‘Committed to life’: USU alumnus, former NFL star shares mental health journey

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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.”

Former Utah State, NFL quarterback shares message of hope, mental health with Aggie grads

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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.

Depression.

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.

Former Lions quarterback speaks at Mental Health Fair in Royal Oak

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Meet Toby Harris a three-year old from Commerce Township who loves to watch movies with his family and act out what he sees.

Toby is on the autism spectrum; however, after being referred to Easter Seals Michigan, he has been in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy for six months and is excelling.

“After his therapy, you wouldn’t even know he has autism,” said his mother, Lauren Harris.

Autism is just one of the mental and developmental issues represented at the 2016 Mental Health Fair, presented by Beaumont Health and Easter Seals Michigan, on Wednesday, May 18 in the Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak South Tower Lobby, 3601 W 13 Mile Road.

The event is designed to raise awareness of the mental health issues of everyday life. New this year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention will present former NFL Detroit Lions Quarterback, Eric Hipple, who will share his personal testimonial about depression, alcohol use and suicide loss.

Guests will connect with a variety of leading organizations in the mental health field and find information about autism, bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, eating disorders, skill building for developmentally disabled, childhood trauma, substance use, suicide prevention and domestic violence.

Easter Seals Michigan CEO Brent Wirth said, “The mission of our collaboration with Beaumont Health is to break the stigma that prevents people from seeking help when they need it.”

The event is free and open to the public from 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. May 18. If you would like to hear Hipple speak, you must RSVP with Julie Marion at 248-551-9448 or julie.marion@beaumont.org. The presentation begins at 10:30 a.m. and ends at noon. Hipple will do a meet and greet in the South Tower Lobby for the general public from noon to 2 p.m.