This is the final installment of our series covering mental health in the NFL. If you missed them, check out Part 1 and Part 2 here.
All this week we have talked about mental health and how current players, as well as the NFL Players Association, are handling it in today’s game. But what about the players that have moved on from football? What happens when there is no more team, no more league and the spotlight fades? Former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple knows the answer to those questions all too well.
You may remember Eric Hipple. From 1980 to 1989, he was a quarterback for the Detroit Lions. He was their starter for five of those years. Perhaps his most memorable moment came in his first career start in 1981 when he torched the Bears for four passing touchdowns and another two on the ground on “Monday Night Football.”
After Eric retired from football in 1989, he started a business and threw himself into it. That’s when his troubles began.
“I started feeling no motivation,” Hipple told me. “I started to not want to go out, I didn’t want to call on people anymore. I felt fatigue and tired and really, just had a loss of pleasure.”
At the time, Hipple didn’t know if what he was feeling was because of injury, not having that rush of playing in the league anymore, or simply dealing with the stresses of being a business owner.
Eric soon realized that he was living with depression.
His business began to fall apart. He struggled to give it the proper attention it needed to succeed. Pressure began to mount, and Eric couldn’t help but feel like he was losing it. One day, everything changed when Eric jumped out of a moving car on his way to the airport in an attempt to take his own life.
“My wife was driving me to the airport, and I just kinda thought to myself, ‘I can’t do this,’ and I jumped out of the car. We were going 75 miles per hour when I jumped out and I hit the pavement and took quite a tumble. I didn’t get run over. I was very fortunate that the other cars behind us didn’t hit me. I woke up in the hospital.”
Eric didn’t want any help. He, too, was held back by the stigma that, as a man, he shouldn’t show weakness. He felt that because he was a former NFL quarterback and a business owner, this couldn’t happen to him. Because he refused help and treatment, he says he didn’t learn anything at that time. Because of that, he couldn’t tell that his son Jeff was also suffering with depression.
In 2000, Jeff took his own life at the age of 15. Afterwards, Eric’s life spun out of control. He began to turn to alcohol, which led to his arrest in 2002 for a DUI. He served 58 days in jail — 58 days that he said helped change his life.
“You reach a point in time where, ‘Where do I see my life going?’” Hipple said. “For 58 days I wasn’t around anybody, but that 58 days of time sitting there gave me a chance to focus on, ‘Do I want my life to continue this way or that way? What is it that you want out of life?’ At that point in time I wanted answers. That’s what I wanted. I wanted answers for what happened to my son Jeff and what happened to me.”
That’s when Eric went to the University of Michigan’s Depression Center in 2003 in search of those answers. It was there that Eric was diagnosed with depression. He soon began to learn more about his disorder. He learned that he wasn’t alone, and more importantly, that depression isn’t a death sentence.
Eric decided he wanted to help other former players who were having trouble transitioning to normal, everyday life.
“When a player leaves the NFL or college, it’s almost like they’re being kicked out or ostracized,” Hipple said. “You lose having your uniform, having your team, and you lose your support system. People see you and they look up to you and all the sudden you’re outside of that and so who are you? That transition piece becomes very important from a psychological point of view. How do you make that transition?”
In 2014, Eric began working with Brandon Scott, the Community Relations Manager for the Detroit Lions, to form a group call the Peer Pride. The group’s goal is to help former players get a hold of their mental disorders and transition from the league.
“We have eight guys that we’ve trained to be peer outreach captains,” Hipple explained. “We make phone calls with alumni and we try to see where everybody is at. If somebody does need help, then we have resources for them. Is it a crisis or stress? We’ve been trained to try and talk someone through it, but we have ways of getting somebody that help, which is a very important piece.”
If you’re not a former Detroit Lion, the NFLPA also has programs in place for former NFL players, programs called Your PAF (Professional Athletes Forum) and The Trust. Your PAF is set up almost like a magazine, and is designed to help players with everyday things like relationships, finances, mental health and transitioning from the game to normal life. They also set up symposiums that former and current players can attend to learn more about these subjects. The Trust is much like the Your PAF program, but with a greater emphasis on the business and monetary end of things.
I would like to take a moment to thank everyone that made mental health week at Pride of Detroit possible. Thank you to Eli Harold, Eric Hipple, Ricky Jean Francois, Brandon Parker, the NFLPA, and Jeremy Reisman. Thank you to the readers that took time to read these stories as well. Please do all that you can to help those in need. To the those with mental health issues, know you’re not alone.
If you need help, don’t be afraid to use one of these outlets.
National Alliance On Mental Illness
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Crisis Line