With Dave Duerson’s exceptional play at the safety position, the Chicago Bears became a juggernaut during the Mike Ditka era in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Duerson was so good he racked up 7.0 sacks – a league record for a defensive back that stood for 19 years – in the 1986 NFL season.
Duerson strung together four straight Pro Bowl seasons from 1985 to 1988 when The Monsters of the Midway enjoyed the most successful stretch in franchise history.
No matter how hard Duerson got hit on the football field, he only knew one way to play – at full speed.
Well into his retirement years, Duerson manifested signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Sadly, he took his own life in February 2011.
Bears Nation will forever remember Dave Duerson as one of the greatest defensive backs in team history.
David Russell “Dave” Duerson was born to parents Arthur Jr. and Julia in Muncie, IN on November 28, 1960. Dave was the youngest of their four children.
Dave grew up playing football, baseball, and basketball in the Muncie area.
When Duerson played youth football in the sixth grade, boys who were two or three years older than him couldn’t contain him on the gridiron, per Men’s Journal’s Paul Solotaroff.
Dave Duerson attended Muncie Northside High School in his hometown. He was a smart student who made the National Honor Society.
Central High School (Muncie, IN)
— Prep2ProDB (@Prep2ProDB) January 26, 2022
Not only was Duerson smart, but he also had swagger. According to Solotaroff, he told his friends he would become a factory owner and run for the Senate someday.
“From when I met him in seventh grade, he was positioning himself for a career after football,” Duerson’s high school football teammate and college roommate Dave Adams told Men’s Journal.
Duerson wasn’t just good in the classroom and on the gridiron – he could also play serious music. He played the trumpet and tuba and even toured other countries as part of an ambassador’s band during his high school days.
When Duerson’s high school football career wound down, he chose the University of Notre Dame because of its pristine campus and potential connections in the business world, per Solotaroff.
Although the Irish went through some lean years at the turn of the decade in the late 1970s, Dave Duerson established himself as one of the best defensive backs in the college ranks.
College Days With the Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Dave Duerson attended the University of Notre Dame from 1979 to 1982. He majored in economics and eventually graduated with honors.
Duerson played for Notre Dame Fighting Irish head football coaches Dan Devine and Gerry Faust during his college football career.
Duerson started immediately for Devine as a true freshman and helped the Irish win seven games in 1979.
Unfortunately, the Irish saw their three-year bowl game winning streak end.
Despite the sour end to Notre Dame’s 1979 NCAA season, Duerson’s personal life looked rosier than ever.
He met his future wife Alicia at one of the Irish’s games during his true freshman year in South Bend. Even back then, he impressed her with his wit, intelligence, and ambition.
Alicia told Men’s Journal some three decades later that her husband Dave’s photographic memory allowed him to ace his tests in college even though he barely studied for them.
In contrast, she stayed up late most nights and was content with getting a “B” grade.
Little did Dave and Alicia know that the latter’s superior memory would deteriorate and eventually betray him far into his retirement days many years later.
— Jennifer Hartman (@JHartmanComms) September 16, 2014
The Irish won nine games in 1980 and reached the Sugar Bowl that year. Unfortunately, seventh-ranked Notre Dame lost to the top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs, 17-10.
Dave Duerson continued his exceptional play on the gridiron during the Gerry Faust era at Notre Dame.
Duerson earned consecutive All-American honors in the 1981 and 1982 NCAA seasons. Regrettably, the Irish averaged just six wins per year and didn’t play in a bowl game during those two years.
In the next phase of his gridiron journey, Dave Duerson would become an integral part of a dominant Chicago Bears defense that turned the team into a juggernaut in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Pro Football Career
The Chicago Bears made Dave Duerson the 64th overall selection of the 1983 NFL Draft.
The Bears struck gold in that year’s draft festivities. Aside from Duerson, the Monsters of the Midway plucked offensive tackle Jimbo Covert, wide receiver Willie Gault, cornerback Mike Richardson, guards Tom Thayer and Mark Bortz, and defensive end Richard Dent.
Covert, Gault, and Richardson started immediately for Bears head coach Mike Ditka in the 1983 NFL season.
Furthermore, all seven of the aforementioned rookies were part of the Chicago team that won Super Bowl XX two years later.
When Duerson started with the Bears, he didn’t make a good first impression on defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.
Chicago defensive lineman Dan Hampton told Men’s Journal that Duerson didn’t fit the prototype smashmouth defensive back Ryan highly coveted.
Whenever Duerson didn’t hit guys the way Ryan wanted in practice, the latter threatened to cut him.
Sixteen years after Dave Duerson’ retired from the NFL, he told author Rob Trucks in a November 2010 interview about turning 50 in America (via ESPN Chicago) that Ryan had ostracized him from the first day they met in training camp in 1983.
Duerson also told Trucks that Ryan, after inquiring about the safety’s Notre Dame background, told him he wouldn’t be around long.
Duerson also claimed Ryan used a racial slur during that same meeting.
“The guy simply hated my guts,” Duerson told Trucks (via ESPN Chicago) in the fall of 2010.
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) September 18, 2014
Ryan vehemently denied making those disparaging comments about Duerson. Ryan told the Chicago Sun-Times (via ESPN Chicago) in February 2011 that he was a fan of Duerson. He had no idea why Duerson claimed the former Bears defensive coordinator made those derogatory comments.
Duerson rose to the challenge three years into his pro football career. He played mostly special teams and backed up starting Bears Pro Bowl safety Todd Bell in the 1983 and 1984 NFL seasons.
Dave Duerson was on the receiving end of a peculiar request from Bears head coach Mike Ditka during the latter’s rookie year in 1983.
Ditka asked Duerson to take out Detroit Lions kicker Eddie Murray in the Bears’ 31-17 loss on October 18, 1983, per The Washington Post.
A baffled Duerson followed his head coach’s orders and hit Murray hard after a kickoff. Murray consequently sustained a partially-separated shoulder.
Detroit head coach Monte Clark thought Duerson’s hit wasn’t illegal. However, Lions owner William Clay Ford thought otherwise – he called the Bears dirty after Duerson’s hit on Murray.
When Bell held out for a higher salary prior to the 1985 NFL campaign, it became a massive turning point in Dave Duerson’s NFL career.
Ryan made Duerson his starting strong safety in 1985. The latter had a score to settle with his volatile defensive coordinator.
“I played through that whole season with (Buddy) telling me that he was rooting for me to screw up,” Duerson said in a 2005 interview (via Men’s Journal). “So I became an All-Pro myself.”
With Duerson’s exploits as safety and a dominating defense, Chicago went 15-1 during the 1985 NFL campaign. Duerson showed everyone he was for real with five interceptions during the regular season.
Mike Ditka’s Bears – the Monsters of the Midway- manhandled the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, 46-10.
That team featured the likes of Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, Mike Singletary, and Richard Dent.
For his part, Duerson had earned the first of his two career Super Bowl rings.
ON THIS DAY – 1985
#Bears S Dave Duerson and LB Mike Singletary grace the cover of Sports Illustrated sacking Cowboys' Danny White.
— Bears Nation (@BearsNationCHI) November 25, 2019
Duerson had his best statistical season in 1986. He had an incredible 7.0 sacks – a record that stood for 19 years. Duerson also added six interceptions and two fumble recoveries for good measure.
Bears head coach Mike Ditka moved Duerson to the free safety position in the 1987 NFL season. The latter continued playing at a high level – he racked up the third of his four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances.
Duerson also earned two consecutive Second-Team All-Pro berths from 1986 to 1987. He also won the NFL Man of the Year Award in 1987 for his performance on the gridiron and his charitable work off it.
Duerson returned to his natural strong safety position in his last two seasons with the Bears from 1988 to 1989.
Dave Duerson reached the pinnacle of his pro football career during the Chicago Bears’ most successful stretch in franchise history.
In Duerson’s seven years in the Windy City, the Bears averaged nearly eleven wins per year. They made the postseason five times from 1983 to 1989 – a run that culminated in winning their first Super Bowl title following the 1985 NFL season.
Dave Duerson spent the 1990 NFL season with Bill Parcells’ New York Giants. Duerson came off the bench as safety and helped Big Blue win thirteen games that year.
The Giants went on to defeat the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV, 20-19.
Dave Duerson was a Super Bowl champion for the second time in his memorable eleven-year NFL career.
Duerson spent the last three years of his pro gridiron stint with the Phoenix Cardinals, who struggled under head coach Joe Bugel.
Phoenix won an average of just five games per year from 1991 to 1993. They missed the postseason for the 17th time in the past eighteen years.
Dave Duerson retired from the National Football League following the 1993 NFL season. He had 20 interceptions, five fumble recoveries, one fumble return for a touchdown, and 16.0 sacks in his 11-year NFL career.
Solotaroff confirmed Duerson suffered multiple minor concussions during that time frame. Fortunately, none of these reached a point where Duerson lost consciousness on the football field.
His wife Alicia remembered Duerson gutting it out each time he got concussed. If he had a concussion in the second half of a game, he’d be back at practice by Wednesday the following week.
“Dave had one speed,” she told Men’s Journal in 2011. “And that was full-out.”
Duerson’s peers knew him as a kind and charitable soul. In fact, he helped several teens through college after making it big in the National Football League, per Solotaroff.
Duerson also organized an annual children’s camp in Muncie, IN in honor of a late high school buddy who drowned.
One of the kids who attended Duerson’s camp was future NFL offensive lineman Brandon Gorin, the son of a family friend. Gorin recalled Duerson encouraging the attendees to prioritize academics whenever he ran the camp.
Post-Football Life And Death
Dave Duerson and his wife Alicia had three sons: Chase, Tregg, and Brock. They also had a daughter, Taylor.
Just as Duerson made the transition into retirement, Chicago’s Republican and Democratic office urged him to run for office. Although the idea piqued Duerson’s interest, he realized it wasn’t his cup of tea in the end, per Men’s Journal.
The Indiana Football Hall of Fame inducted Duerson on August 7, 1998.
Duerson began manifesting the ill effects of playing on the gridiron in February 2005.
University of Notre Dame campus authorities saw Duerson throw Alicia against a wall of the inn they were staying in. Police subsequently charged Duerson with misdemeanor battery. Worse, the school dropped him as a member of its board of trustees.
A remorseful Duerson deeply regretted the situation with Alicia.
“My wife and I had an argument in South Bend and, you know, I lost control for three seconds,” Duerson told Rob Trucks in November 2010 (via the Chicago Tribune). “That was a one-time event. The most disappointing of my life but one that will never, ever be repeated.”
Duerson experienced football-related trauma three years after the Notre Dame incident. He felt pain on the left side of his brain, and he experienced blurry vision, headaches, difficulty spelling, and memory issues.
Alicia told the Chicago Tribune that Dave, who drove around The Windy City with no issues during his younger days, suddenly needed a map to remember where he was going.
Dave Duerson also repeatedly forgot the dates and venues of his daughter Taylor’s upcoming volleyball tournaments.
Duerson’s habits weren’t consistent with somebody who had a bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame and a certificate from Harvard Business School’s Executive Education Program.
When his memory issues persisted, he began writing things down to cope more effectively.
Duerson’s loved ones began to suspect that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disorder caused by repeated blows to the head and common in contact sports like football.
Dave and Alicia Duerson finalized their divorce in 2008. They were married for 25 years before they went their separate ways.
As part of Dave Duerson’s divorce requirements, he carried a life insurance policy that declared his daughter Taylor as the sole beneficiary.
Sadly, Dave Duerson died due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest in Sunny Isles Beach, FL on February 17, 2011. He was 50 years old.
Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University confirmed to ESPN almost four months later that Duerson had “moderately advanced” chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Duerson rang up his four children on Valentine’s Day and told them he loved them.
Surveillance footage captured Duerson on tape taking an elevator to the sixth floor of his Ocean One apartment a day after. It was the last time security cameras captured him on video.
Duerson and his ex-wife bought the Sunny Isles, FL apartment as a second home. The former moved in after their divorce was finalized in the fall of 2008.
Before Duerson’s death, he was engaged to a Washington-based public relations specialist named Antoinette Sykes. He introduced her to his inner circle in Florida as “Angel.” Duerson and Skyes scheduled their wedding in the spring of 2011.
Ocean One general manager Ron Ben-David thought Duerson seemed happy and excited in the weeks leading up to his tragic passing. He was excited about his upcoming wedding and some new business opportunities.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was a guest on Duerson’s online radio show “Double Time With Double D,” had a similar impression of the former Bears’ safety. He told the Chicago Tribune in February 2011 that Duerson “was in good spirits” at the time.
Duerson was a busy man after his playing days on the gridiron were done. He had a consulting firm called DD Favor which assisted food business start-ups.
Duerson also owned three McDonald’s franchises and had increased revenues of his sausage company Fair Oaks to $63.5 million.
At the peak of his success in the food industry, he purchased a large residence in Highland Park which was a stone’s throw away from Chicago Bulls’ great Michael Jordan’s house.
He also bought several expensive cars and took his family to Europe first class.
“When he took us to Europe, it was first class all the way,” Alicia told Men’s Journal in 2011. “Stretch limos, four-star dining, and – his big dream – flying the Concorde.”
Duerson eventually sold his ownership stake in Fair Oaks in 2002. He founded Duerson Foods shortly afterward but the company went into receivership four years later.
Duerson became the president of one of Archibald Frozen Desserts’ divisions. Unfortunately, his tenure lasted less than a year.
Duerson also played an active role with the NFL Players Association, the PUSH Excel board of directors, and the Chicago Bears alumni advisory board.
Duerson eventually filed for bankruptcy at some point during retirement. He claimed his employment income in 2008 was $45,249, per the Chicago Tribune.
He also sold some of his assets which included a Rolex watch, a Mercedes Benz, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and a wedding ring.
At one point, Dave Duerson was interested in coaching in the National Football League. He asked his agent Steve Zucker to reach out to various NFL teams and inquire about job openings in the coaching ranks.
Duerson also left a message for Minnesota Vikings head coach and his former Bears teammate Leslie Frazier about a possible coaching opportunity. Alas, that never materialized.
When Duerson was not busy with his various business ventures, he loved riding motorcycles.
When the Chicago Tribune asked Duerson’s ex-wife Alicia if he ended his life because of his brain issues, she remained non-committal.
“I don’t want to say that was the reason,” she told the publication in 2011. “I don’t want to give a reason because I don’t know.”
She was sure about one thing, though – before Dave passed away, he told her to give his brain to the NFL.
Duerson shot himself through his heart and not his brain so he could preserve the latter for scientific studies, per Men’s Journal.
Alicia also knew Dave had depression, but she also knew him as a strong individual who put others’ needs ahead of his own. She had no idea his depression would eventually reach catastrophic proportions.
Actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje played Duerson in the 2015 movie “Concussion.” The late Chicago Bears defensive back’s family didn’t like his portrayal in the film.
Tregg Duerson told The New York Times (via The Los Angeles Times’ Chuck Schilken) in December of that year the movie’s depiction of his father wasn’t close to his true persona and his actual life experiences.
ChicagoBears.com senior writer Larry Mayer ranked Dave Duerson the 47th Best Bears of All Time in the spring of 2019.