GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Everywhere Eric Hipple goes, a heavy guilt follows. Everyday Hipple travels the country, speaking to students, veterans, athletes and experts about that guilt.
“Part of it I’m trying to make sense of an innocent death because I consider him an innocent death,” Hipple said. “Trying to make sense of an innocent life lost and by doing that, if I can help save lives, through his story and knowledge and learning the things that could’ve saved his life and being able to put that out in front of others, then hopefully a life is saved.”
Hipple remembers vividly the day he got the call. He was out of town, working when the other end of the phone mumbled words no father wants to hear. His 15-year-old son Jeff killed himself.
“When I got the phone call, I can almost feel myself falling into a hole and screaming all the way down,” Hipple said. “There was a couple of friends I was with when I got the phone call that grabbed me, kept me from falling. But it was just, inside, you’re falling. All the strings are cut loose and you’re going down and there’s nothing to grab on to or hang on to. You’re going to hit the bottom sometime. It’s just a free fall, not knowing what’s going to come next, just knowing you’re in a hole.”
Hipple’s fall continued for years after his son’s death. But that hole finally reached the bottom near the end of 58 days in jail. Hipple was serving a DUI charge when he decided to listen to those around him behind bars. He heard similar chatter from the other inmates.
“Not a single one of them had any accountability about why they were there,” Hipple noticed. “It was always somebody else’s fault.”
He says that was a turning point for him — to accept accountability for his choices and there direct affect.
“Everything I have is at least a choice and not a blame,” Hipple said. “That was probably the healing moment, which was, I’m not going to blame Jeff, I’m not going to blame the circumstances, I’m not going to blame God; it’s something that happened but I get to choose what’s next. And so I started looking for answers.”
The blame and guilt Hipple carries is marked by three distinct moments in his life: The death of his son, his own attempt at suicide and the day he was cut from the Lions.
Hipple jumped out of a car at 75 miles an hour on the highway one day. He wrote a note to his wife that said, “I’m sorry, I love you.”
Surprisingly he survived and woke up in the hospital with his parents and a psychiatrist by his side. They wanted to transfer him to the psychiatric wing of the hospital.
“I flat out told my parents, if you ever do that, I’ll never talk to you again,” Hipple said in denial of his suicide attempt. “I don’t need a psychiatrist. So he went away. You just jumped out of a car, I don’t need a psychiatrist?”
To know how he wound up in the hospital bed, Hipple’s history needs to be brought into the picture.
Hipple spent nine years in the NFL. He was the quarterback for the Detroit Lions. In charge of nearly 60 men every day. They looked to him to call the shots, solve the problem and win the game. It was his life and his identity. Then one day that identity began to slip.
“It was mid-season and that day I went to the office and you’re cut and you walk out that door,” Hipple said. “Identity with a uniform, playing a sport, people recognizing you for that, all that stuff is gone. It’s a real tough fall off that cliff to, where do I go now, because the unknown is the most stressful thing there is. And there’s a lot of unknown when you leave the protection of that life.”
It was that unknown and the pressures of work that created the illusion in Hipple’s mind that seven years after being cut the only answer to life was to kill himself.
Three years after his own attempt at suicide, his son Jeff killed himself without ever knowing his father had tried to do the same.
“It was just something that happened. I wasn’t trying to kill myself,” Hipple said about jumping from the car. “I just didn’t want to go to the airport. Silly but it’s funny the things that we create in our head.”
It’s those events in his life that have created how he talks to those students, veterans, athletes and experts each day. He’s on a personal mission to save lives now, working to come to terms with the guilt of losing his son.
“You’re not going to make up for it, but a life saved — at least there’s meaning behind it,” Hipple said.
Hipple spent nearly 11 years working at the Depression Center at the University of Michigan. He now tours the country with a program called “After the Impact” run through the Eisenhower Center.
“I will fix it, I will grin and bare it. I will keep my head down and keep plowing. I will run through the wall for you,” Hipple said about how men approach problems. “It’s about mental toughness not about mental health. So, how do you have that conversation about mental health in a positive way?”
A way he does that is maintenance. Hipple says men care for their physical fitness and the mind needs to be treated the same way. Another is to handle mental health issues like men do to all thing that need to be fixed, solve it.
“If I can talk to you about problem solving, I’m in. We like to solve problems. That’s kind of where the drive is. And I can get you to understand that the brain is really a great problem solving, it’s marvelous at what it does, it solves problems all the time,” Hipple says about his conversations. “Whether it’s fixing this or fixing that, we solve problems. Well with information, then it’s easier to solve problems.”
He still quarterbacking, just leading a different group of men. With a goal of spreading knowledge and information to help men solve problems with their mental health, they may otherwise be not equipped to fix.
For information and resources about men’s mental health, take the assessment on HealthyMenMichigan.org.