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The suspected suicide of James Dungy, the 18-year-old son of Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, two weeks ago shocked the nation. But it was hardly an isolated case. Suicide is the ninth-leading cause of death in the U.S., but it is the third-leading cause among people aged 15 to 24. In 2001, the latest year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has statistics, 3,971 people in the 15-to-24 age group committed suicide, and 86% of them were male. While little is definitively known about the link between athletic participation and adolescent suicide, preliminary data show that young people who are highly involved in athletics are less likely to consider or attempt suicide than nonathletes, but they are far more likely than nonathletes to either kill themselves or be seriously injured if they do attempt it. In short, an emotionally troubled athlete is more dangerous to himself than an emotionally troubled nonathlete. � No community in America knows this better than Winthrop, Maine, a small town that has become a focal point in the study of adolescent suicide and its relationship to athletics. As the townspeople enter 2006, they are still searching for answers as they work through their grief.
The first suicide was the most puzzling. Jason Marston, a bubbly 15-year-old, loyal to his friends and popular with his teammates, became distraught after he had an argument with his girlfriend of nine months. After school that day he stayed in his room with the door shut, and when his father, Brian, went to wake him the next morning, Jason was gone. Seeing footprints in the snowbank below the bedroom window, Brian assumed Jason had sneaked over to a friend's house. It was Jason's 12-year-old sister who found him in the backyard. He'd taken a .22 pistol from the garage--he and his father had used it often for target practice--and killed himself with a shot to the head. It was April 10, 2003.
Jason had a stable family life, no history of depression and no problem with drugs or alcohol. By any traditional measure he was not "at risk," though suicide experts say that the younger the victim, the less likely there will be obvious warning signs. "Younger kids are very impulsive by nature," says Sue O'Halloran, a suicide-prevention educator for the state of Maine who lives in Jason's hometown of Winthrop. "These are snap decisions: 'I'm mad at the world.' 'I'll show her.' As we mature, suicide becomes less impulsive."
Brian Marston says his son had a streak of daredevil in him. He cites the time that Jason, at age 11, jumped off a railway trestle some 30 feet into Maranacook Lake, a rite of passage in Winthrop. "But he wasn't foolish crazy," Brian says. "Maybe he wanted to bring himself right next to suicide to see how it felt when he put that gun to his head, and something startled him. We'll never know. Maybe it was brought on by the dismalness of winter. Maine's long winters have an effect on all of us."
Winthrop is, by most measures, a wonderful place to live. It's a relatively crime-free, middle-class town set amid lakes and ponds in the rolling hills of central Maine, six miles west of the state capital, Augusta. Many grow up there and never leave. At Jason's funeral, in Winthrop's Catholic church, Brian gave the eulogy while wearing his son's NUMBER 12 Winthrop High football jersey. The next season team members wore NUMBER 12 stickers on their helmets, and Brian watched the games wearing Jason's jersey. Jason had been an undersized safety and wide receiver and seldom played in games, but "football was special to him," Brian says. "He was proud to be a member of that team. He had a good relationship with the coach."
The second suicide, 10 months later, on Feb. 17, 2004, really shook the town. Twenty-year-old Lee St. Hilaire, probably the best high school football player ever to come out of Winthrop, shot himself in the belly with a shotgun in Bangor, where he shared an apartment with his longtime girlfriend. It made the front page of Augusta's newspaper, The Kennebec Journal. Maine loves its high school football, and St. Hilaire had quarterbacked the Winthrop Ramblers to a 35-6 record as a starter between 1998 and 2001, leading them to the Class C (fewer than 500 students) state championship in 2000.
St. Hilaire was also the alltime leading scorer on the Ramblers' hockey team, but Winthrop was, at its core, a football town. Its fiercest rivalries--with Jay, Lisbon, Livermore Falls and Boothbay--dated to before World War II. Grandfathers, fathers and sons had all played against the same schools on the same fields. People came from all over central Maine to see St. Hilaire play, as many as 4,000 people at some games, an extraordinary number for a town with a population of 6,238. St. Hilaire was a classic pocket passer, throwing for 8,272 yards and 90 touchdowns in his career. In 2001 he became the first Class C football player to win the James Fitzpatrick Trophy, which goes to the best high school football player in Maine.
"They called him the Silent General because he never spoke very much," says Norm Thombs, Winthrop's coach during the St. Hilaire years. "He had a pro football arm--he once completed a pass that went 72 yards in the air--but not a pro football body. Lee was only 6 feet tall and wasn't fast. A lot of people in town didn't think he'd make it at the next level, and he may have thought he had something to prove."
St. Hilaire's parents divorced when he was in 4th grade, and while he was never in serious trouble, he was an undisciplined child. In high school St. Hilaire moved in with the family of his girlfriend, Tia Pomerleau. His friends note that, although he wore a constant smile, he was defensive about the way he was perceived in the community. "There are still some people who think I'm going to fail," he said in a newspaper profile. "I want to go to college and do something with my life. I want to prove those people wrong."
St. Hilaire won a football scholarship to Maine and was redshirted his freshman year. It wasn't long before he became disenchanted. Division I sports were too structured for him. He didn't like curfews and being told when he couldn't go home. "We talked every couple of weeks, and Maine just wasn't a good fit," says Thombs, who's the executive director of a United Methodist Church camp and retreat center. "I tried to convince him to stay, but he hated living on campus. He wanted to get back to where football was fun."