In the May Issue: Eric Bana
Posted By MJ On April 14, 2011 @ 11:56 am In Cover Stories
Eric Bana is wearing flame-retardant underwear. This makes me slightly nervous. He is about to take me out for a few hard laps around the Calder Park Raceway, here on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia, and I’m wearing plain old cotton boxers — breathable, sure, but not much protection in the event of a fiery crash.
Bana picks through extra racing gear in the back of his pickup, then tosses me a helmet and one of his spare fireproof jumpsuits. “You’re about my size,” he says, being kind. This is, after all, the guy who played the shirtless Trojan warrior in Troy and the shirtless librarian in The Time Traveler’s Wife. (Much to the delight of Bana’s many female fans, the time traveler’s clothes do not travel with him.) At 42, he’s still so fit he was able to do his own stunts in his latest movie, the combat-intensive Hanna, with almost no time to prepare.
“First lap I’ll take it easy — I want you to see the topography of the racetrack,” Bana says, referring to Calder’s 1.6 miles of high-speed straightaway and turns, 15 of them, some fairly hairpin. “Second lap I’ll speed it up. Third lap we’ll go full-on.” We walk over to the pit lane and locate his race car — a bright blue Porsche that shares the silhouette of a street-legal 911 and not much else. Its 400-horsepower engine propels a featherlight frame, which is why it runs more than $200,000 off the line — and that’s only a tiny fraction of the actual cost of racing. “Every time you go out, it’s $2,400 on tires alone. Just to put the car on the track, you’re looking at 10 grand of wear and tear, and over the course of a race weekend, 20 to 30 grand. If you actually calculate it over kilometers, it’s hideous; it makes you throw up,” Bana says, pulling on his driving gloves. “We don’t discuss that with our wives.”
Bana tries to fit in something like six major racing events a year; it would be more if he didn’t have to make movies in order to pay for those tires. “He’s at the highest level of amateur driving possible,” says friend and fellow driver Peter Hill, the founder of Globe surf wear, who’s also out today for a few practice laps. Last year Hill and Bana drove together at Bathurst, a six-hour relay race. “We were doing extremely well, running fourth and in really good contention for a podium finish,” says Bana. “Then Peter had a small spin and was sitting in the middle of the track when someone ran up his ass at about 100 miles per hour. We were very lucky that no one was hurt.”
Here’s hoping Bana’s luck holds for at least a few more hours.
For more from Eric Bana, check out our May issue, on newsstands Friday.
“I’m feeling anxiety now,” says pitcher Justin Duchscherer, over breakfast in Chandler, Arizona, three weeks before spring training. “My instinct is to run away.”
“I have a little anxiety too,” says his wife, Mandie, sitting next to him. “I feel I have to fill in the blanks for him.”
“I’m not comfortable opening up to strangers,” he says.
“When I first met him,” she says, “he was moody, withdrawn.”
“My depression comes out as an avoidance of feeling,” he says. “You learn to live with it. You’re never happy.”
We are discussing Justin’s strange career, which includes two All-Star appearances despite his having only mediocre stuff as a pitcher, various injuries that have kept him off the mound nearly all of his last two seasons in Oakland, and a lifelong battle with depression — all of which have conspired to put him where he is now: 33 years old and desperate to land one last major-league contract. At this moment, with spring training so close at hand, he’s still unsigned.
“People think if you’re rich, you must be happy,” he says. “They can’t understand why you’re not. I feel guilty making so much money playing a game. If I pitch a shutout, it doesn’t make me happy. I think of the guys I struck out, how they’re going home, depressed, to their families.”
“I don’t know why you don’t just look on the bright side,” she says.
He gives her a look. She stares down at her hands. He says, “My problem is I’m a soft guy in a profession of hard guys. I’d prefer to be playing tennis.”
“But he’s getting better,” she continues. “He shows his feelings more now.”
Justin smiles at her. “My wife is my rock. She makes me feel safe. My first wife was hard, cynical. We were arguing in the car once, and she said, ‘Have some balls and be a man.’ ”
“He’s very sensitive,” Mandie says. “But controlling, too. He bought me a Mercedes-Benz, but I didn’t want a Mercedes. I liked my little Honda Civic.”
“A little car is dangerous. But I am a control freak. I hate making plans. I get anxious. Then I get anxious about getting anxious.”
“It’s a battle within him. It was hard for me at first,” she says. “He’d get quiet and I’d think, What am I doing wrong? But instead of getting angry, I’d just support him.”
He smiles at her. “She protects me. I loathe being the center of attention. I’m a loner. When my teammates play cards in a hotel room in New York, I’m walking the streets, wondering why I’m so lonely.”
“I lived alone in an apartment in Oakland,” she says. “He went to his ball games, and I was so bored.”
“When I came home, I didn’t talk about baseball.”
“I tried to learn. I read Baseball for Dummies.”
“I just need her to support me in my career.” He smiles at her.
“He supports me, too,” she says. “I love it that he goes shopping with me.”
Mandie is 25. She looks like the actress Eva Longoria, with long, silky black hair and café au lait skin. She describes herself as “part Mexican, part white,” a simple girl from a big, loving family in Yuma, Arizona. She has been married to Justin for three months. She met him two years ago at a party at his house in Chandler, where he lives in the off-season. “He was drinking wine,” she says. “I was drinking Bud Lite.”
“She had the impression I was sophisticated,” he says. “But I rarely drink wine.”
“I had reservations,” she says. “The only thing I knew about baseball players was that they were loaded. But that lifestyle wasn’t what I wanted.”
At the time, Justin was in his fifth full season with the A’s after struggling for eight years in the minors. He had been called an overachiever and a roster filler who seemed doomed to a career in AAA. “I had an 87-miles-per-hour fastball,” he says. “I was not intriguing.”
But he was persevering, and so he had stayed with it through minor-league seasons with records like 0–2, 3–4, 7–12, and 7–9, before a breakout year in 2001. He fashioned a 13–6 record and a 2.47 ERA that year with three teams, and was called up to the majors with the Texas Rangers.
He got shelled his first two big-league starts, and in five appearances total gave up 20 runs in only 14 and two-thirds innings. The Rangers promptly traded him to Oakland, which sent him back to AAA. It was nearly two full seasons before he was called up again. But this time he fared much better, throwing seven shutout innings in winning his first game with the A’s. Oakland converted him to a reliever the next year, and he pitched well enough that he made the American League All-Star team in 2006. Despite nagging injuries (he had the first of three hip surgeries in 2007), the A’s put him in the starting rotation in 2008. He responded with a 10–8 record and a 2.54 ERA to earn another All-Star selection.
Then, in 2009, his career and his life began to fall apart. He was going through an acrimonious divorce from his first wife and feeling guilty about the effect on his young son, Evan. Then he hurt his elbow. He was supposed to go to Sacramento for a rehab stint in the minors, but when he got to the airport, he physically couldn’t bring himself to get on the plane.
“I froze,” he says. “I just felt overwhelmed. My stomach was irritable. I was teary-eyed.” Confused about what was happening to him, he called one of the A’s psychologists and talked to him for hours.
Read the full article in our May issue.
Dave Duerson set the scene with a hangman’s care before climbing into bed with the revolver.
The former Pro Bowl safety for the Super Bowl–champion 1985 Chicago Bears drew the curtains of his beachfront Florida condo, laid a shrine of framed medals and an American flag to his father, a World War II vet, and pulled the top sheet up over his naked body, a kindness to whoever found him later. On the dining room table were notes and a typed letter that were alternately intimate and official, telling his former wife where his assets were and whom to get in touch with to settle affairs. He detailed his motives for ending his life, citing the rupture of his family and the collapse of his finances, a five-year cliff dive from multimillionaire to a man who couldn’t pay his condo fees. Mostly, though, he talked about a raft of ailments that pained and depressed him past all tolerance: starburst headaches and blurred vision, maddening craters in his short-term memory, and his helplessness getting around the towns he knew. Once a man so acute he aced his finals at Notre Dame with little study time, he found himself now having to dash down memos about what he was doing and when. Names, simple words, what he’d eaten for dinner — it was all washing out in one long wave.
No one had to tell him what those symptoms implied or what lay in store if he stuck around. Once a savage hitter on the best defense the game has ever seen, Duerson filled the punch list for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the neuron-killing condition so rampant these days among middle-aged veterans of the National Football League. Andre Waters and Terry Long, both dead by their own hands; John Mackey and Ralph Wenzel, hopelessly brain-broke in their 50s. It was a bad way to die and a worse way to live, warehoused for decades in a fog, unable, finally, to know your own kids when they came to see you at the home.
Among the personal effects Duerson arranged that night in February was the master clue to the act he’d soon commit, Exhibit A in a life turned sideways: his 1987 NFL Man of the Year trophy. It was a testimonial to a former colossus, a player whose brilliance on the football field was a taste of much grander things to come. Future meat-processing magnate and potential congressman, or successor to Gene Upshaw as director of the NFL Players Association — that Dave Duerson was all forward motion, the rarest amalgam of outsize smarts and inborn ambition. This version, though — the one slumped in bed with the .38 Special to his chest — this one had run into walls, head lowered, and he, not the walls, had buckled first.
Still, when someone turns a gun on himself, there are bound to be messy questions. Why, given the spate of concussions in the NFL season just past, would Duerson elect to keep silent about his suspected ailment at precisely the moment he should have spoken? Why would a man who knew as much about brain woes as anyone who’s ever played the game, having served for six years and read thousands of case files as a trustee on the NFL’s pension board, not have sought treatment and financial compensation from the very committee he sat on? And why, bizarrely, did he deny those very benefits to the men who needed them most, brain-dimmed veterans living in pain and squalor and seeking relief from the league?
Perhaps to stanch these questions, Duerson dispatched a blitz of texts in the last couple of hours of his life, some of them making an emphatic plea: Get my brain to the NFL’s brain bank in Boston. The meaning of the texts seems plain enough: I’m sick and my mind’s failing from all the helmet-to-helmet collisions in 11 brutal seasons in the NFL. Please see to it that my cortex is studied by doctors seeking treatments for brain trauma — and inquire no further about my reasons. It was a grandiose gesture, killing himself at 50 so that current and future players might be spared this horror, and was italicized by a second theatrical stroke: He shot himself through the heart, not the head, to preserve his brain for science.
But the dramatics of the act didn’t sanctify him or absolve him of blame for the part he’d played in the suffering of other ex-players. If anything, Duerson’s death has become a referendum on his, and his sport’s, brutality, a prism through which to finally take a look at the cost of all those hits.
For more on Duerson’s sad story, check out our May issue.
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