Lions great Eric Hipple shares powerful message on mental health

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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. 

Former Utah State football quarterback Eric Hipple has a story to tell, and it’s not about football

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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.

Sailors participate in resilient workforce summit

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U.S. Pacific Fleet Public Affairs

Navy Region Hawaii, along with Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet (PACFLT) and the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations hosted a resilient workforce summit at the Ford Island Conference Center Oct. 24-25.

This year’s resilient workforce summit theme was “Culture of Excellence — Living Signature Behaviors.”

This summit is conducted on a two-year rotating schedule in the Pacific Fleet area of responsibility.

The summit gives Sailors the opportunity to directly interact with fleet program directors and subject matter experts about many topics. Such topics include leadership and personal behavior, creating a culture of dignity and respect, and suicide prevention, operational stress control and other Navy programs.

Guest speaker Eric Hipple, former quarterback for the Detroit Lions, shared life experiences that helped him be successful, and how they could translate to being a Navy leader.

“I was a good athlete, but I really got into the NFL because I had great leadership,” Hipple said.

“It is a big part of being a great team and taking the individual parts and figuring out how they work together to complete the mission. That’s really where I think the key is, at the individual level. Hopefully I can give you some tools today to get there,” he added.

Hipple mentioned how one of his high school coaches taught him that every choice he made had a consequence and he had to decide if he was going to weigh out the pros and cons of a situation. This helped him make those tough calls on field.

During the summit, PACFLT Master Chief James Honea addressed Sailors about the importance of the summit and how lessons learned at the individual level contribute to overall mission success.

“When you’re talking about your at-risk Sailors or those that need more attention, those are the opportunities to make sure that we’re doing the right thing as leaders,” Honea said. “We need to do right by them and get them the help they need. That’s what these workshops are designed to do — to help us build on those tools.”

Following Honea’s remarks, a panel of experts took the stage to answer questions on a variety of topics, including equal opportunity, sexual assault prevention and response, physical readiness, and other Navy programs.

Honea said the subject matter experts from the different Navy programs will be one of the most tremendous tools they will receive.

“It’s important that we take time to remember the role we play in the Navy as senior leadership,” said Chief Navy Counselor Demacardo Williams, a Sailor attending the summit.

“It’s my job, to my Sailors to be the best leader I can be, so when the time comes and one of my Sailors are going through something I have the insight to recognize it and help them,” Williams added.

Ex-Lions QB helps men tackle mental health stigma

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Former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple ignored the growing depression that culminated in his decision to jump out the passenger door of a car traveling at 75 miles-per-hour down Interstate 275 near Canton Township.

Before that unsuccessful suicide attempt in the late 1990s, Hipple had never even thought about his mental health. He’d felt increasingly blue in the years following his release from the Lions in 1989, but he didn’t consider it a problem.

Even right after leaping from a moving vehicle, Hipple wouldn’t see a psychiatrist. That would be a sign of weakness, or so he thought.

“I was (thinking), ‘Ain’t no freakin’ way, I’m fine, this is over now, I’m good to go,’ ” Hipple said recently. “It’s part of the man thing, but it’s also part of the stigma of mental health.”

Getting men to think about mental health, and to get help if they need it, is the focus of a research project called “Healthy Men Michigan,” which is looking to break through thought patterns that keep men from seeking mental health services.

It’s funded with a four-year, $1.2 million grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“(As a man) it’s my job to be mentally tough, so if I’m called on to run through the wall, I’ll run through the wall,” said Hipple, who has been a mental health advocate for nearly two decades now and helped shape male-oriented messages for the Healthy Men Michigan project. “We’re mission-oriented that way.

“That makes it really difficult to get to somebody and talk to them about something that might sound touchy-feely. It’s ‘Call me when it needs to be fixed.’ Let’s not talk about this stuff, just call me when it’s time.”

Men commit suicide at a rate more than three times that of women in the United States, according to the CDC. There were 20.7 suicide deaths per 100,000 American men in 2014, compared with 5.8 deaths per 100,000 women.

Many men tune out talk about depression or mental illness. So the project is reaching out to them in innovative ways, according to Jodi Frey, principal investigator for the Healthy Men Michigan project and an associate professor in the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Social Work.

“We really need to change our mindset to reach out to this very hard-to-reach population,” Frey said. “We need to man-up our messages.”

The focal point of the study is a website where anyone, regardless of gender, can take a quick three-minute mental health screening. About a thousand

people have taken the quiz since the site launched in January 2016, about 50 percent of them male.

People found to be at risk are sent online resources, such as referrals to local mental health services, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.

The website is advertised on social media, and researchers have recruited employers, sports teams, clubs and other male-oriented groups to invite men to take the quiz. Marketing messages focus on positive aspects of mental health, framing it as another form of fitness, and the manly thing to do.

Based on results of the online screenings, about 300 men ages 25-64 will be asked to participate in a study where researchers will follow up on their progress. About 150 have agreed to participate.

“This (online approach) is a real potential for getting health information out to men who aren’t connected at all to traditional health and mental health resources,” Frey said. “We’re finding that men through all of their years are coming to the site.”

‘Is this all there is?’

After a painful departure from the Lions, Hipple established a successful insurance business and did pregame shows for Fox Sports from 1995 to 2000.

But he struggled with unresolved feelings about leaving the game of football, which had consumed his life from the age of nine. He also went through a divorce.

“I was at a loss, didn’t know exactly what to do. I got the divorce, ended up getting remarried, starting a business, and kind of just threw myself into it,” Hipple recalled. “I became successful, until it hit me about five, six years later, like, this is it?

“Is this all there is? Is this what life’s going to be from now on? I lost all motivation.”

Hipple was mulling these thoughts on his way to Metro Airport, bound for a business trip when he made a decision. He scrawled a suicide note on a paper napkin.

He handed the note to his wife, Shelly, who was driving the car. Then, before she could do anything to stop him, he flung open the passenger door and jumped.

“All that stuff I’d been thinking about just kind of surfaced up, and the closer I got to the airport, I just didn’t think I could go.”

The darkest cloud of all

Hipple spent weeks in the hospital enduring surgeries and skin grafts. Though a psychiatrist visited his bedside, he didn’t want help.

Then the darkest cloud of all passed over Hipple’s life. In 2000, his 15-year-old son, Jeff, killed himself with a shotgun at his father’s home in Oakland County.

Jeff’s death shook Hipple to the core. How could his son have experienced the same dark thoughts he had wrestled with? How could he not have known?

Knowing first-hand the unspeakable pain to loved ones caused by suicide, Hipple no longer felt taking his own life was an option. Instead, he fought off his grief and anger with alcohol and risk-taking behaviors.

He was picked up for driving under the influence but balked at the terms of his probation. As a result, he spent 58 consecutive days in jail. It was there that he had a “moment of enlightenment.”

“Coming out of that was the enlightening moment, which was, ‘There is another direction I can take’, which is just pour all of this energy into something positive,” Hipple recalled.

“… We should start talking about it. Let’s find out why this happened, but let’s talk about it, too, and maybe prevent it if we can.”

Hipple got help from a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan Depression Center. And he threw himself into learning everything he could about mental health and suicide prevention.

Since then, then he’s traveled the country speaking to police, corrections officers, veterans, athletes and others about mental health, with a special focus on outreach to men.

In addition to voluntary efforts, he works with patients involved in “After the Impact,” a treatment program for people with post-concussion syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and similar diagnoses.

Tailored to athletes, veterans and first responders, the program has campuses in Michigan and Florida, and is run by Ann Arbor-based Eisenhower Center.