't afford treatment they needed. They talked about memory loss and vision problems.

"One said he had played at Tampa Bay and said, 'I'm big, black and not dumb. I forget deadlines now. I forget daily appointments. I could have done anything with my life, and I shouldn't have played football. I have a son, and I'm not letting him play football.'"

Sometimes, awareness of the obvious takes decades to address and decades more to repair. The NFL is filthy rich and universally loved by hometown fans, fantasy-league players and gamblers -- the latter two one and the same. Its business model appeals to the masses. An incident such as the Duerson suicide erodes that appeal.

A few years ago, a safer helmet was proposed to the league and got lost in the process. We send men to the moon and we can't produce a safe helmet? Players often use older, less effective helmets because they are comfortable and a habit. The NFL knows that, and lets them. Who are the adults here, and who are the children?

The media is addressing this on many levels. So are fans and critics. The NFL has ears, as well as the wherewithal to respond meaningfully. A new era must begin that not only protects current players from this late-in-life horror, but also pays the medical bills for those who played years ago and are already living that horror.

Dave Pear is hopeful about that. Not optimistic. The former defensive tackle on the Raiders' 1981 Super Bowl championship team is racked by pain from long-term injuries and suffers from memory loss. He has been widely quoted as saying, "The NFL destroys families. I wish I never played."

Pear is less than upbeat on the current players' ability to help themselves.

"I don't think they will reject the 18 games, as long as they get paid," he said. "Football players [as a whole] do not look down the road very far."

There is to be a public memorial service for Duerson on Saturday in Chicago. His ashes will eventually be scattered, as per his wishes, over Notre Dame Stadium and Soldier Field, places where he acquired both fame and brain damage.

May he rest in peace, and may the memory of his final action never die.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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