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.”