Duerson case could set precedent

The numbers attached to Dave Duerson's 11-year NFL career include two Super Bowl rings, four Pro Bowls and, according to the lawsuit his family has filed, three documented concussions.

After he left the NFL in 1993, Duerson made one good decision after another and parlayed his NFL income and success into three McDonald's franchises and a remarkably successful meat business with annual revenues of nearly $70 million. His successes and his growing net worth earned him a berth on the board of trustees at Notre Dame, his alma mater.

He also rose into important positions in the leadership of the NFL Players Association, serving as a lead plaintiff and a powerful witness in the union's epic free-agency litigation initiated in 1989.

But in 2005 and 2006, according to the lawsuit his four children have filed against the NFL, the damage from the concussions began to appear. There was a violent incident with his wife in South Bend, Ind. And then there was a series of bad business decisions. He missed important loan deadlines. He fought with vendors and creditors. And he allowed a dispute over technology to fester until the manufacturer of the equipment shut it down, leaving Duerson unable to deliver his products and killing the business.

In only three years, a man who graduated with honors from Notre Dame and enjoyed uninterrupted success on and off the field managed to destroy his marriage and his business.

In his final months, Duerson knew something was wrong. He told his family immediately before his death that "there's something going on" in his brain. He then shot himself in the chest, leaving a note requesting post-mortem examination.

The autopsy at Boston University School of Medicine confirmed what Duerson must have suspected: He was suffering from progressive, advanced brain damage, a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

The study of Duerson's brain showed specific damage to the areas of the brain that control judgment, impulse control, mood and behavior, all things that contributed to Duerson's problems and his suicide.

In their lawsuit, like the 3,000 suits filed by NFL players who say they are suffering the effects of concussions, the Duersons assert that the league failed to warn Duerson of the dangers of returning to play shortly after a concussion, allowed him to "play through" concussions, and deliberately concealed from him the injuries and the damage that result from multiple concussions.

Like the other lawsuits, the Duerson case will soon be consolidated into a growing list of cases in a federal court in Philadelphia. It will linger there as the players and the NFL battle through pretrial procedures.

When the pretrial procedures are concluded, the family and its lawyers, Tom Demetrio and William Gibbs of Chicago, will be able to bring the case back to the Circuit Court of Cook County, where they originally filed. It is a process that will take at least a few years.

The magnitude of Duerson's losses and the dramatic evidence of concussion-caused brain damage could easily lead to a trial that would set the economic value for other cases. Will a jury agree that the NFL is responsible for what happened to Duerson? How much will a jury award for the losses suffered by the family of one of the heroes of the Super Bowl XX champion Bears, the most popular team in the history of Chicago sports?

The jury's verdict will provide the final number in the Duerson legacy. It will be added to the two Super Bowl rings, the four Pro Bowls and the three documented concussions. Although a jury's award will not make the family whole again, the verdict will become the most important of Duerson's numbers; it will define the value of the lives of other former NFL players, lives that were altered or ended by concussions.