Wednesday, April 28, 2010
To Owen Thomas
You never knew me. Granted, you were never a player on Lehigh's football team (even though you were from Parkland High school, which made you a local boy), so you probably wouldn't have seen too much of my stuff.
But you came close to coming to Lehigh, and as a national columnist on college football I had followed the progress of your team, the Penn Quakers, very closely.
Your decision to end your own life, Owen Thomas, defensive end for the Penn Quakers, has made me very sad.
I don't know if it's a good idea to write this blog posting at all. Perhaps I'm glorifying your decision to end your own life, even though I don't mean to. Can I make sense of it? No way. But I have this large sadness inside of me that I hope brings something to the world about your death. So here goes. (more)
I don't know a lot about you, Owen Thomas. What I can say, though, that it is very obvious that you were one intense kid.
You were a two-way player at Parkland, playing tight end and linebacker. For really talented players, playing both ways in high school is not all that uncommon.
What must have been uncommon, though, is that you were maintaining Division I football talent and you obviously were an exceptional student, too. Narrowing your college choices to Lehigh's engineering program and Penn's business school meant you were going to using football to pursue two of the most rewarding undergraduate programs in the country.
You went for the best, and nobody can blame you for that.
It must have been tough for you to choose Penn, where your brother had played a couple years before. You'd be in your brothers' shadow, sorta, even though your brother's career in football would be short. But in the end, it's the Ivy League. The best. It's hard to do much better than Wharton academically, and football would pay for your education.
While you were making your final visits, you probably had heard about FB Kyle Ambrogi, and how he decided to end his life after one of his games - and how it tore apart the football family at Penn.
You may not have known him - probably not - but there's no way you didn't know about what happened. It doesn't make your decision any less inexcusable, and it makes me mad. It's not like you didn't have any idea that this would happen in the wake of your death.
You knew, damn it.
You must have known that life at Penn would not be easy. You probably heard from your brother what you were getting into. Balancing Division I athletics and world-class business undergraduate work must have been very hard work. Sure, you could transfer out of Wharton and take something easier, something different. But you'd probably never want to be seen as a guy who was backing down from anything.
On the football team, after a sophomore year of spot duty, last fall you thrived. You had playing time. You had an Ivy League championship. You were a second-team all-Ivy League player, with a promising senior year looming ahead.
I didn't mention you in my Ivy League preview in 2009, but you certainly would have been mentioned this coming year. You were second in the Ivy League in sacks, with six. You were going to be a huge part of the returning corps of defensive players that shut down the rest of the Ivy League offenses last year. You were just elected a co-captain - something some kids only can dream of their entire lives.
But something, somewhere, everything went wrong.
I can't even begin to explain what it is that prompted you to do this.
Your mother said that somewhere your "intensity spiral went downward". Apparently, you struggled with your schoolwork - something that most mortals would struggle with, at Penn.
The responsibilities of being a leader on the football team - as well as the struggle in schoolwork, perceived or otherwise - must have weighed heavily on you. Becoming a captain must be a transformative experience - after looking to others the three prior years, all of a sudden it's you who will be looked to. I can see the pressure.
Your mom said as much, too, in different interviews. "He was worried about getting a job in the summer. He was made captain so now he felt responsible to set high standards for the team. I never imagined it would suddenly turn so bad. He was a very self-directed person, and usually his self-direction led him to excel in things, but that intensity and self-direction has a dark side. He put huge expectations on himself and just impossibly couldn't live up to them … and wouldn't let other people give him an appropriate perspective.”
But being a team captain was nothing new for you. At Parkland, you were team captain too. Your teammates knew you, and looked up to you.
Did you lock up? Did you shut everyone out? Family? Coaches? Teammates? Girlfriend? Did you somehow think that you wouldn't live up to the high expectations made of you? That you hadn't?
Was football tied to your scholarship? If you hadn't made the grade, would your scholarship be gone? Did finance enter into this at all?
You were a man of faith, and you were the son of two ministers, so you must have had conversations with God. Was there something else, something you couldn't have told anybody?
I have no idea what it could have been that caused you to do this, and we're unlikely to ever unravel the mystery. All I can do is speculate. I almost have to, in order to try to make some sense out of it.
I don't know a lot, Owen Thomas, but what I do know is that you have a lot of people that love you, even if you didn't meet those sky-high expectations. If you had a problem, they could have worked it out. I am sad for you, Owen Thomas, and sad for those that knew you and cared about you.
But at the same time, Owen Thomas, I'm mad. You had to have known what this would do. I mean, right before the football banquet, that couldn't have been coincidence. You would have been announced as senior co-captain.
It wouldn't just tear Penn apart. It will also tear apart your family at Parkland, and even cause complete strangers to take time to try to put your life in some sort of perspective. Senior QB Marc Quilling of Lafayette was rocked as well. ''He was a leader on and off the field. Every single person I know looks up to him,'' he said. ''He had everything going for him.''
Dammit, Owen Thomas, I'd have written about you whether you took your own life or not.
I guess what prompts me to write about you, Owen Thomas, is that there have to be a lot of other people out there just like you. (And not just me.) Kids in school, intense, that may not reach out when they need some help, no matter what it might be. I have to believe in any high-academic environment - Ivy League, Patriot League or NESCAC - it's got to be a risk that all the pressures will all seem too much to bear.
Your own coach, Al Bagnoli, even said after Ambrogi's death: "You're dealing with robust 22-year-old kids who seem invincible. You're always around them, so we think we're invincible. You get jolted back to reality, and realize how fragile everything is."
Sometimes, though, you're not invincible. Sometimes worry takes over, and sometimes there's pressure that it's all just too much. And if it does, just seek help somewhere. Anywhere. From a friend, a professional, a message board. Somewhere.
Please. Don't fool us.