Stroughter's long road back (cont.)
Just as depression had circled around Stroughter, so too did his family and friends. But this was a much stronger circle, one that could out-muscle the demons Stroughter faced. This child, as the saying goes, had been raised by a village, and that village came out in full force when Sammie moved home for a month.
His high school coach, Ernie Cooper, stayed in constant contact and said one thing repeatedly: "I love you and it doesn't matter what's going on, we'll find a way to fix it." Riley, Hull and the rest of the Oregon State staff talked with someone from the Stroughter camp at least once every two days, concerned much more about their player's health than if he was ready to return to the field. Jared VanDerbeek, home for the summer after playing football at Cal, sat with his best friend every-day, just to let him know he was there.
Andrea Brown was there, too. Her son may have been 21 years old, but she knew more than anyone that her boy needed his mama. She stayed with the VanDerbeeks for awhile, sometimes falling asleep in Sammie's room. "Of course I was petrified," Brown says now. "But I couldn't let him know that."
For the first couple weeks, Stroughter didn't talk. But slowly he started to trust people again. He went on antidepressants, and started to come around bit by bit. Besides all the love and affection from family members, Stroughter found solace in his church.
"We aren't talking about church," Stroughter says, pausing with that glint in his eye, "we are talking about church. That kind of church that gets down into your bones! That cleans your soul! That love and empathy, where you get touched, where you feel like a new person!"
Stroughter's family had always believed in the power of prayer, and it came through when they needed it most. "Oh my God -- there were people praying for him all over the country," his mother says.
The deceiving thing about Stroughter is that he's always so joyful and outgoing many don't see how much he takes on, how much he burdens himself with others' pain and problems. His senior year of high school, after Granite Bay had lost its first two games, Stroughter felt responsible. The Grizzlies were coming off an outstanding season, and Stroughter didn't feel he was doing what he should to lead them. One morning at a team breakfast, he stood up and addressed his teammates.
"I'm gonna tell you guys right now, we're better than we're showing," he said. "This season is turning around right now. I'm gonna do everything I can, and I'm gonna play my tail off for you, our coaches and our community. I'm gonna have the best game of my career tonight."
Cooper stared at his assistant coaches. Where the hell did this come from, they wondered. Sammie wasn't a vocal leader. "Guess I don't need to do a pregame speech," Cooper muttered.
Stroughter delivered on his promise: he caught seven balls for 100 yards, rushed for 100 yards, and had punt returns of 24 and 30 yards. "He was a man possessed," Cooper says. "We couldn't take him off the field. And BAM! Just like that, we won nine-straight games. I still get goosebumps when I think about it."
Stroughter's biggest burden during his depression was the guilt he felt for missing his uncle Kenneth Hill's funeral. He was worried he'd abandoned Kenneth's wife, Yvonne, when she needed her family most.
"Sammie's always felt like he had to be perfect," says his mother. "He bears the weight of the world on his shoulders and we had to tell him it was OK, that he doesn't have to feel responsible for everything. When Yvonne started to pull through and she told him it was OK he wasn't at the funeral, it was like this huge weight off him."
After five weeks at home, Stroughter decided he wanted to go back to Corvallis.
This one is on you, too. It doesn't matter that technically you're only half-brothers, he needs someone and without a second thought. You volunteer to be there. He needs someone to come home to every-day, and you may be 30 and enrolled in school, but you'll go. You'll go live with him and drive him everywhere, be his security blanket when he gets scared and clams up. You'll be the strong one again.
So you move to Corvallis, start taking classes at Linn Benton Community College, take him to practice when he wants to go and tell him it's OK when he says he can't handle it today. You pray with him every-day, reciting the serenity prayer, and sit at the coaches' houses for dinner, becoming a part of the brotherhood that is Oregon State football, the brotherhood Sammie had always loved. You're part of it now, too.
And every-day, so many times that you lose count, you grab your baby brother in a hug, hold him close, look him in the eyes and say something over and over again, as many times as you have to, until it finally sinks in -- "We are gonna get through this together."
Stroughter arrived back on campus the second day of camp last fall, and instantly received devastating news: Jim Gilstrap, who had recruited him, had died suddenly after having complications during surgery for intestinal cancer. Stroughter's family and friends had received word of Gilstrap's death in late July, but decided to keep it from Sammie, fearing a relapse in his depression.
"Coach Gilly, he was my boy," Stroughter says. That might seem strange because Gilly was 65 and white and Sammie is 22 and black, but then it comes out that Gilly was a closet fan of the television network BET -- "I gotta be with it," he would tell his teenage daughters and wife, who would roll their eyes -- and that he learned all the college slang and picked up on secret handshakes so any player could feel like they could talk to him.
"The first time Coach Gilly walked in our house, he and Sammie had a rapport right away," Andrea Brown says.
"He was a pillar in my life," Stroughter says. "It was hard to lose him."
Stroughter spent a month in a fog, as the OSU medical staff integrated their treatment with the treatment he had received in California. Every-day, his brother says he begged the medical staff to reduce the dosage. He didn't want his baby brother, the boy Andrea Brown had raised to be a strong, independent man, to become dependent on substances.
The media was asked to leave Stroughter alone, and until recently, no one would confirm he was suffering from clinical depression. He went through practices half-heartedly, deciding to play in the Beavers' second game against Cincinnati. But it was hardly the player he was. He didn't catch a pass in the game and dropped a punt. Two games later at Arizona State, a lacerated kidney sidelined him for the season.
"The Lord had decided it wasn't my time to play and he was telling me, 'I'm gonna sit you down and you're gonna like it,'" Stroughter says. "I had to be able to adapt if football was taken away from me. Now, I know even without football, I'll be happy."
Stroughter still has football for another season after being granted a hardship by the NCAA. Beavers fans hope he brings back the same exuberance he had before.
"He brings a true joy to everyone's life and to our team," Riley said. "He has a unique magnetism that draws everyone to him."
Stroughter has been off antidepressants for a few months and to see him now, one would never guess the loneliness and fear he felt last spring. This was never more evident than a few months ago, at Zion Lutheran School, where Stroughter was the star of show-and-tell.
Jordan Hull is Lee Hull's 7-year-old son and says matter-of-factly, "Sammie is my best friend." They enjoy playing Power Rangers and hide-and-seek tag, and Sammie is the only person in the world that calls Jordan "J-Man."
Sammie surprised Jordan at show-and-tell and was an instant hit, surrounded by kids and teachers, who begged for autographs, pictures and high-fives.
It was a similar scene after OSU's spring game when Stroughter made his way to the locker room. "You're my favorite Beaver!" a boy yelled out to Stroughter. He smiled, and ran over to high-five the little fan. "Sammie, it's good to have you back," said another, slapping Stroughter on the shoulder. Stroughter nodded in agreement. It took a year, but with love and support, Stroughter is back indeed.