Stroughter's long road back (cont.)
Depression crept up gradually, worming its way into his life and tightening its grip on him, making him question everyone and everything. It was not normal for the kid from Sacramento to walk into the football office and not say "hi," to avoid eye contact and slouch his shoulders. When Stroughter walked into a room, everyone knew it. He was the one teasing the secretaries until they giggled, high-fiving all his coaches and giving out hugs to anyone who wanted or needed them.
Hull was the first to notice something wasn't quite right early in the summer of '07. Stroughter had just lost three uncles, most notably Kenneth Hill, the man who first introduced him to sports. Hill had died in a freak car accident and his death shook Stroughter to the core. Because of a previous commitment, Stroughter couldn't attend the funeral in California.
He beat himself up for not being there, believing he was letting his family down. Hull didn't know the details, but sensed something was wrong. Immediately Hull went to Beavers head coach Mike Riley. "Something's up with Sam," he told Riley. Hull might as well have said something was wrong with Riley's own son, because within days, Riley and his staff were hatching a plan to get the player they loved back.
The phone call came to Scott VanDerbeek one morning late last June from Andrea Brown, Sammie's mother. "Sam's not acting right," she said to Sammie's unofficial godfather, a man Sammie got to know in high school through his son, Jared.
Jared and Sammie met in a gym class at the end of their freshmen year of high school. Their first encounter almost ended with punches. Soon afterward, they became inseparable. "He's like my adopted son," VanDerbeek says. "He grew up in and out of my house."
VanDerbeek called Sammie after talking with his mother, and it quickly became apparent that something wasn't right. So VanDerbeek boarded a plane to Portland, and was in Corvallis by 1 p.m. that day. Sammie was nowhere to be found. Scott tried his apartment first, then went to the football offices. He ran into Nigel Burton, then the cornerbacks coach, who finally admitted no one knew Sammie's whereabouts. "He's MIA," Burton said.
Stroughter's apartment door had been ajar, so VanDerbeek waited inside patiently for five hours until Stroughter got home. When Sammie finally arrived, VanDerbeek instantly knew something was wrong with the young man who'd always been so polite, so considerate.
"He had that distant, far-off look in his eyes," VanDerbeek says. "Making conversation with him was very difficult."
VanDerbeek stayed the night on Stroughter's futon, but didn't sleep. Sammie wandered in and out of his bedroom talking to no one and saying "really off the wall stuff," VanDerbeek says. "That was the only time I was really scared." It was during that night Scott started to wonder if Sammie was on drugs.
The next day, after meeting with the coaching staff, everyone agreed it would be best if Stroughter went home to Sacramento for awhile. But before he left, they wanted to run medical tests.
"Sam, you are doing this, you are signing this consent form," VanDerbeek told Stroughter after getting in his face when he refused to go into a CT scan. Stroughter was so sick of hearing, "We are going to figure out what's wrong with you," that he had started to fight back.
Then in came his teammates and coaches, circling around him and pleading with him to sign the consent form. Brandon Hughes, Sammie's best friend and a Beavers cornerback, was at the forefront. You have to do this, Hughes told him.
Stroughter finally relented, and the Oregon State doctors ran every test they could think of. Everything came back negative, so VanDerbeek and Stroughter headed to California. At the airport Sammie resisted again, refusing to go through the metal detector. "I didn't trust anyone," Stroughter says now. "And anything someone would say I started to overanalyze and ask questions about."
When they finally arrived in Sacramento, Andrea Brown took one look at her baby boy and knew something was wrong. "I was crying because it wasn't my brother," says his sister, Cam Blair. "It was so scary."
It's back. You thought it was gone, thought you had kicked it, but by God if depression, that sly character, hadn't just walked through the door in the form of your baby brother. It mocked and taunted you. "If I can't have you," it whispered in your ear, "then I'll get him."
You had battled it yourself five years ago, when you were 25, for two agonizing years. Two years of drugs and loneliness. You knew the second Sammie walked in what it was. You recognized the faraway look in his eyes, the uneasiness, the way he would pull away from everyone. That's why he would stay with you when he was home for this month, splitting time at your house and at his goddaddy's house. You knew what he was going through. And you knew something else -- he wasn't staying on meds as long as you had.
"See a counselor," you pleaded with him, "talk to someone." You weren't going to let depression destroy your family or your little brother. He was too strong for this. This was the kid who was first in the family to go to college, who had inspired you to start taking college classes. He wasn't going to be brought down by this. He had to let someone in, had to talk about it. You would find a way to get in. You would be strong enough for both of you, until he could do it on his own.