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Jason Marston, Lee St. Hilaire, Mox Donovan, Troy Ellis and now Chad Garwood. What no one knew--what still isn't known--is whether the epidemic had run its course.
Through the summer and into the fall, Winthrop was in crisis mode. "This community is grieving," says Terry Despres, who became the town's superintendent of schools last July. "I coached basketball and soccer for 15 years, and you like to think that sports help young men deal with adversity, keep things in perspective. Those are the things you want sports to do."
A June 23 article in the Kennebec Morning Sentinel described Winthrop as "a town where [football] is king--victories are frequent and the green-and-white clad Ramblers play before unusually large and adoring crowds.... The popularity of football here has led to speculation that the pressure of fan expectations was a hidden factor in the five deaths." Pressure of fan expectations? No one knew what to believe. Focus groups were formed, and suicide prevention personnel were consulted to determine the best course of action.
"No one has definitive answers about how to stop it," says O'Halloran, who helped organize the focus groups, "but exposure to repeated suicide is not a good thing for kids. It does increase the risk. 'Oh, you're from Winthrop. What's the matter with you folks?' It adds to their angst."
"I compare it to a fire started by a spark," says Brian Marston, who gave his mobile phone number to members of the football team so they could call him if they wanted to talk about any problem that cropped up--breakups with girlfriends, speeding tickets, grades. "Jason's suicide was the spark, and that spark will ignite anything around that's so dry it will burn. The fire continues until you put it out, or until there's nothing left that will burn. So when do you say it's over? That's what's hard."
Rumors began to circulate about what may have been going on behind the scenes on the football team. One letter to the editor of a newspaper suggested that steroids were behind the epidemic, since one side effect of steroid use can be depression.
"It was like being kicked when you're down," says Winthrop High athletic director Eric Turner. "If you saw our football team, there's not a lot of Barry Bondses out there. People in this town aren't overly indulgent when it comes to our football team. We have an academic-eligibility rule. They like to see their kids do well, but I don't see this as a pressure cooker."
Others, however, saw the criticism of Winthrop's athletic culture as long overdue. "We have an obsession with sports in Winthrop that's unhealthy at times," says one former member of the Winthrop school board, Maureen Calcagni, who runs a fitness center in town. "I once suggested that we cut back on the football program to save money, and the then superintendent told me if I ever proposed that again, I'd have to be escorted home by the police. You had some good athletes in town who were idolized to the point that it must have seemed they'd reached the pinnacle of their lives at 17. We write articles about them and put their pictures and plaques on the wall, but when they're not the star players anymore and start to develop family problems and other problems, they can't cope."
Big fish leaves small pond: It happens all the time in America, but suicide prevention experts don't consider that a particular risk. "If someone feels they're not living up to their own or others' expectations, that can be a warning sign," O'Halloran says, "but kids from all over this country who come from rural towns struggle through that."
Still, the stress induced by failure is one of the risk factors suicide prevention experts look for, and it is generally true that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. "Two groups of people are most at risk for suicide clusters: overachievers and underachievers," says Coleman. "We've made our high school athletes into celebrities. And celebrities--movie stars, musicians, athletes--are perhaps more at risk than the general population. If our big local hero can [kill himself], it puts the thought of the act in someone else's head who may have never considered suicide before. And if you romanticize suicide by having services in the gym or the high school auditorium, the copycats just roll in. There's a difference between glorifying a death and grieving. Having young classmates come into that gym and look at the casket is just horrific."