A year after suicide of Penn football player, many questions remain (cont.)
When a preschool teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, Owen said, "The boss in charge." When his arm popped out of his socket as a tot, he fought the x-ray technician so hard, the bone jerked back into place. And when his siblings were old enough to play football, Owen insisted on practicing with them. "We made up a game called Pop-the-Tart," Morgan says. "He was the tart." Owen relished the contact. Morgan estimates Owen gave him 20 or 30 stitches in their youth, over the course of maybe a half-dozen incidents.
All that ever seemed to bother Owen was losing. Defeat in a video game could spell irreparable damage to the hand-held controller. Various mundane frustrations -- from school-related strife to electronic equipment that wouldn't cooperate -- occasionally resulted in a broken glass or two. Kathy remembers a play from a league semifinal game when Owen was in middle school. The opponent needed a short fourth-down conversion, and the running back swept wide, toward Owen's side of the defensive line.
"He just leaped up into this huge tackle and hit this guy," she says. "It was one of those plays where the offense says to itself, 'It's not worth it. We're not gonna kill ourselves.'" She pauses, allowing herself a dark chuckle, then a sigh. "We had to take him to the emergency room after that," she says.
Owen's older brothers played hard, but only he competed, as a Penn coach put it later, "like his hair was on fire." During his first year on the Parkland High team, on which Morgan was already a 300-pound offensive lineman, Owen got pushed around. When he returned the next season to play defensive end, muscles twitching beneath his pads, no one could keep him out of the backfield.
By the time Owen arrived at Penn, some of his teammates had already done some scouting on Facebook. "He looked like an absolute madman, with this crazy samurai haircut and long red hair," says Dave Kuncio, Owen's teammate and close friend, now a senior kicker at Penn. "But when he got here, he talked to everyone like he'd known them for five years. Strong handshake, super nice. He was never one of those quiet leaders."
Within weeks, the entire recruiting class knew who their captain would be three years down the road. Even in his academic work at the Wharton School -- where cutthroat students have been known to rip pages out of library books to prevent classmates from studying after them -- Owen was well-liked. Management professor Jennifer Mueller said last year that Owen had the "Wharton trifecta: smarts, confidence, and people skills."
"His groups," she added, "tended to win."
Owen played sparingly as a freshman, a bit more as a sophomore, and blossomed into the team leader in sacks as Penn won the Ivy title in his junior year. His parents attended as many games as they could, though his brother Morgan's games at nearby East Stroudsburg University often forced them to split time. Still, they saw Owen frequently in his early college years. His longtime girlfriend attended Millersville University in Lancaster, Pa., and he often stopped home when he went to visit her.
"It was nice, but in a way, we didn't really know who Owen was in college," Kathy says. "We only saw snippets that he chose to show us."
It was strange, Mike Fay remembers, sweet, but unsettling. Fay was Owen's classmate and teammate at Parkland, and though the two spoke less and less once Fay migrated to Ohio for college, they remained best friends. This particular call came in November 2009, and began like most of the rest: comparing football seasons. At one point, they happened upon what Fay thought was a patch of comfortable silence.
"Hey," Owen said. "Promise me you'll always be my best friend." Fay said he would, then filed the conversation away for five months.
Kathy remembers an odd conversation she had with Owen early in the spring semester of his junior year. He had recently broken up with the high school girlfriend he'd so often visited. "He said girls at Penn only cared about money," she says. "It was so hard and cynical. I thought, 'That's just not Owen.' But what are you going to do, call up the university psychologist and say my son's been stereotyping girls?"
Each spring at Penn's business school, the junior class begins on-campus recruiting -- a months-long game of résumé-shuffling and networking during which students score the summer internships that often turn into lucrative full-time jobs. It was a game Owen was losing. Due in large part to his football commitments, his grades lagged -- "He'd work his ass off for a C+," says Kuncio -- and consequently he remained without an offer well into the spring. Kathy, unemployed at the time, called her son to tell him, "You know, you're gonna have to get something."
"Then he told me he'd been sending out 80 letters a day," she says. "He must have felt so much pressure."
By March, friends noticed Owen had been losing weight. Weeks later, he stopped showing up for team lifting sessions. After the spring game on April 10, Tom saw firsthand how overwhelmed Owen had become with schoolwork and his bleak job prospects. When the votes for captain were announced -- 73 of 82 players had scribbled Owen's name on their ballots, according to coach Al Bagnoli -- Owen seemed ambivalent, say friends and family. "He put the team on his shoulders," Kuncio says. "Especially with those numbers, it was like, 'These kids are really depending on me to lead.'"
On April 25, Owen called home to wish his mother a happy birthday. His father grabbed the phone to speak with him afterward. "The quiver in his voice was something that wasn't Owen at all," Tom says. "He said to me, 'Dad, I'm failing everything, I'm failing everything.'"
The next week, at the memorial service, one of Owen's roommates approached the parents: Owen had struggled academically in the spring, he told them, but had never been in serious danger of failing any classes. The family also met the VP of a Philadelphia management firm that day. He came to tell them that he had planned to hire their son.
Kathy Brearley thought her son would be the control case, a clean sample to give statistical significance to the BU study. In the weeks following Owen's death, his parents tried to lose themselves in prayer. Morgan barely slept or ate, obsessed with finding a cause for his brother's suicide. "I was trying to be a goddamn detective," Morgan says. "At one point, I thought there was a conspiracy against him from the football team." Kathy, too, sought an explanation for her son's act. Some were sensible enough. She recalled those vignettes from the spring, assigning meaning in hindsight -- the bad grades, the poor job prospects, the girl trouble, the pressure of the captaincy.
But Kathy's mind wouldn't rest. At various times, she convinced herself that Owen was a drug mule, a degenerate gambler, gay. She also read blog postings about her son's passing. One commenter wrote, "This boy's mother's a pastor. I bet it's got something to do with that." Says Kathy, "I'm like Owen. I don't care what people think. But imagine if you were a person who did?"
When the researchers briefed the family on their findings in late summer, Kathy didn't hesitate to make the information public. She realized that CTE awareness advocates were feeling a tailwind -- aided by a rash of early-season NFL concussions and a looming Congressional hearing. Owen Thomas, the doctors said, would represent a tipping point. What better legacy could her son leave for future generations of football families?
Kathy also wanted to dismiss any notion that her son suffered from "classic" depression. "It was hard not to be angry at people putting Owen in that category," she says. "CTE was vindication."
Donna Ambrogi sought no vindication. Her son Kyle, once a star running back and affable team leader at Penn, was in "that category." In October 2005, four games into his best season, he shot himself in the basement of the family's home. He was 21.
"You're a parent. You're supposed to fix it. You're supposed to make sure everything's OK with your kid," says Donna, who says recent CTE research has not altered her perspective on her son's death. "You can't get so enmeshed in the 'why' that it consumes your life. It doesn't bring him back."
Kathy has spoken to Ambrogi, and remains grateful for her support over the past year, but she is sure to note Kyle's "history of depression" -- no more extensive, by any accounts, than Thomas' -- whenever a comparison is suggested.
It is true that Owen's spot on the defensive line left him more vulnerable to repeated head trauma, the primary cause of CTE. But as Cantu points out, the disorder has been found in linemen and "skill-position" players alike.
"The samples donated to us are horribly skewed because they've all died," Cantu says. It is entirely possible, in other words, that many former athletes --even in advanced age -- are asymptomatic sufferers. Determining prevalence later in life, according to Cantu, is the next frontier of CTE research.
Can there be any doubt that grieving is more complicated when the survivors themselves are hunting for answers? After Owen's death, Donna Ambrogi was asked to speak to his teammates. She shared with them a poem by Iris Bolton, a copy of which she still carries in her purse. "I don't know why," it begins. "I'll never know why. I don't have to know why."
But some survivors must try. Tom and Morgan Thomas have already spoken to Cantu's colleagues. Their minds are made up. They've pledged their brains to the cause.
It is spring football season again at Penn, an annual exercise in optimism. Even a full season, a championship season, removed from losing their captain, the specter of Owen Thomas' story is impossible for the team to escape. All players are now well versed in the signs of depression, and what to do when they see them. "I didn't know how it was with people who are suicidal," says Kuncio, set to graduate in May. "Owen had that captain mentality. 'Rally the troops!' You don't always see an obvious change in personality."
In the year since his brother's death, Morgan has decided he will become a football coach. He has already set his first two rules: 1) Don't be afraid to tell me anything, 2) Never lead with your head.
And Kathy Brearley has become the leader of a new congregation. Since her speech before Congress last September, parents from all over the country, grieving the sudden loss of a loved one, have written to her. "We can make all kinds of horrible things come out of this," Kathy says. "Sue the school. Go down into depression. Kill ourselves. Whatever, whatever.
"But can we make something good?"
Kathy smiles. She has said her piece.
She scoops up the little figurines in front of her, raises them over her shoulders, and carries them, like a torch, back to Owen's bedroom. It remains untouched since his death.