Former NFL quarterback Eric Hipple knows all about the black hole of depression and the unbearable pain that comes from losing someone to suicide.

Both own a page in his playbook of life.

The one-time member of the Detroit Lions lost a son to suicide in 2000 and as part of his own healing and recovery, Hipple came to realize he’s battled depression since he was a teenager growing up in Texas.

He shares his story willingly as the outreach co-ordinator for the University of Michigan Depression Center and he’ll come to Windsor Friday armed with a dual message about warning signs and prevention.

His audience at the Caboto Club will be almost 400 teenage basketball players, both local and out of town, taking part in the annual Freeds Tip-off tournament.

The tournament has partnered with a new Windsor campaign called Stigma Enigma which aims to raise awareness about the widespread incidence of mental illness and youth suicide.

Catholic Central teacher Pete Cusumano is on the Stigma Enigma committee and as coach of the senior boys basketball team, he knows the influence a former pro athlete will have on the players.

“At our own fundraiser we had a health-care professional speak and he was very good but that was geared to adults,” Cusumano said. “We wanted to find somebody to capture the youth. We felt they would relate to a professional athlete and listen to his message.”

Hipple travels the U.S. speaking to this type of target audience.

“That’s the age that’s probably most at risk of being affected by mental health issues,” Hipple says of the players who range from 16 to 19 years old. “I talk about mental fitness, doing the things they need to be healthy. Athletes especially are physically fit, why not teach the other half, mental fitness.”

Hipple helps them identify factors in their young lives that could be dragging them down.

“I talk about things that might be going wrong whether it’s brain illness, stress, trauma or injury.”

He points out the warning signs of suicide, the very ones he missed in his own son Jeff, who ended his life at just 15 years old.

After his son’s death, Hipple experienced the depths of depression’s black hole from the inside. He tried to drown the pain with booze and eventually spent a couple of months in jail for his actions.

He couldn’t process the guilt that consumed him because he hadn’t truly grieved the loss of his child.

“I had put off grieving,” the 56-year-old said. “I was not grieving. I was numb. Once you properly grieve then that turns to acceptance, forgiveness and then this passion.”

It took several years to get past the guilt and allow him to “forgive myself, forgive him, forgive God.”

Hipple took part in an eight-week depression clinic at the University of Michigan in 2002 and found new purpose for his own life.

Instead of breaking down defences on a football field, he breaks down barriers to good mental health through public speaking.

He’s careful to monitor his own well being and take a break when necessary.

“There are times when it’s appropriate to cut back and recharge, to meditate and think,” he said. “I don’t want to become iced over and not think about it because that’s part of who I am and what drives me.”

The fact his message has morphed through the years to encompass resilience and mental fitness along with suicide prevention and depression allows him to deliver a heavy topic without being overwhelmed by it.

“If I were just talking about suicide that would be hard to do,” he said. “But really I give a message on how to keep suicide from happening, how to live life, so it’s a positive message. I’m looking forward to being part of the program there and saying something positive and special that might have an effect on their life.”

That’s the ultimate reward.

Hipple also works with ex-professional athletes and military personnel. He had a member of Michigan’s National Guard call to say their talk had saved his life. Just a few weeks ago, a teenage girl approached to thank him. She realized her own father was struggling with depression and now that she knew what was wrong, she would encourage him to seek help.

Those are the stories that tell a former quarterback he hit his intended target. or 519-255-5726

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