How Many Players Must Die Before Pro Sports Wake Up?

By Steve Palumbo

(I originally wrote this after the death of Rick Rypien. Now in lieu of recent events surrounding the loss of Wade Belak, I am re-posting an updated version…)

In less than four months the NHL has lost three of their own, Derek Boogard, Rick Rypien and now Wade Belak. The circumstances around each man’s death vary but the tragedy is very much the same and unfortunately more and more common.

It’s easy for me to question how this could happen to men that were seemingly living out a childhood dream. It’s easy to question because I’ve never walked a step in their shoes. Shoes many of these athletes can’t walk in themselves. I have however felt the sting from losing somebody whom I perceived as infallible.

When I first heard the news of Rypien’s untimely demise I was instantly brought back to when I was 18 years old. Just a few weeks after I graduated high school a close friend of mine hung himself in his garage. His death was my first experience with losing someone close to me.

His passing left me shaken and confused. It’s so cliche to say, but out of all my friends he was the last person that I would have ever suspected of doing this. He was an excellent student and an amazing sculptor. He wanted to work in the movie industry doing special effects make-up for horror movies. His talent was more than just a glorified hobby it was a true gift and I looked up to him.

Moreover, he came from a wealthy family. His father had once been a member of the city council and was well respected in the community. He and his dad were very close and it was his father that found him dangling from that rope. At his feet lay a note that basically said he couldn’t live with the idea of “disappointing” his father.

As I replayed the days before and after my friends suicide I began to draw comparisons between his situation and that of pro-athletes like Rypien and Belak.

Athletes are perceived as superhuman. In reality the pressures they’ve faced throughout life are far greater than some can handle. Just because you can catch a football or shoot a puck does not mean your mentally tough enough to handle the difficulties of everyday life. Some players, like Rypien, battle depression throughout their entire careers. Other players, like Belak, struggle with life after the end of a career. They battle the after effects of a career full of concussions, substance abuse and mental health issues. Once they are left to their own devises, they self-destruct.

Athletes are seen as strong willed and head strong. They are looked upon to persevere in the toughest mental and physical conditions. It’s difficult for most of us to fathom that people with as much talent as a professional athlete could feel so vulnerable and alone. More often than not it’s the pressure of living up to those expectations that causes them to break down.

I was surprised at the number of athletes that have gone down the path of self destruction. Tragically it’s more common than most people think. Former NFL players like Philadelphia Eagles’ Andre Waters, Chicago Bears Safety Dave Duerson, Denver Broncos’ Kenny Mckinley and more recently ex-MLB pitcher Hideki Irabu are all part of an ever growing list of professional athletes that took their own lives.

Sadly these athletes keep their demons hidden deep inside and without the proper help it eats at them until they can’t deal with the pain any longer. Most of the time nobody knows anything is wrong until it’s too late, as was the case with my friend. It’s almost as if suicide is easier than admitting you have a weakness.

While Boogard, Rypien and Belak are the latest to make headlines, I fear they won’t be the last. The insane part is it doesn’t have to be that way. This is becoming an epidemic and it must be aggressively combated.

The NHL has begun developing a program to help their players cope with their issues. Unless all the major sporting leagues take immediate action to make their players mental health during and after their playing careers a top priority the problem will not go away.

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