Tragic NFL star's last wish could shed new light on game's risks

Mired in financial and personal problems, the two-time Superbowl champion Dave Duerson turned his gun on himself in his Miami apartment last week in a suicide that, as well as a heartbreaking personal tragedy, has become another sign of a developing crisis in American football.

Mr Duerson chose to shoot himself in the chest, so that – as he requested in anguishing texts to his family before he died – his uninjured brain could be studied for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative condition associated with dementia, depression and suicidal thoughts.

CTE, believed to result from the accumulated effects of concussions and other bangs to the head, has emerged as the foremost safety concern in American contact sports.

The debate is particularly heated in football, whose players attempt to knock each other over like ninepins in their quest for on-field glory. The sport's governing authority, the National Football League, is currently trying to extend the professional season from 16 to 18 games. The emerging science on the subject suggests that football players could be between five and 19 times more likely to suffer from CTE than the rest of the population.

In recent months, Mr Duerson, a long-standing activist in the players' union, had expressed his fears that he was suffering from the condition. CTE was also found in the brain of Andre Waters, a former Philadelphia Eagles player who killed himself in 2006, and – in its early stages – in Owen Thomas, a 21-year-old college player who hanged himself last year.

As concern about the possible links between CTE and American football have escalated, numerous athletes have promised to donate their brains after death for study of the condition. Tests cannot currently be conducted on living athletes.

Dr Chris Nowinski, at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine, said he was contacted by a representative of the NFL Players Association on behalf of Mr Duerson's family last Friday, then secured the donation later in the day.

"The goal of the research is both to better understand the disease so we can treat it, develop a diagnostic test for people while they're alive, and also use the information to develop better prevention for current athletes," Dr Nowinski said. "You can never link a single act to a disease, but a large percentage of CTE cases have committed suicide."

Mr Duerson, 50, faced foreclosure and bankruptcy after the collapse of a business venture, and was in a legal fight over money with his ex-wife.

His 11-year career had been capped with two Superbowl victories as a defensive back for the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears. Court filings showed that his ex-wife had accused him of trying to hide some of his assets from her, including his two Superbowl rings, the valuable mementos given to all winning players. He leaves behind three sons and a daughter.

Within the NFL and its players' union, the debate appears to have shifted in recent months from whether football and CTE are linked to how to minimise the risks of head injuries, both large and small. The risk is that player lawsuits could cripple the sport if it emerges that the NFL could have done more earlier to mitigate the dangers, while in the long run, the authorities fear young people will shun the sport.

The NFL has made donations to research the causes and effects of CTE, and has examined new helmets and changes to the rules to minimise physical clashes, but must also confront the reality that head injuries will always be a risk in a ferocious contact sport.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power