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Dying For Grid Iron Glory, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy And Dave Duerson

We talk about sports figures as heroes, but generally I don’t find them to be that heroic. Sure the big stars make a lot of money, all of them make considerably more than the median income in this country, and yeah they are on the TV machine a lot but does that make then heroic? Not usually.

However there is one ex-player that I can say without reservation was heroic and heroic in the extreme. Dave Duerson killed himself on the 17th of February this year. He shot himself in the chest to and in his suicide note said “Please, see that my brain is given to the N.F.L.’s brain bank.”

You see Mr. Duerson was pretty sure that he had what is called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. It is a brain condition that has been mostly associated with boxers but is becoming more and more common in ex-NFL players as well.

CTE is a degenerative brain condition with loss of memory, head aches and a general slide into dementia. Mr. Duerson knew a lot about this condition as he had spent the last several years advocating about to Congress and working to help ex-players who had the condition. One of the biggest challenges with CTE is diagnosis, as there is no test short of looking at the actual brain to confirm it. The study of Mr. Duerson’s brain showed that he did indeed have CTE.

Obviously we can’t know all the factors that lead to Mr. Duerson taking his own life. However we can rule out quite a few of the more common ones. He had been very successful in his post NFL life building up a small food company to a major concern and then selling it off.

So there is every likelihood that this man took his life because he did not know how to deal with the changes in his mind and a desire to make sure that the issue he had worked on would get the attention that it needed.

For me losing mental function is one of the great horrors of my life. I am one of those people who lives in their head, the ability to learn and think and reason and communicate are everything to me. Try to put yourself in the situation; you are having headaches all the time, they are increasing in severity and duration. You can’t seem to find the right words or remember where you put anything. You start to do something, but you can not remember what it was, and it does not come back to you after a couple of minutes.

Now imagine that you are someone who has seen all this before, in others who played the same sport as you. You have seen where it ends, your wife or someone else feeding you, you unable to speak or even make your wishes known, merely existing as a broken hulk with a barely functional brain. A burden.

It becomes a lot more understandable that a capable and successful man might choose to end his life in the early stages of this, rather than wait until it is too late to even make a choice like that.

Hopefully we can get the focus we need on this aspect of football. The kids and adults who play this game are getting bigger and bigger. The hits are getting harder and harder. Damage to the brain is not just “getting your bell rung” it is a serious and cumulative thing that is affecting these athletes well after their playing days are done.

Yes, NFL players get paid a lot. Even the ones that aren’t stars. However do they really know what they are trading for that money? More importantly is it the right amount of money to trade for the very real possibility of shortening their lives and perhaps sending them to long term care in their mid-50’s?

I don’t have a problem with people making an informed decision about risking their health for a big pile of money. It is tragic that we have a society that does that, but as long as we do, if people want to make that call I am not going to say they can’t, just that they shouldn’t. But if they are going to do that, then the money has to be commensurate with the risk. It is becoming increasingly clear that the average 3 ½ seasons of an NFL career are so potentially damaging that something has to change.

This is part of why the players need to be supported in their efforts to get betters deals from the owners. We would have no problem supporting electricians in their collective bargaining if they were getting brain trauma from the work, so there should be no question when another group of unionized (I know they decerted to break the lock out but they will vote to reform it as soon as they get a contract) workers are fighting for similar benefits.

We have seen the NFL try (and basically fail) to limit the way that hits are put on players. That was a good effort and more of the same needs to be done. However linemen take more punishing hits than anyone. Every single snap of the ball means 250 plus men slamming into each other. It is not just the occasional devastating blind side of a running back that does brain trauma, it is every play.

To get around that we are going to have revisit the gear they wear. It may be that there is no way to cushion a person adequately with a helmet to prevent some damage to the brain from playing professional or college football. If that is the case there has to be a serious discussion about what kind of compensation we are willing to pay people who literally sacrificing their minds for our entertainment.

It is tragic that Dave Duerson killed himself, yet the way he did it showed a real heroism. He knew what was going on in his brain. He knew that more attention needed to be paid to this aspect of football and he knew that by killing himself and donating his brain he would get that attention. I wish there had been a way for him to do all that without dying but as I said above I can understand the kind of thinking that would lead you to deciding to end your life on your terms when the choice is a long slow degeneration into helplessness.

People may say that sports stars are heroes. I still have my doubts in general, but Dave Duerson was one.

The floor is yours.

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Bill Egnor

Bill Egnor

I am a life long Democrat from a political family. Work wise I am a Six Sigma Black Belt (process improvement project manager) and Freelance reporter for