Twelve years ago, Eric Hipple, a former quarterback for the Detroit Lions, left on a business trip. The morning he left, he woke his 15-year-old son, Jeff, whose eyes were already beginning to tear up from a battle with depression.
“Jeff, I know what’s going on, but I got to go,” he said. “We’ll talk about it when I get back.”
But Hipple didn’t make it in time. The next day, his son shot and killed himself.
“Learning and knowing what I know now, I would have been able to save his life,” Hipple said. “I’m still affected today from it. You cannot help it, but I see it in a totally different picture now.”
Hipple said his new purpose in life is to help people become aware of depression, an illness he has also fought.
Hipple shared his story at Youngstown State University on Tuesday in Kilcawley Center’s Chestnut Room.
Students and staff filled the room, including Greg Gulas, assistant director of student programming, who has seen the effects of depression firsthand.
Gulas first read about Hipple’s story in ESPN approximately five months ago. It took Gulas back to his first semester as a graduate student at Ohio University 35 years ago.
In Gulas’ first semester, one person hanged himself, and another jumped from a dorm window.
“After listening to him, I walked away more knowledgeable of how I can help anybody that is out there seeking help for any type of depression,” Gulas said. “I’d like to think I can at least point them in the right direction now.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 15 million American adults suffer from depression in a given year. Without treatment, symptoms tend to increase and could potentially lead to suicide.
Before his son’s death, Hipple didn’t realize how severe the disease could be.
“I took him to the doctor, but not to get him healthy. I took him to the doctor to prove to him there was nothing wrong with him,” Hipple said.
That decision still haunts him.
Hipple’s own depression began three years earlier, after his business, Hipple Associates, based in Heartland, Mich., tanked.
“We just went flat, and everything fell apart,” Hipple said.
Hipple sold his portion to a competitor, who offered him a job in Arizona.
The new job required training.
Hipple’s wife, Shelly, drove him to the airport the morning he was scheduled to leave. While driving along Interstate 75, Hipple glanced at his wife and clutched a piece of paper.
On it he wrote, “I’m sorry. I love you.”
Traveling 75 mph along the interstate, Hipple handed his wife the note and jumped out of the car.
The next thing Hipple remembered was lying in a hospital bed with his parents on the left and a psychiatrist on his right.
The psychiatrist told Hipple’s parents that they wanted to give him a psychometric evaluation, a test health professionals use to gauge a person’s mental fitness.
“‘If you ever do that, I will never talk to you again,’” Hipple said he told his parents.
Hipple was never assessed.
His depression worsened after his son died in 2000.
Hipple buried himself in alcohol and drugs, and he was caught driving under the influence one night.
“I didn’t listen to the judge,” he said. “With my attitude, I didn’t really care because I was blinded.”
He said he was offered several plea deals but didn’t care and was given a 90-day jail sentence.
One random day, a guard pulled him aside and said, “Hey, Eric. I lost my son to a drive-by shooting. If I can get through it, so can you.”
Hipple’s life changed after the confrontation. He wanted answers as to why his son died. He wanted answers to what happened in his own life. He knew this was not his legacy.
After serving 58 days in jail, Hipple was released and wound up working at the University of Michigan Depression Center.
Working at the center allowed Hipple to find the answers to those questions. Hipple said he wishes he could have learned it 15 years earlier.
Before Hipple owned an insurance company, he was the starting quarterback for the Lions. They drafted him 85th overall in the fourth round in 1980.
Hipple’s first career game was on “Monday Night Football” against the Chicago Bears in 1981.
“Can I play in the league?” Hipple asked himself before the game. “Am I good enough?”
Hipple threw for 336 yards and four touchdowns and ran for two more scores.
He threw for 10,711 yards and 55 touchdowns in his career that lasted until the 1989-1990 season when his body told him to retire.
“When you leave the game, it’s interesting,” Hipple said. “That transition is really tough, and even though I adapted pretty early on, it finally caught up to me. I just didn’t feel I belonged to anything.”
Hipple now travels the country as often as possible to share his story.
“I want others to be able to have that information, so when they come across a similar circumstance, they’ll be able to intervene and save a life rather than be looking on the other side of it and doing this route,” he said.
In the Chestnut Room, numerous student-athletes from the volleyball, basketball and football teams were on hand.
Two volleyball members said they could relate.
“It was just really good to hear that even major athletes go through problems, and we can relate to that and make sure there isn’t any serious problems within the team,” sophomore volleyball player Missy Hundelt said.
Freshman Brianna Bartlett, Hundelt’s teammate, expressed similar sentiments.
“For one, it was great to hear him speak to relate to a player that has gone through what he did,” Bartlett said. “As athletes, we do get stressed out a lot, and at least we have our team to fall back on.”
Hipple said he tries his best to share his experiences and knowledge with those unaware of the dangers of depression.
“We’re all in this together, and nobody’s alone,” he said.