Chicago Bear Duerson's son shines a light on mental health
On the day after his dad's mighty 1985 Chicago Bears pushed the team record to 4-0 by thumping the Washington Redskins 45-10, Tregg Duerson entered the world as the second of four children born to Dave and Alicia Duerson of Mundelein. He was just 4 months old when that season ended with Duerson and the Bears as Super Bowl champs.
At the 25th anniversary gala in November 2010 honoring that team, the younger Duerson kept company with his dad, the former Pro Bowl safety.
"We had a great time," the 27-year-old son recalls, launching into a similar story about a later visit to his father's home in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla. "We played golf, and I tried to hang with him with scotch and cigars."
On the morning after World Suicide Prevention Day last week, Tregg Duerson drives to the University of Notre Dame. He comes to recruit potential hires for the global finance firm where he works, but he stops by the mausoleum containing the ashes of his dad.
The 50-year-old former football star shot himself in the chest on Feb. 17, 2011, leaving instructions that his loved ones donate his brain to the doctors studying the effect of head injuries on former NFL players. Tests showed Dave Duerson suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a trauma-induced brain disease found in other former football players.
In the shadow of that tragedy, Tregg Duerson emerges as a shining light in the efforts to make football safer, publicize mental health issues and speak out on behalf of suicide prevention.
"What I admire Tregg for is his courageous stance for trying to make a difference. That's inspiring," says David Fiedelman of Long Grove, a longtime board member for Mental Health America of Illinois, a not-for-profit advocacy and education group. "He's passionate and dedicated, and obviously he's got some experience."
Forced into the public eye by the very public nature of his famous father's death and autopsy, Tregg Duerson was the family spokesman at the news conference announcing the advanced stage of his father's brain damage. Then, he was asked to speak before a mental health group.
"I enjoyed writing that speech and giving that speech. It gave me a chance to reflect on my loss," says Duerson, who soon found himself speaking before other mental health groups and even addressing a suicide-prevention meeting of military and veteran leaders in Washington. "It's just something that kind of evolved."
He figures his father — whose charity work with Special Olympics, at-risk kids and substance abuse prevention earned him 1987 NFL Man of the Year and 1988 NFL Humanitarian of the Year awards — would be proud.
"Who he was was impactful enough that I knew I could make a difference," Tregg Duerson says. "I'm sharing my story, but connecting with others. It's not just about me."
On Oct. 3, Duerson will speak at the advocacy group's fourth annual Jammin' Away the Blues fundraiser at Buddy Guy's Legends, 700 S. Wabash Ave. in Chicago, featuring a performance by John Primer. For details or tickets, visit mhai.org or phone (312) 368-9070, ext. 327.
After finishing his career with the Bears, Dave Duerson went on to earn a second Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants before closing out his career with the Phoenix Cardinals.
"The time I remember most was when he played for the Cardinals," says the son, who turned 8 before his dad's last game. "I remember waiting for him after the game and asking, 'Dad, did you score a touchdown?' And I remember those amazing buffets."
He understood his dad's accomplishments better after the family moved to Highland Park and Tregg Duerson became a standout running back at Loyola Academy, the private high school in Wilmette, where he became friends with the sons of NBA star Michael Jordan. As a senior, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Duerson rushed for 1,600 yards and 21 TDs and got the chance to continue his football career at Notre Dame, where his dad was a legend.
Critics suggested the younger Duerson was too small to play big-time college football, and only made the squad because of his father's influence. "You're Googling your name and seeing all this stuff written about you," he recalls. The school "redshirted" Duerson his freshman year with the idea that he would play cornerback the following season. After Notre Dame fired Ty Willingham, the school's first black head football coach, many of the players, including Duerson, transferred.
After a couple of weeks as a member of the football team at Hampton University in Virginia, Duerson made a life-altering decision. He quit football and returned to Notre Dame as a student. His only involvement in the game today is through his fantasy football team.
"I didn't start blossoming as a student until I quit football," he says.
He graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in finance and business management and now works in finance while attending Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management part-time in pursuit of an MBA. In addition to his volunteer work with the mental health advocacy group, Duerson restarted his father's Dave Duerson Foundation, which last year donated concussion test kits to Chicago Public Schools. For his work with suicide prevention, Duerson received the 2013 Charles T. Rubey Loss Award from Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
The Duerson family is part of a lawsuit against the NFL, which last month agreed to a $765 million settlement to compensate injured players. According to news reports, the agreement sets a $4 million cap for dead players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. But the settlement still needs to be approved by a judge, and Duerson says he hasn't been told what it might mean for his father's heirs.
The pain of "Why?" and the lingering guilt of "Could I have prevented that suicide?" weigh on every survivor left in suicide's wake, says Duerson, who uses hindsight to review his father's demise.
The elder Duerson pleaded guilty to a 2006 misdemeanor battery charge after an argument with his wife on the Notre Dame campus. That charge cost Duerson his spot on the university's board of trustees, and the couple divorced. Once credited with growing a multimillion-dollar food business, Duerson filed for bankruptcy in 2010.
No one knows the role his brain disease played in his decisions.
"When it's deteriorating that slowly, it's really hard to say at the moment, 'Yeah, this is wrong,'" Tregg Duerson says.
Noting that he grew closer with his dad in the months before his death, the son says no one suspected his father would kill himself. Even a bizarre, rambling message the elder Duerson sent his ex-wife and fiancee in the hours before his death raised more questions than answers. Among other things, the message expressed his desire to have his brain studied but never mentioned the possibility Duerson might hurt himself.
"His text didn't make much sense. I didn't connect the dots," the son says. "At the end of the day, you don't know what someone else is thinking."
As the spokesman for advocacy group's "It Only Takes One" campaign, Duerson urges people to be aware of warning signs and have the courage to "say something."
"It's not about you being the one person to save that person, as if you are a miracle worker." Duerson says. Talking about mental health, asking questions and urging people to seek professional help removes the stigma that often makes some people afraid of acknowledging mental health concerns.
"It's a lot to lay on somebody. Most people don't want to talk about it," Tregg Duerson says. "There's still a part of me, maybe it's pure fiction, but there is a part of me that thinks I could have done something."
Eliminating that feeling by stopping suicides is something Duerson works toward now, says Carol Gall, executive director of Mental Health America of Illinois
"It really only takes one conversation, one friend, one person to help save a life," Gall says, noting that Duerson's advocacy has the power to encourage people who know someone with issues to seek help through organizations through Mental Health America of Illinois. "It's really in honor of his father's life. Tregg's magnificent. He has dedicated himself to being out there now and advocating that these are things we need to talk about."
• Tregg Duerson will speak at Mental Health America of Illinois' fourth annual Jammin' Away the Blues fundraiser Oct. 3 at Buddy Guy's Legends, 700 S. Wabash Ave. in Chicago, featuring a performance by John Primer. For details or tickets, visit mhai.org or phone (312) 368-9070, ext. 327.
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