When the former football player Andre Waters shot himself in the head in late 2006, the few recoverable pieces of brain tissue, which later showed the same degenerative disease previously associated only with boxers, made the health risks of football a national conversation.
Football’s ramifications so concerned the former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson that, after deciding to kill himself last Thursday, he shot himself in the chest, apparently so that his brain could remain intact for similar examination.
This intent, strongly implied by text messages Duerson sent to family members soon before his death, has injected a new degree of fear in the minds of many football players and their families, according to interviews with them Sunday. To this point, the roughly 20 N.F.L. veterans found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy — several of whom committed suicide — died unaware of the disease clawing at their brains, how the protein deposits and damaged neurons contributed to their condition.
Duerson, 50, was the first player to die after implying that brain trauma experienced on the football field would be partly responsible for his death.
Retired and current players roundly noted on Sunday that they could not know what Duerson’s mind-set was and what other events in his life had contributed to his actions. Yet the gunshot from Duerson’s home in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., and the final wishes for his brain shook players around the nation.
“Oh my God — he might have been aware of what was happening to himself?” the former Giants running back Tiki Barber said when informed of the circumstances. After taking a moment to collect himself, Barber continued: “It feels like this was calculated and thought-out to some extent. It was almost with a purpose.”
Randy Cross, a former San Francisco 49ers lineman, said, “It ought to terrify anyone that’s played the game.”
Players who began their careers knowing the likely costs to their knees and shoulders are only now learning about the cognitive risks, too. After years of denying or discrediting evidence of football’s impact on the brain — from C.T.E. in deceased players to an increasing number of retirees found to have dementia or other memory-related disease — the N.F.L. has spent the last year addressing the issue, mostly through changes in concussion management and playing rules.
Duerson sent text messages to his family before he shot himself specifically requesting that his brain be examined for damage, two people aware of the messages said. Another person close to Duerson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Duerson had commented to him in recent months that he might have C.T.E., an incurable disease linked to depression, impaired impulse control and cognitive decline. Members of Duerson’s family declined an interview request through a family friend.
Duerson was a four-time Pro Bowl safety, primarily for the Bears. He won Super Bowls with the Bears and the Giants and retired in 1993.
For the past several years, Duerson served on the six-person panel that considers retired players’ claims through the league’s disability plan and the 88 Plan, a fund founded in 2007 to help defray families’ costs of caring for players with dementia. So Duerson would have been familiar with the stories of hundreds of retirees with mental issues ranging from impaired short-term memory to outright dementia.
“You know he’s been sitting in the disability meetings and the applications, so I’m sure he’s seen a lot of disability applications that have to do with brain injury,” said Ben Lynch, a center for the 49ers from 1999 to 2002. “Having seen all those things come across in front of him, and for him to make the request about his brain, it’s something that must have been really on his mind. It’s unbelievable to me that this happened. The fact that he shot himself in chest, and not the head, it’s really eerie.”
Matt Birk, a center for the Baltimore Ravens, is one of 6 current N.F.L. players and 103 in all who have pledged to donate their brain to the Boston University center for analysis after their death. He said that Duerson’s requesting the same before shooting himself in a way punctuated the first era of the investigation.
“It’s almost now to the point that — not that it’s not tragic — but now it’s almost becoming common, some former players with some form of brain problems,” Birk said. “Is it something that I think about? Yeah, absolutely. There’s a little bit of, ‘Well, it’s not going to happen to me.’ ”
Duerson was successful in private food-related business after he retired, but he had encountered financial and family problems in recent years. In 2005, he resigned from the Notre Dame board of trustees after he was charged with pushing his wife, Alicia. The next year, he sold most of his company’s assets at auction. In 2007, the Duersons filed for divorce, and their home in Highland Park, Ill., went into foreclosure, according to The Chicago Sun-Times.
Duerson relocated to Florida and remained heavily involved with issues regarding former N.F.L. players. Last spring, he attended a gathering of veterans in Fort Lauderdale held by the Gay Culverhouse Players’ Outreach Program, founded by Culverhouse, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers president, to help league retirees apply for medical and pension benefits. Mitchell Welch, the organization’s vice president, said that when discussion that day turned to the 88 Plan — the program for players with dementia — some veterans’ minds wandered, some appearing as if the topic of mental decline did not apply to them. Duerson walked to the front of the room and asked to say some words to the players, which Welch, in an interview Sunday, said he now would never forget.
“I’m Dave Duerson,” Welch recalled Duerson saying. “Pay attention to what this guy’s telling you. Because it’s stuff you’re going to need to know.”