Keeping Score

The Death of Dave Duerson: More Evidence of Concussion Dangers in Football

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Safety Dave Duerson, #22 of the Chicago Bears, in a NFL game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tampa Stadium on October 6, 1985 in Tampa, Florida

On Monday, Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy announced that Dave Duerson, the former star NFL defensive back who committed suicide on February 17, was suffering from a moderately advanced case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease linked to repeated head trauma. Duerson, indeed, did not die in vain.

Before Duerson took his own life, he took steps to help others avoid the pain that enveloped him. Through a note and text messages, Duerson asked his survivors to donate his brain to research, specifically to the Boston University center, which has specialized in studying the long-term brain damage suffered by former football players. Duerson shot himself in the chest, presumably to preserve his brain: currently, CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem.

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On Monday, doctors from Boston University released their findings. Images from Duerson’s brain showed that significant levels of the abnormal tau protein, which characterizes CTE, had developed in the regions associated with impulse control and memory. Over the last few years of his life, Duerson, who had started a successful food supply business after his playing career ended in 1993, complained about memory loss and started behaving more erratically. Ann McKee, the neuropathologist who conducted the analysis of Duerson’s brain, said that Duerson had the “classic appearance” of CTE. The Boston University Center has now studied the brains of 15 deceased NFL players. All but one had CTE.

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These findings should continue to concern parents whose children play, or express an interest in playing, football. The BU doctors emphasize that both concussive hits — Duerson suffered 10 known concussions throughout his NFL careers — and repeated “sub-concussive” hits  can cause CTE. Coaches can certainly reduce the incidence of head-to-head contact in practices. “We need coaches to be smarter about the drills that they do,” says Chris Nowinski, a president of the Sports Legacy Institute, a group dedicated to the prevention of brain trauma in athletics. “It’s amazing to me that we have pitch counts in baseball to protect the elbow ligaments of children, but we don’t keep count about how often children are hit in the head.”

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