Sitting at the busy lunch counter inside Saul’s, a Jewish deli in Berkeley, my friend and classmate from Notre Dame asked if I had heard about the Chicago Bear who committed suicide. Dave Duerson, a native of Muncie, IN was a third-round draft pick by the Bears in 1983 and became a key figure on one of the greatest defenses ever assembled. He struggled with depression for years and it was purported the depth of his mental illness was exacerbated by head injury and trauma to the brain. She looked down and despite the kibitzing from all around, I could sense her sadness; I knew she felt a loss. “I read that he went to Notre Dame” she said. A death in the family....
I work at an institution that is over 150 years old; it has a tremendous sense of pride, power and influence. Tradition and family ties run strong, but we do not describe ourselves as a "family." I don’t say that to disparage the community I have been part of for the last eight years. I say it because the Notre Dame family, a term that is never used lightly, is true. In our crazy world, it is a blessed reality.
At freshman orientation, students and parents from all 50 states and several foreign countries are welcomed into the Notre Dame family. Notre Dame remains our mother, tender, strong and true even after four years in South Bend. Like all families, ND has its share of dysfunction, but in times of trial and tragedy, it provides support that is unmatched and strength that is beyond price.
This past fall, the Notre Dame family grieved the untimely death of Declan Sullivan. He died due to the collapse and fall of hydraulic scissor lift in winds that were 50 mph where he stood filming football practice. I read the tribute him “No Ordinary Life” in Notre Dame Magazine and felt as though I had been kicked in the stomach.
I stared at his 20 year old face. I thought of his sister, just a freshman who was able to go to school with her older brother for only one semester. I stood awestruck, as I read the words from his parents, three days after his death. They said, “Declan loved Notre Dame. The grief we feel is tempered by the knowledge that Dec was doing what he loved in the place he most wanted to be. Declan leaves the world a better place for having been to Notre Dame.” Notre Dame was responsible for his death and yet I know the Christian paradox holds true. In death, there is life. Declan lives in the hearts of a great many people on campus and mine, 2000 miles from campus.
And the same is true of Dave Duerson. In a text message to loved ones, Duerson asked that his brain be left for NFL research, emphasizing he wanted the "left side" checked out in particular. His death has raised questions about the safety of the sport, especially with regard to repeated head trauma. Duerson’s brain matter will be tested for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease football players are at high risk for, some as young as 18 years of age.
Dave Duerson is not a family member without controversy. A two time All-American at Notre Dame, he was football team captain and later became president of the Monogram Club. He received the Notre Dame Alumni Association's Sorin Award, and also served as a leading member of the athletic department's mentoring program. After serving for four years on the Board of Trustees however, he voluntarily resigned after he was charged with assaulting his wife at The Morris Inn, a hotel on campus. He was honest about the charge and asked the Notre Dame family for his prayers.
In the years after, his marriage and his businesses fell upon hard times. And yet, upon his death, his former wife Alicia said "Our family asks that you please remember Dave as a good, kind and caring man. He loved and cherished his family and friends and was extremely proud of his beloved Notre Dame and ... Chicago Bears. Please keep Dave and our family in your prayers."
I hope the Duerson family knows that many candles are lit at the Grotto for Dave, for Declan and for so many others who have comprised and characterized the Notre Dame Family.
Dave Duerson: Chicago Bear
Notre Dame Grotto
Declan Sullivan: No Ordinary Life