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redeyechicago.com

The final days of Dave Duerson

Ex-Bears safety planned carefully, expressed wish to donate his brain before taking his life

Reported by Tribune reporters Dan Pompei, David Haugh, Vaughn McClure, Becky Yerak and Steve Schmadeke and written by Pompei

4:23 PM CST, February 26, 2011

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They call it The City of Sun and Sea, the Venice of America.

Beautiful Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., is located on a barrier island surrounded by Miami, the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway.

The peach and white Ocean One building on Collins Avenue is a place where snowbirds come to leave life's cares behind. The circular brick paver driveway leads to a magnificent three-story lobby covered in marble tile.

Guests pamper themselves at the spa, dine at the bistro or enjoy a private cabana on the white sand beach out back. The condos feature huge balconies with panoramic views.

It's the kind of place where men wear flip-flops and baseball caps and women sip from fancy glasses filled with fruit and paper parasols. If people have worries in Sunny Isles Beach, you're hard-pressed to see them.

This is where Dave Duerson chose to die.

Monday, Feb. 14: Duerson speaks with sons Chase, 27, Tregg, 25, Brock, 21, and daughter Taylor, 15, for the last time, on the phone. He wishes them a happy Valentine's Day and tells them he loves them.

Divorce can be difficult on kids. The unexpected death of a parent can be more so.

Duerson's children, who live in the Chicago area, never considered they would spend last week discussing wills and memorials. "It's an open sore for them at this point," said Alicia Duerson, Dave's wife for 25 years before their 2008 divorce.

Duerson wanted to be closer to his children. Taylor had visited her father in Florida recently. As part of his divorce, Duerson was required to carry a life insurance policy on himself with Taylor as the sole beneficiary. His attorney did not return calls to clarify whether the policy is void in the event of suicide.

"With this type of thing, it's hard for kids to understand," Alicia Duerson said. "Especially for my youngest."

Tuesday, Feb. 15, late evening: Security cameras film Duerson entering Ocean One and taking the elevator to the sixth floor to his two-bedroom unit. It is the last recording of Duerson coming home.

His friends thought Duerson had much to live for.

He recently was engaged to Antoinette Sykes, a public relations specialist in Washington. "Angel" is how he introduced her around Sunny Isles Beach. They were to be wed in the spring.

The couple sent out holiday cards with their picture from vacation.

"I had never seen him happier," said Ron Ben-David, general manager at Ocean One. He knew Duerson for about 2 1/2 years.

"He was very excited," Ben-David said. "He mentioned to me he had some good things on the horizon, something big with one of the big food distributors."

Duerson, who turned 50 in November, had a lot going on. He liked to ride motorcycles. He kept busy with his consulting firm, DD Favor, which specialized in turnaround strategies and start-ups for food companies. He had his weekly Internet radio show, "Double Time with Double D," on voiceamericasports.com.

One of his guests shortly before the Super Bowl was the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "He was in good spirits," Jackson said. "We were laughing and playing, talking about the Super Bowl choices."

He was a trustee on the player benefits board for the NFL Players Association, a member of the PUSH Excel board of directors and held a seat on the Bears alumni advisory board.

Duerson also had contacted former agent Steve Zucker in January to put out feelers for NFL coaching opportunities. Duerson's Bears teammate Leslie Frazier, now head coach of the Vikings, told reporters Duerson had left him a message a couple of weeks ago about coaching. To Frazier's regret, they never connected.

"Dave had a lot of irons in the fire," said DaRayl Davis, a business associate who had been in contact with Duerson recently. Davis and Duerson were planning a March meeting of NFL alumni to address collective bargaining issues for retirees and potential investors.

Though Duerson had told teammates at a November reunion of the '85 Bears that he was thinking about a move back to Chicago, where he remained an iconic figure, he appeared comfortable in Sunny Isles Beach.

Duerson and his wife had purchased the condo as a second home. Duerson moved there after their split.

Wednesday, Feb. 16: Duerson speaks with his ex-wife on the phone for the last time. They talk about Taylor's upcoming volleyball tournament and which games her father would attend.

Some trace Duerson's downward spiral to Feb. 3, 2005. That's when Notre Dame campus police reportedly observed Duerson throw his wife against a wall at the Morris Inn on the edge of campus. He was charged with misdemeanor battery, and the incident cost Duerson his seat on Notre Dame's board of trustees.

In an interview in November with Rob Trucks, an author researching a project on Americans turning 50, Duerson called the incident "my biggest regret." According to Trucks, Duerson said: "My wife and I had an argument in South Bend, and, you know, I lost control for three seconds. That was a one-time event. The most disappointing of my entire life, but one that will never, ever be repeated."

Dave Duerson filed for divorce in Lake County on May 2, 2007. Alicia Duerson filed for divorce on July 8, 2008. The divorce was granted on Sept. 21, 2008.

The Duersons were awarded joint custody of Taylor, who was to live with her mother but see her father up to one weekend a month and several weeks in the summer. He was ordered to pay $1,406 in monthly child support and insurance premiums.

Thursday, Feb. 17, 3 a.m. EST: Alicia Duerson receives a text message from her ex-husband. "I love you. I always loved you. I love our kids," he wrote. He follows with another text, asking that his brain be donated to the NFL. She calls him several times. No answer. Then, a final text: "Please, see that my brain is given to the N.F.L.'s brain bank."

What would the NFL want with Dave Duerson's brain?

About three years ago — more than a decade removed from an 11-year career that took him from the Bears to the Giants to the Cardinals — Duerson noticed something was not right.

It started mildly. Progressively, it became more problematic. Blurred vision. Headaches. Memory loss. Problems spelling common words. He talked specifically of pain on the left side of his brain.

When he was in Chicago not long ago, the former hard-hitting safety couldn't remember how to get places. "That aggravated him because he could always go anywhere in the city or state without having to look at a map," Alicia Duerson said.

He couldn't remember when and where Taylor's volleyball tournament was. His ex-wife had to remind him, repeatedly.

Duerson was aware of his problem. He began writing everything down. He took to making detailed notes of conversations, showing little trust in his memory.

"If you knew Dave, he was a brilliant man," Alicia Duerson said.

Duerson had a bachelor's in economics from Notre Dame and a certificate from the Harvard Business School's Executive Education Program. "He had no problems formulating words, or keeping a thought pattern," Alicia Duerson said. "But lately he felt he wasn't the same person. He was unable to do some simple things."

Friends and family members feared Duerson suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the brain disease that has been found in at least a dozen retired football players. He appeared symptomatic, they said. But only a posthumous study of his brain tissue can confirm the presence of CTE.

Tregg Duerson, who followed in his father's footsteps at Notre Dame, wondered in an interview with the New York Times last week why his father couldn't have played baseball instead.

In a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in 2007, Duerson testified on behalf of the NFLPA's player benefits board. Another player, former Viking Brent Boyd, had testified that he believed his depression and cognitive impairment were caused by playing football.

Duerson questioned the assertion, according to the transcript of the hearing. "In regards to the issue of Alzheimer's, my father's 84, and as I had mentioned earlier, Senator, spent 30 years at General Motors," Duerson testified. "He also has — he also has Alzheimer's and brain damage but never played a professional sport. So the challenge, you know, in terms of where the damage comes from, is a fair question."

Did Duerson take his life because of what was happening to his brain?

"I don't want to say that was the reason," Alicia Duerson said. "I don't want to give a reason because I don't know. I only know what he told me — 'Get my brain to the NFL. I think there is something wrong with the left side of my brain.'"

Thursday, 2:30 p.m.: Ben-David gets a call from Antoinette Sykes. She has not heard from her fiance and is concerned. Could he check on Duerson? Ben-David goes to Duerson's unit and knocks on the door. Nothing. "Dave! Dave! You there?" He smells something. Smoke. Must be one of Duerson's cigars.

Mary Ellen Hays, the 79-year-old mother of Duerson's best friend from high school in Muncie, Ind., said the 2003 death of Duerson's mother, Julia Mae Leavell Duerson, changed him.

During his interview with Trucks, Duerson said he lost his best friend when his mother died — one day before Thanksgiving, two days before Duerson's birthday.

His father, Arthur Duerson, died two years ago, on Nov.18, 2009.

Dave Duerson's three siblings told him they were burying their father on Nov. 28, 2009 — Duerson's 49th birthday.

"OK, I consider myself strong and all of that," Duerson told Trucks. "I'd lived the so-called celebrity life, and they considered me the golden child of my family. But, you know, I think they missed the part where I'm a human. And so that was profound. The flip of that is that I played into the plan God had. Every birthday and Thanksgiving, I will also remember saying goodbye to my parents."

Thursday, 2:40 p.m.: Ben-David calls Sykes. He sends two security guards to check Duerson's parking spot. They radio back from the indoor lot saying Duerson's black SUV is there. Sykes sends Ben-David an e-mail granting permission to use an emergency key to enter Duerson's condo.

Duerson was a captain and team MVP at Notre Dame, an All-American and a four-time Pro Bowl player.

He was a man of big ambitions and big dreams, a proud man.

At one point, he thought he could be mayor of Chicago. Friends say he had conversations with departing Mayor Richard Daley about the possibility, and he told them Daley was willing to help. At another point, he thought he would succeed the late Gene Upshaw as executive director of the NFLPA.

He found success quickly after his playing days, at one point owning three McDonald's franchises before growing the annual sales of Fair Oaks, his sausage company, from $24 million to $63.5 million.

One day, he realized he could not live up to his self-expectations. Duerson used to think of himself as a perfectionist. That changed when he saw comedian Jim Carrey on "The Tonight Show" talking about being a perfectionist as a comedian and actor.

"And Jim Carrey says, 'Perfection is God's business. I just try for excellence,'" Duerson told Trucks. "And I have to tell you, I dropped in front of the TV, man. I dropped to my knees in front of the TV and said, 'Look, I'm sorry. Forgive me for my arrogance.'"

Thursday, 2:50 p.m.: Ben-David and the two guards go back to the condo and try to open the door. Something is in the way; the door won't open. At 2:51 p.m., Ben-David calls 911.

Who knows how Duerson's life would have been different if he had been able to collect what was owed to him?

When Duerson filed for personal bankruptcy in September, he showed liabilities of $14.7 million, and his only real asset was a $34.6 million federal court judgment that his food company had won in 2004. Duerson never collected it because the freezer supplier that owed him the money filed for bankruptcy in April 2005.

Duerson's attorney, Zach Shelomith, said he believes Duerson's failure to collect the judgment played a "substantial" role in his filing for bankruptcy.

Duerson sold his stake in Fair Oaks in 2002 and started Duerson Foods. That company was forced into receivership in 2006.

In 2008, Duerson was hired to be president of a division of Archibald Frozen Desserts that would serve fast food restaurants. His hiring failed to boost sales, and Duerson was out after less than a year, according to Archibald chief executive Ed Meyer.

Duerson started selling assets. In November 2008, he sold a Rolex watch for $4,500 to Davie Pawn in Davie, Fla. Last June and July, he sold a 2001 Mercedes C320 with 55,843 miles for $8,000, a 2001 Harley-Davidson motorcycle with 1,284 miles for $6,000. He also sold a wedding ring for $1,200 to a jewelry exchange in Aventura, Fla.

Duerson's bankruptcy filing listed his year-to-date income from employment as $16,800, and his monthly expenses were exceeding his monthly income. In 2009, he claimed that he lost $5,100 from running his business. In 2008, his income from employment was $45,249, according to the filing.

On the bankruptcy petition, Duerson estimated the value of DD Favor, which he owned solely, at $1,489, including his office furniture.

Joel Tabas, an attorney representing the bankruptcy trustee, spoke with Duerson about a month ago and said, like many people going through bankruptcy, he sounded distraught. But Duerson wasn't the typical filer, he conceded.

"For a guy who has been a Pro Bowl football player, to be going through this has got to be tough and embarrassing," Tabas said. "He sounded upset."

Despite his financial problems, Duerson had designs on launching a financial literacy program for former players with Davis, who was scheduled to join Duerson in talking to NFL alumni in March.

Duerson ran out of funding.

"When I look back at our conversations," Davis said, "I would imagine, in an ironic way, it created a struggle within Dave to be telling people how to make money when he had so many problems that took a toll on him."

Thursday, 3:05 p.m.: Paramedics arrive at Ocean One. Ben-David brings them to Duerson's condo. They push the door open, knocking aside a chair that had been blocking the door. "Hello? Sir? Sir?" Three police officers arrive seconds later. They ask Ben-David and the two security guards to leave the floor and enter Duerson's unit, guns drawn.

Inside the condominium, a still body lies on a bed. A bronze trophy for the 1987 Walter Payton Man of the Year sits on a coffee table.

And there are notes. Several notes.

The notes are not addressed to anyone specifically, but they provide Duerson's family with everything they need to know. Where to find important documents. Financial information. Specific instructions about his wishes.

Veterans of the police departments who responded to the call and have been to many similar scenes never had encountered a suicide planned and executed so meticulously.

In one of the notes, Duerson wrote about his failed business deals, about his family problems, about seeing stars, blurry vision and having difficulty spelling simple words.

And he wrote, again, that he wanted to have his brain donated to science.

Thursday, 10:20 p.m.: A body is removed from Ocean One.

People from the phases of Duerson's life — his childhood, his playing days, his business life and his family — remain in disbelief.

During a memorial installment of Duerson's Internet radio show, his fiancee acknowledged she is struggling with what happened. "I know that my baby's soul is in a better place and he is at peace — so that I feel good about," Sykes said. "But I miss him here in the physical world."

The only other player from the 1985 Super Bowl champion Bears who is gone is Payton. He died in 1999 of liver disease.

"Being aware of (Duerson's) personality, it was shocking to me," said Richard Dent, who with Duerson was part of the Bears' great draft class of 1983. "I felt pain. He had a house on a lake in Mundelein, and we all used to hang out there. Back then, I always thought he would be a politician. He was so strong-minded, always fighting for something better for the players and former players. Maybe at the age of 50, he just couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel anymore."

Back in Muncie, Hays put it this way: "When I found out it was suicide … I just couldn't believe it. It didn't make any sense. I'm sure his thinking wasn't right.

"What a great thing to donate his brain, thinking of others."

There are no indications Duerson was seeking help for depression.

"I knew he was depressed, but not to the point of taking his life," Alicia Duerson said. "Dave was a strong man. He loved life. He loved helping others. He would always put everything and everyone first before himself. I guess a lot of things caved in for him."

Family problems. Financial trouble. Fear that his brain was failing him.

Now Dave Duerson is gone. He shot himself, in the heart.

Tribune Newspapers reporter Juan Ortega contributed from Florida.