COSTA MESA – The former quarterback, a nine-year NFL veteran who played his way into the hall of fame at Utah State, now rises to speak on the subject he knows so well.
Those who have gathered to hear his expertise include Ryan Leaf, another former NFL quarterback, and Darrin Nelson, who gained nearly 4,500 yards as a running back for Minnesota and San Diego.
We are all here to listen to Eric Hipple, listen to him talk about trying to kill himself.
“Most people assume I wrote a book called ‘Real Men Do Cry’ because I played all those seasons with the Detroit Lions,” Hipple jokes. “But that’s not why I wrote it at all.”
When the subject is something as cold as suicide, why not start with an icebreaker?
Hipple knows suicide as a survivor, his 1998 attempt having failed. But he also knows suicide as a success.
Two years after throwing himself out a car traveling 70 mph down the freeway, Hipple lost his son, Jeff, who was 15 when he reached under his father’s bed, grabbed a gun and ended his own life.
“This didn’t just become an epidemic,” Hipple says. “This has been a serious problem for a long, long time. It has been hidden under the surface. We need to talk about it more, spread the word.”
So he’s here, at Simple Recovery, a chemical-dependency treatment center, talking to a group of local educators and counselors and anyone else who wanted to attend.
Hipple, now 58, does outreach for the University of Michigan Depression Center, traveling to discuss mental health with former athletes, law enforcement personnel, the military, school officials and students.
“The instant feedback on the field, throwing a touchdown pass and hearing 60,000 people cheer, is pretty hard to beat,” he says. “But that’s only for a moment. This is something where I’m hoping the impact lasts for a while. So this is much more rewarding.”
He shares his story not for his sake but rather for the sake of everyone else. For those suffering from depression. For the parents of children suffering from depression. For the friends of friends suffering from depression.
Most of all, Hipple shares his story for those experiencing depression in some form without knowing what it is, how to recognize it or how it’s treated.
He shares his story for someone, perhaps, just like you. At least that’s what he hopes, the old quarterback tossing Hail Marys, trying to make a connection and help others find the answers that eluded him for so many years.
He had no clue that what he was feeling – the irritability, the lack of control, the hopelessness, the isolation, the anxiety, the need to drink, the thoughts of death – even had a name.
Following an NFL career that began with a Monday night performance so epic that the Pro Football Hall of Fame asked for his jersey, Hipple outwardly appeared fine. He had four kids, a loving wife and a job doing sports television in Detroit.
Later, he opened an insurance business that would prove profitable enough that Hipple says he was making more money than during his playing days.
And yet, those initial thoughts of death had moved on to considering the possibility of death, of maybe swerving his car into a tree, convinced that would solve so many problems. Only after “obsessing on it for a while,” Hipple says, did he look for an opportunity.
En route to the airport one day for a business trip, he wrote a note on a napkin and handed it to his wife, Shelly, who was driving. “I’m sorry,” it read. “I can’t take this anymore.” He then forced open the door and sent himself skidding across the pavement.
For years, only five people – Hipple, Shelly, his parents and a doctor – knew he had attempted suicide because his wife stashed the note in her pocket. Everyone else was told it was an accident.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to open a car door going 70 mph, but it’s hard,” Hipple says. “The story I was telling people was ridiculous. But no one wanted to consider the other possibility. It was like, ‘Hey, that’s a crazy story,’ rather than questioning what really happened. No one wanted to talk about it.”
He recalls the memory here so matter-of-factly that the words he wrote on that napkin appear on one of the slides during his presentation, if as they aren’t the least bit intimate.
Hipple speaks just as bluntly about his son’s suicide, about all the signs he and others around Jeff missed and wonders if more discussion could have saved Jeff’s life.
“If someone dies in a car accident, everyone gathers together and asks about what happened,” Hipple says. “After a suicide, it’s typically silent.”
It wasn’t until serving a 58-day jail term on a DUI conviction that Hipple reached the point of wanting to make a change, of wanting answers, of wanting to know that what he felt had a name and the name was depression.
Along the way, he produced his book – co-written with a psychotherapist and a psychologist – 132 pages of aching confession and tender guidance, Hipple reaching deep inside himself in an effort to reach out to others.
“The change came when my own lack of responsibility hit me,” he says. “The other guys locked up with me had no responsibility at all. I didn’t want to be one of those guys. I realized I had chosen my way to jail and I could choose my way out.”
The story he tells here is straight from the pages of “Real Men Do Cry,” which is fitting for the old quarterback, Hipple himself the most open of books.
For more information on the University of Michigan Depression Center, go to www.depressioncenter.org.
To contact Simple Recovery’s 24-hour substance-abuse line, call 855-244-1933.
For the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 800-273-8255.
Contact the writer: email@example.com