Jim McMahon recalls hanging out with former Super Bowl XX Bears teammate Dave Duerson about a month before Duerson committed suicide, shooting himself in the chest Feb. 17, 2011.
“He was a lot more quiet than I originally had known him to be,” McMahon said Tuesday. “But I would have never guessed he was going through that much pain until I started (going through it) myself.”
McMahon said he has entertained thoughts of suicide during bouts of depression associated with his diagnosis of early onset dementia.
“I try to stay as close as I could to (girlfriend Laurie Navon) because she would keep me from doing something stupid,” McMahon said when asked how he deals with his suicidal thoughts. “I am glad I don’t have any weapons in my house or else I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be here.
McMahon was speaking one day before the Sports Legacy Institute and the Chicago Concussion Coalition planned to honor him Wednesday night at the Union League Club.
The 54-year-old McMahon was among more than 4,000 former NFL players who sued the league and agreed to a settlement of $765 million on Aug. 29, 2013. The players contended the NFL knew about the dangers of on-field head injuries and did not do enough to alert players. Federal Judge Anita Brody rejected the agreement in January, saying in her ruling that she didn’t believe the figure would fairly compensate affected players. The matter is yet to be resolved.
McMahon is also among about 500 former players in a class-action suit against the league that alleges it promoted a culture of excessive use of painkillers and other narcotics that had long-term effects on the players’ quality of life.
McMahon said he has struggled with depression.
“It got to the point where I wouldn’t come out of my room,” he said. “I would be in there for weeks, months at a time. If I didn’t have to be at an appearance, I was on my back in the bed. In a dark room.
“Thank God these doctors ... called me from New York and said, ‘We think we can help you if you get back here.’ I am so thankful I was able to do that.”
McMahon, who said he was diagnosed with dementia five years ago, maintained treatment has relieved some of his symptoms.
“I was having a lot of problems with just forgetting the easiest things,” he said. “Then I started getting some bad head pains, really sharp pains and a lot of dull pains, but it was constant. A lot of constant pressure on my skull.
“I didn’t know what to do. I’d leave the house and I’d have to call Laurie on the way home and say, ‘I don’t know where I’m at. I don’t know how I got on this road. I told her aliens abducted me and put me over here.’ It was very frustrating. I can see how guys now … how some of these guys have ended their lives, because of the pain.”
Chris Nowinski, founding executive director of Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit group dedicated to concussion education, policy change and research, spoke to the Tribune in an earlier phone interview about McMahon and concussions.
“We are looking to solve the concussion crisis through research and education,” Nowinski said. “We want to recognize Jim McMahon because he has really helped raise awareness of the long-term consequences of concussions by going public with his concussion story.”
After Duerson’s death, researchers discovered signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in his brain.
Nowinski said McMahon’s symptoms “of memory incognition” and depression are consistent with what researchers have found studying players whose brains showed signs of CTE.
McMahon says his severe head and neck problems began on Nov. 23, 1986, when Packers defensive end Charles Martin picked him up and slammed to the Soldier Field turf on his head. McMahon said he just discovered five years ago he had suffered a broken neck at some point in his career.
McMahon said he had three to five documented concussions.
“I know I probably had more than that,” he said. “That was the original part of my (neck) injury when he dumped me on my head.”
An avid golfer, McMahon is still able to maintain a sense of humor on his good days.
“I’m still able to play golf. It’s even better for my score because I don’t remember half the shots,” he quipped. “People have to remind me when I get to the green. I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I think I got a four there.’ And I would end up with a six.”
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