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MIAMI, Fla. — Former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple understands the toll ignored mental issues can take on one’s well-being, which is why he’s sharing a powerful message at the country’s largest sports event.
After Hipple’s son committed suicide in 2000, he continues to raise awareness of mental health issues in order to remove the stigma associated with discussing them publicly, or even privately.
“The biggest challenge is to keep going when things get really, really dark,” said Hipple to our team with Big Game Bound on Monday. “The only way you can do that is if there’s hope.”
“Pieces of hope are what really pull people through.”
Hipple continues to advocate on behalf of After the Impact, a charity that helps veterans and athletes with injuries you can’t detect on the surface.
On Monday’s show, which you can watch above, Hipple discusses his own suicide attempt and what he’s learned since his darkest of days.
CLICK HERE TO SEE THE VIDEO
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When he was a student at Utah State University, it seemed like Eric Hipple had every reason to succeed. Coming to Logan from California on a football scholarship, he had supportive coaches and parents who would follow him to every game.
But there were some days when the 6-foot-4 four-year starter couldn’t even get out of bed, Hipple told the Class of 2019 during commencement exercises at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum on Thursday.
“I had no energy, I felt overwhelmed and I would only rally enough to show a smile when a teammate would stop by my dorm room and say ‘hi,’” he said.
The school “rallied and helped” Hipple get his grades back up so he could be eligible to play again — but it was not a closing chapter in dealing with depression.
Hipple, who now works for a mental health/addiction treatment facility in Florida and helped found a treatment program called After the Impact, shared his life story and gave tips to the graduating class about how to keep a sharp mind.
After graduating from USU with a degree in business administration, Hipple was drafted to the Detroit Lions. He saw the team to championships, was named Most Valuable Player — and got injured along the way.
“Self-medication became my tool, just like it had in certain times in college,” Hipple said. “So I never learned anything about depression. When I was knocked down, I would always get back up.”
But he didn’t get back up for long. After a few bad plays during one game, league officials let him go the next day, Hipple said.
The transition out of professional sports proved to be “very tough” — and almost deadly. The loss of identity of being a Detroit Lions star led Hipple, during a drive with his wife, to pen a note saying, “I love you. I’m sorry” before jumping out of the car going 75 miles per hour.
Hipple was offered mental health treatment by doctors but refused because of the stigma he thought such help created.
“I didn’t learn anything,” Hipple said. “I got back up and I carried on.”
Three years later, his high-school age son, Jeff, took his own life while Hipple was on a business trip.
“I got a call the next day from my wife. She had tears … and said Jeff was dead,” Hipple said. “We were all devastated.”
But even that kind of loss did not motivate the elder Hipple to get help for his own mental health problems. After years of what he called self-destructive behavior, Hipple got help at the University of Michigan.
“But more than that, I received knowledge,” Hipple said. “Mental illness and brain illnesses have names, and mine was depression.”
He said what he learned most of all from the treatment is that mental illness is treatable. Hipple believes people are “problem-solving wonders” and there are ways they can beat stress and anxiety and improve overall mental health. This includes having a sense of purpose, setting goals and having meaningful relationships.
“Mental health is a continuum; it’s not a diagnosis,” Hipple said. “It’s defined as a state of well-being and a sense of who you are.”
He closed his remarks by telling students, in part, “be committed to yourself … be committed to life.”
Hipple gave his speech at the Spectrum, just a few minutes’ walk from the Logan Cemetery, where his son Jeff is buried on a hillside overlooking the university football stadium.
After his speech, Hipple was awarded an honorary degree for devoting “his life to building awareness and breaking down the stigma” of mental illnesses, according to a citation read by Kent Alder, a member of the USU Board of Trustees.
Tarah Lynn Hipple-Thomas, Hipple’s daughter, told The Herald Journal she came from her home in Bremerton, Washington, to watch her father speak at commencement.
Hipple-Thomas, who has openly discussed her own mental health struggles and penned a book of poetry on the issue, called her father a mentor and said she is “in awe” of his ability to speak at USU.
“It’s showing that you can overcome and help so many, including yourself,” she said. “The work that he has done for years to make sure no one has to go through what our family went through, it’s incredible. It really honors my brother’s memory. I know my brother is looking down and smiling huge for him.”
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LOGAN — Coming from his California high school football team and driving through the canyon into Cache Valley where he was to play for Utah State University more than 40 years ago was a magical moment for Eric Hipple.
The magic continued for four years as the university’s starting quarterback, surrounded by a close-knit team and supportive coaches and staff.
But darkness that had shadowed Hipple throughout his life moved in, essentially keeping him in bed for an entire semester. Only the visits from his teammates and coaches brought him light, and eventually the young athlete pulled himself up and completed summer classes in order to remain eligible to play football.
“But I never asked and it was never discussed what had caused me to miss class in the first place,” Hipple said Thursday, speaking to graduates at his alma mater.
That wasn’t the only time Hipple found himself buried beneath mental health obstacles, and he spent many of the years that followed battling inwardly, self-medicating and doing what football had taught him to do.
“I never learned anything about depression. But when I was knocked down, I would always get back up.”
Thursday Hipple shared encouragement with the class of 2019, as well as the lessons he said have been “most valuable” in his life, assuring the students “mental illnesses are treatable.”
“The sooner the recognition the better, and many are treatable through just talk therapy,” he said, explaining that the neural connections in the brain make humans “problem-solving wonders.”
He urged the graduates to identify the barriers to their problem-solving abilities, like stress and anxiety, and to strengthen themselves psychologically just as they would physically, striving to be “mentally fit.”
“Mental health is a continuum, it is not a diagnosis. It is defined as a state of well-being and a sense of who you are,” Hipple explained.
After graduating from Utah State he was drafted in 1980 by the Detroit Lions, was named the Lions’ MVP for the 1981 season, and played for 10 years that included two playoff bids and a divisional championship. His time with the team included being sidelined by injuries for two years, until Hipple returned as a starter but in his first game threw two touchdowns — for the opposing team — and was cut the next day.
Hipple fell back to his USU degree in business administration and started his own company, but “transitions can be very tough,” he said. From age 9 to 32 he had been a football player, and he struggled to be anything else.
He was still trying to define himself and manage his own mental state in 2000 when his 15-year-old son, Jeffrey, was fighting his own battle against depression.
“It was on a Saturday morning at 6 a.m. that I woke him to say goodbye because I was leaving on a business trip. And he had tears in his eyes, and I told him, ‘When I get back we’ll figure this stuff out,’ and I left,” Hipple recalled.
The next day, Jeffrey took his own life.
Hipple passed several self-destructive years after that, until he came to the University of Michigan Depression Center, where he received treatment and participated in therapy for the first time.
“That was a term that had never been in my vocabulary,” Hipple said, emphasizing the word “depression” in the center’s name. “Mental illness and brain illnesses have names, and mine was depression.”
The progress and self-discovery he found there led to 11 years working at the center and a book chronicling his football career, the tragedies in his life and his personal rebuilding.
Hipple left the graduates with a final message of encouragement, urging them to “be committed.”
“Be committed to others. Be committed to yourself. Be committed to something spiritual. Be committed to life.”
Utah State President Noelle Cockett praised the graduates and took a moment to remember the many individual and shared experiences that brought them to graduation day, asking for a show of hands from students who got married or had children while in school, worked one or more jobs, volunteered, found a mentor, and attended campus activities or sporting events.
This year the university is conferring 1,095 graduate and 6,009 undergraduate degrees, Cockett noted. Of those, 57 percent are female, she said to applause.
Along with Hipple, two other USU alumni received honorary doctorates.
- Author and philanthropist Mehdi Heravi left his home in Iran with a dream of pursuing an education in the U.S., including studying political science at Utah State where he received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from in 1963 and 1964. His ongoing support of the university includes several scholarships he established. After graduation, Heravi returned home to serve as vice president at the National University of Iran, according to a Utah State news release. Following the Islamic Revolution, Heravi turned to philanthropy and humanitarian work, including supporting an orphanage in northern Iran and working with several organizations related to cerebral palsy, a disease that affects his son.
- Ronald W. Jibson worked for 36 years at Questar Corp. (now Dominion Energy), including as chairman, president and CEO, before he retired in 2016. Jibson studied civil engineering at Utah State and earned a master’s of business administration from Westminster College, according to the news release. His service in the community has included participation on several boards, including the college’s board of trustees, where he served as chair, and USU’s College of Engineering Advisory Board. He has supported endowed scholarships at the school.
Correction: In an earlier version, Eric Hipple’s surname was misstated on second reference as Higgins, and his son Jeff was misidentified as James.
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LOGAN — Eric Hipple is returning to campus this week to give a talk he wishes he’d heard 40 years ago.
Hipple needs no introduction at Utah State University. He is arguably the best quarterback ever to play for the Aggies. He started four straight years, from 1976 through 1979, led the team to a 15-6-1 record and conference championships his last two seasons, and followed that with a 10-year career in the NFL with the Detroit Lions. At the end of the millennium, when Utah State compiled its all-20th-century team, Eric Hipple was the starting QB.
So no one had to ask “Who?” when USU announced that Hipple will receive an honorary doctorate and give the commencement address to the Class of 2019 this Thursday.
But he isn’t going to talk about football.
He’s going to talk about mental illness.
* * *
There were two Eric Hipples at Utah State. One was the star quarterback, the jock of jocks, the biggest man on campus. The other was a kid far away from home battling depression.
No one called it that, of course. Not in the 1970s. When Eric stayed in bed instead of getting up and going to his classes, when he laid around his apartment not wanting to do much of anything, when he didn’t smile or want to be around people, it was passed off as a moody teenager being a moody teenager, or maybe a star athlete being a prima donna — if it was passed off at all.
There was fallout from Eric’s actions. He flunked some classes. But he got help and plenty of it. The administration and his coaches stepped in to make sure of that. He stayed for summer school and made up his credits to remain eligible to play football and get his degree.
“I received the support because I was the starting quarterback,” says Hipple. “It was very, very quiet, but I got a lot of attention — a lot of people looking out for me. What I was going through wasn’t really identified as anything other than being an athlete. Stuff like that just wasn’t talked about at all.”
A decade of stardom in the NFL didn’t end the bad patches. Nor did marriage and a family and material possessions. The darkness still lurked. After retiring from football, it got so bad that Hipple dove out of a car speeding along a Michigan highway in a vain attempt to end it all.
“I wrote a note to my wife that said, ‘Sorry,’ and jumped out of a car going 75 mph,” says Hipple.
After that didn’t work and he recovered from his physical injuries, the bad went to absolute worse when three years later Eric’s 15-year-old, Jeff, himself a promising athlete but also battling the darkness, took his own life.
All sorts of hell broke loose for Hipple after that — drugs, alcohol, jail time, until the day he was invited to pay a visit to the University of Michigan Depression Center.
“I listened to these doctors talking about depression,” he remembers. “They talked about the symptoms, the brain chemistry that’s involved, the behaviors.
“My jaw dropped. Oh my gosh, this is the thing, this is what I’ve been fighting against. I never had a name for it, nobody did. But what they were describing was something I went through, something my son died from, and now here’s a name for it. In and of itself that was freeing.”
With knowledge came the power to do something about the mental illness that had been recurring throughout his life. He finally found treatment, and with it hope.
That’s when the Eric Hipple, who excelled in the world of top-level football, who was good at figuring out what defenses were trying to do to him before they could do it, turned his competitive focus on depression.
For the past 18 years he has devoted his life to helping others understand what depression is and how it can be treated. He has worked with a number of organizations dedicated to the same, starting with the place where he first learned depression has a name — the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center.
He helped start the After The Impact program, a residential treatment program serving military veterans and former NFL players. He joined forces with Transformations, an addiction and mental health treatment facility in Florida. He talks to high schools through the Mental Illness Resource Association.
The book he wrote in 2008, “Real Men Do Cry,” received a Publisher Presidential Award. Also in 2008 he received the Life Saver Achievement Award from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In 2010 the Detroit Lions honored him with its Courage House Award. In 2015 the University of Michigan gave him its Neubacher Award for his work with combating the stigma that is so often associated with disabilities.
No one can say Eric Hipple hasn’t done all he can do to address head-on the “thing” nobody talked about when he was in college.
He’s thrilled that his alma mater has asked him to speak this week at commencement.
“Not only is it a great honor and a great opportunity,” he says, “but they told me the reason they asked me isn’t because of my football career. It’s because of the work I’ve done in mental health. That meant a lot. I actually got choked up a little bit when they told me that.”
The message he’s bringing back to campus is one of understanding.
“Here’s this thing, let’s not die from it, let’s understand it and know that treatments are available, that life is a continuum, that there’s always hope,” he says.
That’s what he wishes he’d heard 40 years ago.