Former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson took his own life last week after a long struggle with some debilitating symptoms he believed to be caused by traumatic brain injury.
Duerson, a two-time Super Bowl champion, reportedly shot himself in the chest rather than in the head to keep his brain intact. Just before taking his life, Duerson sent out text messages to family members asking that his brain be donated to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. The retired 50-year-old player apparently believed that he might have had the condition, which has been linked to dementia, depression, and suicide in other football players from the college level to the NFL.
The Boston University center will study Duerson’s brain over the next few months. If researchers can confirm that Duerson suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), he will become the first known player to have died knowing about his condition. The discovery could become a significant milestone in traumatic brain injury awareness among athletes, as attention grows over sports-related concussions and their ability to cause debilitating cognitive and emotional problems.
Duerson may have been familiar with this form of traumatic brain injury thanks to his role in an NFL Players Association committee, which helped determine disability payouts to members. But brain injury awareness has grown dramatically throughout the sport of football, leading the NFL, bolstered by the work of safety advocates and medical professionals, to penalize overly aggressive play that often results in concussion.
George Atallah, a spokesman for the NFL Players Union who knew Duerson well, told the New York Times that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and brain injury in general had already been a growing concern amongst players. Now, since Duerson’s death, players have been contacting the union’s office to learn more about the disease.
“This thing has the whole union community pretty shaken up,” Atallah told the New York Times. “The increased awareness around the long-term impact of head trauma on men that played football has been a constant subject of conversation among the players.”