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What Went Wrong in Winthrop?
January 09, 2006
One high school football team, five suicides in three years. Can we learn anything?
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January 09, 2006

What Went Wrong In Winthrop?

One high school football team, five suicides in three years. Can we learn anything?

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Officials now acknowledge that some big mistakes were made after the first two suicides. By allowing St. Hilaire's memorial service to be held in the gym and by putting Jason Marston's NUMBER 12 on the team helmets, the town was unwittingly glorifying the self-inflicted deaths. "The risk is some kids will remember it as the event of the decade," says O'Halloran. "That's extremely frightening."

The Wall of Fame--Coach Stoneton's Peg-Board of clippings, letters and photos remembering football players who'd died young, not just by suicide but in traffic accidents and while serving in uniform--has been removed from the locker room and relocated to the coach's office. "They shouldn't be made into martyrs," says Van Wart, who resigned from the coaching staff this fall when school officials forbade coaches to discuss the suicides with reporters. "They're high school football players. The game's played all over America. It's part of growing up. Someone who takes his own life shouldn't be given recognition, especially in the locker room--no matter how good he was."

Offers to purchase memorials for some of the victims have been politely declined by the school. "The relatives want to leave something behind, some lasting memory," says Despres, "but are you leaving a message that might lead someone else to see suicide as an option? Those are the questions we're asking."

Mercifully, one question they've stopped asking is whether Winthrop's football coaches were somehow at fault. "I've found [they] are an extraordinarily sensitive group of people--very special men who would have been there if those kids had reached out to them," says O'Halloran. Anyone who's talked to Thombs, Van Wart and Stoneton cannot help but be moved by their pain and their anguish over the lack of answers. Even after their players graduated, the coaches mentored them and counseled them through difficult times. But the coaches couldn't stop five of them from taking their own lives.

"They have such a strong support system when they're on the team," says Thombs. "Coaches call them wanting to know where they are at night, why they failed some test, why they didn't show up on time. The team becomes a family for so many of these kids, and suddenly that family's not there."

He shakes his head, awash in sadness. "I've heard people try to pin this on football, how it's a metaphor for a life-and-death struggle. But football's about teamwork. It's about working hard and practicing. You need to be selfless to be a good football player, and suicide is a selfish act."

Thombs has started to feel anger at his former players for taking their own lives, a healthy step in his healing process. It's as if all those pep talks he gave after tough losses--about overcoming adversity, never giving up, believing in yourself and your teammates--had never been heard. He doesn't understand it. None of the coaches do. "I'd have hoped an athlete would have been better prepared for life situations than other kids," says Thombs.

That, according to Coleman, is a myth. "Sports do not have a magical potion that helps kids cope with depression," he says. "Coping with stress can be learned in many venues besides the athletic field. Running a grocery store can teach you as much about life."

Says Thombs, "One thing I've learned is, we're not alone. This state and this nation have a big problem with suicide for males between 17 and 24. I wish I could give other coaches some secret so they'd never have to go through something like this. I guess it's to talk about these issues. To talk to players about looking out for each other."

On Oct. 10 a 21-year-old running back at the University of Pennsylvania, Kyle Ambrogi, killed himself just two days after scoring two touchdowns during Penn's 53-7 rout of Bucknell--one of the best days of his college career. Ambrogi, according to his family, had been suffering from depression. Penn coach Al Bagnoli referred to Ambrogi as "one of our shining lights." He was "a true scholar-athlete, an ambassador for Penn, a tremendous teammate and leader on and off the field." But depression is a patient foe, and the relief Ambrogi felt from his successes on the football field was only temporary.

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