Eric Hipple’s Hopeful Goal

Since losing his teenage son to suicide seven years ago, the former Lions quarterback has led a crusade to recognize and treat the signs of depression, especially in young people
Eric Hipple poses with students from St. Clair Shores’ Lake Shore High School, where he spoke to them about suicide. Photo: Brian Widdis

Eric Hipple is wearing a yellow short-sleeve knit shirt, but he still rolls up the sleeves to his biceps. There’s work to be done.

The former Detroit Lions quarterback is at Lake Shore High School in St. Clair Shores, in a small conference room where three counselors listen intently as Hipple talks about a subject close to his heart — too close, as his ruddy face and expressive eyes sometimes reveal. The subject is teen suicide. And Hipple has become an expert, since his 15-year-old son, Jeff, lost in depression, killed himself seven years ago.

“I call it broken brain,” Hipple says. “You can see when an arm is broken — but not a brain. Nineteen percent of kids are thinking about suicide at any one time. They think their parents, their friends, ‘will be better off without me.’ ”

When Hipple is finished, the counselors are somber. They thank him for taking the time to come today. They are glad that Hipple also will be talking to the school’s teachers, and the students, in coming days. Then they start to vent about their own problems. Counselors have so many other duties — class scheduling, absenteeism, dealing with upset parents, meetings, and paperwork — how can three people monitor the mental state of hundreds of often-moody teenagers?

Hipple offers some ideas, along with thick packets of back-up pamphlets and other materials on combating suicide. He starts to pack up to leave when a counselor has one more question: “Can I have your autograph for my son?” she asks sheepishly. “He plays running backer or something.”

Hipple, a football hero again for a moment, scrawls his name.

“Depression is a treatable illness. If I can make a difference in someone’s life, then Jeff didn’t die in vain,” Hipple says. For that reason, he now spends much of his free time helping the University of Michigan Depression Center in Ann Arbor, the Mental Illness Research Association, and the American Association of Suicidology spread the word on early detection and treatment of depression to fight teen suicide. He’s the outreach coordinator at the University of Michigan center and a board member at the other two.

“Football brings people into the room, but then Eric really connects with adults and kids,” says Karen Marshall, program development director for the American Association of Suicidology, who often joins Hipple at speaking engagements. “He keeps audiences enthralled, men in particular. He’s real engaging and has a great personal story.”

Suicide is the second or third leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24, although rates have been falling in recent years, according to Marshall, whose group supports research and prevention efforts. There were 4,316 suicides in that age group in 2004, the last year for which figures are available. That amounted to almost 13 percent of all deaths in that demographic.

However, experts say suicides may be under-reported by 30 to 50 percent, in part because of the stigma many families still associate with it. And often you can’t tell if a traffic accident was actually a suicide or a suicide attempt, Marshall says. “Suicide is a mental-health problem, plus biological and physical problems. We don’t know the tipping point for people.”

In September 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a sharp and puzzling rise in suicide rates among young Americans. From 1990-2003, the suicide rate fell by more than 28 percent among those 10 to 24 years old. But from 2003-2004, it rose by 8 percent, the biggest one-year increase in 15 years. Scientists speculate the change may have been caused by people avoiding the use of anti-depressants following reports that they might actually increase suicide risks.

For Eric Hipple, there had been family depression warning signs long before his son’s death.

At Utah State, where Hipple played quarterback, he says he slept through one whole semester when he just couldn’t get out of bed. “I had to go to summer school to get my grades up for football,” he says. He also had an aunt who was diagnosed as schizophrenic at 15, and a niece who is bipolar.

Yet none of that, or what he now knows are “classic symptoms,” gave Hipple a clue that his son was severely depressed. Jeff loved basketball and was a happy, outgoing, funny kid who did well in school before he became depressed.

He began having trouble sleeping and suffered a loss of appetite, energy, and pleasure. He was also skipping school and his grades were dropping. He had various aches and pains. He was also cutting himself, but wore long sleeves to hide it.

Hipple took him to doctors who said there was no physical problem, like the flu. “But his body was trying to tell us something,” Hipple recalls. Hipple also learned later that Jeff had been writing letters about his problem to a friend, saying things like “I can’t take it much longer.” It was a cry for help. But, Hipple says, “He wasn’t talking to the right people.”

After Jeff’s death, Hipple says, “I didn’t care a whole lot about things. I had a lot of pain trying to get out.” He started drinking heavily and eventually was picked up for drunken driving. A judge threw him in jail for 58 days.

“That was a turning point,” Hipple says. “I did a reality check and [asked myself], ‘What are you going to do?’ I related [the situation] to the football mentality — get up and keep going.”

Hipple found his way to Dr. John Greden, head of the U-M Depression Center, where he was treated for depression. Greden also put him on the path to talking publicly about depression and teen suicide, using his experiences in football and his son’s life and death.

Hipple, who still has the big frame of a pro athlete, usually shows a six-minute highlight film of his football career before he starts his talks. He was drafted by the Lions in 1980, but didn’t play. In ’81, he went into the team’s second game a rookie and came out a hero after throwing four touchdowns and running for two more. Hipple stayed with the Lions his entire career, until 1990, taking the team to two playoff bids and a divisional championship. He went on to work in the insurance industry and as a motivational speaker and host of an NFL pregame show.

He now owns and operates an insurance business — when he isn’t traveling or giving talks at schools or churches or speaking to business executives or pharmacists or human resources experts or funeral directors or Meals on Wheels workers, or anybody else who wants to know about depression and how to deal with it effectively. He has also worked with the U.S. Army to help set up a model anti-depression program.

But above all, he takes time to talk to young people. He’s well-prepared for speaking with teens and young adults. At 49, Hipple has three surviving children, daughters aged 14 to 25.

Susan Schwerin, who is the executive administrator of the Mental Illness Research Association and often works with Hipple, says his specialty is “talking to students about the signs and symptoms his family missed. He resolved to save other children and families from suicide. He’s trying to get kids beyond that moment — to know it’s not hopeless.”

She adds that “Eric’s a tough guy, but it was difficult for him to talk about personal issues at first.” Hipple says his decision to share his sorrow has been healing, partly because he believes he may be able to prevent others from suffering a similar tragedy. He’s now able to enjoy watching home videos of his son and even laugh at his antics, something he couldn’t manage for a long time. But the hurt returns, he says, creeping back on his son’s birthday and other sentimental milestones. Still he moves forward, always with the same mission of prevention.

Hipple recalls one boy who asked him how much money he made as a football player. “That’s the way kids see the world today,” he says. “Kids think money can solve all problems. I tell them it doesn’t always work that way. I was successful, but stuff happens.”