The news that Tito Lee had committed suicide traveled through the Nashville area in a hurry. He shot himself at 10 a.m. on Aug. 3, and by noon most of the members of the 1996 Brentwood Academy football team had heard the details. One kid called another, and in no time at all the invincibility of youth was gone. Just like that.
"No more than a week ago, I was talking with B.J. Jordan about Tito," former Brentwood tailback Hunter Adkins says. "B.J. said—and I agreed—that, of all of us, Tito was the one who always would be happy. No matter what he did in life, Tito would be happy. Then to have this.... That's the scary thing."
Tito Lee? Dead?
Nothing could make less sense. He was the star. The captain. At 5'10" and 210 pounds, he was the best player on the best high school team in the state—Tennessee 5-A (large school) champions for two straight years. He was the fullback who scored 21 touchdowns as a senior. He was even better as a linebacker, a four-year starter at the position. As a freshman, in the state final, he took a kickoff on his own five against Cleveland High, and, though the return was set to go right, with all the blockers sent to that side, Tito bounced left and somehow, on his own, went 95 yards for the touchdown. "Uh, Coach?" he said to assistant coach Ray Dalton when he got back to the bench. "You can tell 'em I was supposed to do that. O.K.?"
Dead? He was 19 years old. Who had a better smile, especially with that gold tooth? Who had an easier disposition, a bigger heart, more charisma? Lee should be a sophomore at a big-time college now, out on the practice field, drilling people and then picking them up and laughing about it.
"He was the best player this school has ever had," Adkins says. "Ask anyone. A kid from the class in front of us, Richard Land, went to the University of Texas. He's huge, 6'7", 320 pounds. I talked to him after his first season at Texas. I asked him about the hits in Division I. Richard said nobody at Texas hit like Tito. Nobody came close."
The cold statistic is that in the U.S. a young person between the ages of 15 and 24 kills himself or herself every hour and 49 minutes. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death, after accidents, of Americans between the ages of 15 and 19. The suicide rate for black males in that age group has increased 146% since 1980, to 13-78 per 100,000. Tito Lee, the best of the best, was never supposed to be part of these numbers.
Then again, maybe nobody is. The statistics on suicide are general, but the tragedy always is in the specifics.
"I had lunch with him about three months ago," Brentwood coach Carlton Flatt says. "I tracked him down. He'd been staying away, sort of avoiding the school, not answering phone messages, and I wanted to stay in touch. We had a nice lunch, talking about all kinds of things. I didn't put any pressure on him—asking what he was going to do next, things like that. I wanted it to be easy.
"I've been in this business a long time, and I've seen that kids click in—become serious—at different ages, different times. I guess I was waiting for Tito to click in. I probably spent more time with him than with any child I've ever coached. I wanted to back off. I think now, maybe I should have pressed, maybe.... I don't know. That's the thing that happens. You question yourself. What if I'd done this or that?"