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Garwood was one of those young men who seemed to have everything going for him. He starred on both the football and the basketball teams and was a top student. He was admitted to Colby, one of the most selective colleges in Maine. At 6'1" and 200 pounds, he had the size to play at the next level, too. "In addition to being a great receiver, he was by far the best free safety I ever coached," says Art Van Wart, who was an assistant at Winthrop for 13 years. "You couldn't ask for a better kid to coach. He was very methodical and low-key, not at all impulsive. He didn't jump around on defense hooting and hollering, but he took care of business out there, and he made up for the mistakes and weaknesses of others."
As it turned out, Colby was too difficult academically for Garwood. While he made the football team his freshman year, he struggled with his grades and was not invited back for his sophomore year. "That bothered Chad more than any of us knew," says Van Wart, "and he was heartbroken over his parents' [separation]. I got a call from the school nurse, Jackie Kempton, whose husband had been on the Winthrop coaching staff, suggesting I give Chad a call. We talked for a long time, and he gave me the assurance he could handle things."
Coach Thombs, too, talked to Garwood. "We were all worried about him," Thombs says. "He was definitely a hurting kid. He didn't share his emotions much. He was always concerned with other people, but if you tried to turn the subject to him, he'd clam right up. By that time I was asking questions as point-blank as you can, and on the way to one of his sister's basketball games, I said to him, 'If you ever think about hurting yourself, promise me you'll call me.' He looked me in the eye and said, 'Don't worry, Coach. I'm not going to do something like that.'"
Suicide experts note that "hurting yourself" is the wrong euphemism to use with a person who's at risk. "Killing yourself is about getting away from the pain," says Loren Coleman, author of two books on the subject, Suicide Clusters and The Copycat Effect. "They want to live, but they don't want to live in pain. So they can talk about not hurting themselves, because in their minds [suicide is] about stopping the hurt."
Garwood seemed more concerned about his father than about himself. "He'd call me and say, 'Don't do anything stupid, Dad,'" Steve recalls. "I was the one everyone was focused on. And I'd say the same thing back to him because he never sounded happy. There's a misconception that you can stop someone who's considering suicide by convincing him of the trail of devastation he'll leave behind. My son recognized the trail of devastation at every funeral he attended, but that didn't stop him."
Chad had enrolled at the University of Southern Maine, which didn't have a football team. He told his father he'd moved on and didn't care about football, but his Winthrop coaches sensed he wasn't ready to end his athletic career. Steve noticed that Chad, who was a model of good behavior in high school, had been drinking heavily since Christmas. Chad rented an apartment in Portland with some pals and got a job at Boater's World. After finishing work the night of June 10, he and some friends went to a party, where he drank a six-pack of beer.
"At 1:30 a.m. a friend drove him back to the house," Steve says. "He was joking and seemed his normal self. No one else was home, and he called his girlfriend to ask if he could go over to her place, but she had to be up early the next day. It wasn't a serious relationship. The next day when his roommate came home, he found Chad hanging in the closet. He'd used his belt, putting his head through the loop and twisting himself around so many times the police said it cut into his neck. His feet were actually touching the ground. He had us all fooled."
It was the third suicide of 2005 by a recent Winthrop graduate, and the fifth in 26 months by a Ramblers football player under the age of 24. The statistical likelihood of that happening in such a small pool of young men is infinitesimal. In Maine, which has a higher-than-average suicide rate, about 20 to 25 young people between ages 15 and 24--about one per 6,600--commit suicide in a typical year. Winthrop's high school had only 340 students, and fewer than 50 of them played football.
But statistics are meaningless when it comes to suicide clusters. In February 1986 the small town of Spencer, Mass. (pop. 11,000), was gripped by a suicide contagion and, according to The Copycat Effect, in the next two months 18 high school students made a total of 25 attempts on their own lives, resulting in one death and five hospitalizations. The one fatality, perhaps not coincidentally, was a football player.
"Males tend to think about something and then do it," says Coleman, citing statistics from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control showing that while females attempt suicide three times as often as males, men actually die by suicide four times as often as women. "Football players may be exactly the pool of young men who wouldn't talk about suicide, they'd just do it. They're action oriented."