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February 21st, 2011
06:54 PM ET

Player's text: Send my brain to NFL research bank

The toll of repeated head blows and injuries loomed over football after the death last week of former NFL player, Dave Duerson.

Duerson, a former Chicago Bears safety who was a key member of the team's legendary defense,  was found dead Thursday in Florida.  He was 50.  Duerson shot himself in the chest, which kept his brain intact for examination for a debilitating brain injury called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE.

His son, Tregg Duerson said, "There was a text message the night before that was a bizarre text message that he sent to my mother saying that he loved her and he loved my family and that to please get his brain to the NFL brain bank. My mother called me at work. We talked about it and it was bizarre text. You can't make sense of it."

They tried to reach him, but "no one could get in contact with him," Tregg Duerson said, with his voice trembling.

"When I'm getting up at 1:30 in the morning and I'm letting the police in, you know, the first thing on my mind is, 'I think they're about to tell me my father died.'"

It is unclear whether Duerson had the brain damage that can cause bizarre behavior and severe depression.  It is impossible to determine whether a person has CTE without examining his or her brain after death.

The NFL has been criticized for being too lax in dealing with the consequences of head blows. Last year, the league's new medical committee members  vowed to change that culture and step up efforts to prevent head injuries.

“We have no idea whether he had the disease,” said Dr. Robert Stern, a co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.  The center has a brain donation registry for athletes to study effects of trauma on the brain and spinal cord.

BU's researchers are expected to examine Duerson’s brain. The process could take months.

Duerson never mentioned health problems or concerns, said his friend and former teammate, Emery Moorehead.

“It caught everybody off guard,” said Moorehead, about his friend’s death.  “Everybody saw him at the 25-year reunion," of the Super Bowl-winning 1985 Bears.

“Everyone saw him. He never mentioned anything. He was quite upbeat, speaking of getting married in April.  It just came out of the blue,” Moorehead said.

Duerson’s death left Moorehead to join other players who have previously expressed  worry about the punishment their bodies have endured from the repeated blows and grueling tackles.

“It makes me concerned,” Moorehead said.  You’re kind of conditioned to block with your head. You lead with your head.  After playing 20 years, there’s a concern.”

Athletes are increasingly aware of those risks, said BU's Stern.

“I hear frequently from former players,” he said.  “It’s a combination of joking and serious discussions of them being aware of their memory slipping or behavior changes that they're now becoming more and more concerned about because of awareness of CTE.”

CTE has also been called the punch-drunk syndrome and dementia pugilistica, because career boxers who have suffered repeated blows to the head have been known to develop the syndrome. It is believed largely to affect aging boxers and football players who have experienced crushing blows to their heads.

Many of the aging players struggle with brain injuries and appear as shells of former selves.

Former linebacker Fred McNeill, 58, virtually lost his memory after his glory days ended in the mid-'80s.  Former San Francisco 49ers lineman George Visger has to scrawl the minutiae of his daily life in yellow notebooks or else he forgets what he did minutes ago. His is another case of ex-NFL athletes struggling with memory loss, depression and sudden, frightening bouts of rage.

Recent studies suggest the reason may be blows to the brain the players suffered on the football field. CTE's effects are mainly neurobehavioral. These symptoms include poor decision-making, behavioral problems, failure at personal and business relationships, use of drugs and alcohol, depression and suicide.

Traces of the disease has been found in the brains of several late NFL football players, including John Grimsley, Mike Webster, Andre Waters, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long, Tom McHale and Chris Henry.

Grimsley died of an accidental gunshot wound to the chest. Webster, Long and Strzelczyk all died after long bouts of depression, while Waters committed suicide in 2006 at age 44. McHale was found dead last year of an apparent drug overdose. Henry died at age 26 after falling from a moving truck during a fight with his girlfriend.

Recent research shows that even high school and college players have accumulated brain damage.  The syndrome is believed to be caused by large accumulations of tau proteins in the brain that kill cells in the regions responsible for mood, emotion and executive functioning. Tau proteins are also found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

Just because a player experiences several concussions throughout his career, it does not mean that the syndrome is inevitable.

“As often in the case of medicine, there is probably an underlying susceptibility, due to a set of genetic makeup that is in conjunction with multiple injuries that could lead to CTE,” said Dr. Robert Stevens, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, who takes care of people with brain injuries.

Duerson’s death comes shortly before the NFL’s labor deal is set to expire March 3.  Players and team owners are in conflict over the split of billions of dollars of revenue and the number of regular season games.  The owners want to expand the season to 18 games from 16.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, neuropathologist at the Brain Injury Research Institute who was  first to describe CTE in an American football player, vociferously opposes extending the season.

“We should not sacrifice the lives of the players," he said.  "It reminds me of ancient Rome."

“This is an epidemic. I have not met a retired NFL player who is not having problems.”


soundoff (123 Responses)
  1. Bernaba

    Obviously this is a very volitile topic. As in anything, we see folks who have participated in this activity and have no ill effects, while others have suffered long term debilitating effects. Granted this is a profession where, unfortunately, money talks the loudest and takes the biggest toll. I fault the owners first because it's because of their greed, they are willing to pay players an obnoxious amount of money to perform so the owner's bottom line bulges at the seams. I blame us the fans second because we hunger to watch these guys week after week piling up on each other to make a game exciting. Although we talk about adding to the game schedule as being barbaric, I dare say no matter how many games are played, if the violence is cut out, the fan base will diminish because it's not what the fans want to watch. Look at NASCAR – in the early days of racing, the fan base grew because they hungered not only to see highly skilled drivers race to win, but they wanted to watch all the wrecks. Now that NASCAR has virtually eliminated crashes, no one wants to watch a dull race, even though the same highly skilled drivers use the same strategies and talents to race to win. The responsible thing to do is set football up as a profession, like most others, where the players have the ability to have health coverage after they retire from the game which will cover long term care, if required, and give them the medical assistance they need due to injuries received while playing the game. Isn't this the same as workman's compensation in any other business? Why shouldn't football, or any other professional sport for that matter where players put their health in harms way to participate, be any different? This is where those with way too much money feel they have the right to call shots that only benefit themselves – the almighty owner.

    February 22, 2011 at 13:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Poooooop

    This is impossible because football players don't have brains.

    February 22, 2011 at 14:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. DEA

    Who cares as long as they make touch downs, oh, wait I am not an NFL owner or fan. Never mind.

    February 22, 2011 at 17:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Army Soldier

    with as much as they get paid, who really cares? fu ck in whiners...

    February 22, 2011 at 17:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. JeramieH

    Maybe moving a ball down a field isn't worth spending your life screwed up...

    February 22, 2011 at 20:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. PRSjammer

    ....I play hi skool futball. I think I retarded and no one tell me.

    February 22, 2011 at 23:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. CommonSense

    It's time everyone realized this is just a stupid GAME. Scoring more points than someone else isn't worth destroying your brain. Do something meaningfull with your life.

    February 23, 2011 at 02:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Indeed

    Taking hits to the head is bad???? Man this is as surprising as smoking being bad for me.

    February 23, 2011 at 10:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. end of football

    Say goodbye to football as very soon the lawyers will create a class action suit naming every university, the NCAA and the NFL for the benefit of every player that's ever played. Want to know how it ends? See cigarettes in 1970's.

    February 23, 2011 at 11:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Tim

    The NFL's disregard for its veterans - who never made the multimillions, who played in an era before increased safety rules, who made the NFL the money machine it is today - is appalling, and that goes for both the owners and the NFLPA, who are more interested in battling each other (when there is more than enough to go around) than in assisting their wounded warriors who can not support or take care of themselves any more. Some are broke because they can't work. Many face staggering medical bills. Wake up, NFL, owners and players alike - these guys made you what you are today.

    February 23, 2011 at 11:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. sam

    I think everybody is forgetting what this article is about. Football. FOOTBAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL! >:|

    February 23, 2011 at 12:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. William

    Okay, for the same pay these guys make, if they don't want to play. I WILL!!!

    They make enough money. They consent to this sort of risks. They don't want to suffer, THEN DON'T PLAY AND MAKE YOUR MONEY ELSE WHERE.

    People act like they make minimum money. PLEASE. MOST of these people are millionaires, playing a game that their body type just caters to. They signed up for this, if they don't want the risk, they can choose to retire or stop playing when their contract is up. SIMPLE AS THAT.

    February 23, 2011 at 12:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Michael

    sad yes...but they know it comes with the job.

    February 23, 2011 at 18:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Peaze On Earth

    Y CAN PEEPEL NOT JUST DIE AND LET ALIENS TAKE US AWAY TO EAT OUR DEAD BODIES SO NOBODY CAN CUT US OPEN AND DISECT US. GEEZ

    February 24, 2011 at 04:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mystic

      i am in health class with Peaze on Earth sitting right next 2 me!! Really!!! No joke!!! Somebody save me!!! She's nuts!!!

      February 24, 2011 at 04:47 | Report abuse |
    • Mystic

      Stupid!!! Only morons comit suicide!!!

      February 24, 2011 at 04:53 | Report abuse |
  15. Peaze On Earth

    I STRONGLY BELIEVE THAT ORGASMS RULE EVEN THOUGH I AM A VIRGIN. I AM SAVING MYSELF FOR GOD

    February 24, 2011 at 04:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Go Mike!

    Mike Ditka hit the nail on the head in his interview...RUGBY. Rugby doesn't have the number of concussions due to two simple facts, they have to wrap up on tackles (no spearing with your head) AND all contact has to be below the shoulders.

    This would NOT slow the game down if it were adapted in the NFL and the players won't be safe until they do.

    February 24, 2011 at 11:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Marvin8

    The problem I have with Duerson is that he might not have known that EVERYbody loses some cognitive function starting in their middle ages. I forget stuff all the time, have trouble remembering names, or where I left the keys much more than I used to, and I'm in my early 50's. I suspect that his suicide was nothing more than the result of depression, but his willingness to donate his brain for research is unbelievably commendable. He was a hero to all of us Bear fans in Chicago. May he rest in peace.

    February 24, 2011 at 17:22 | Report abuse | Reply
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