Editor’s note • If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support by dialing 988, or 1-800-273-8255.
A fact that football coaches are coming around to at too slow a pace, a fact that people in every walk of life are dragging anchor on, is that mental health concerns are real, are part of being human, are to be approached with respect and proper attention and care, are not to be ignored or hidden or demeaned or scoffed at or ridiculed.
Every coach, every fan, every person in Utah, in the country, in the world should hear what Utah State coach Blake Anderson has to say about the matter. Rarely will you see or hear a college football coach as sincere, as passionate and as tragically informed as Anderson is in a video made public earlier this week.
The man takes his job seriously, he’s about winning, but … a lost football game? That’s nothing.
Anderson was crushed when on a dark day, the darkest day, this past February, he took that call from his brother, revealing that the coach’s son, Cason, had fallen into depths so deep that he could no longer abide them. After an evening of playing video games with his friends, just a few days after Anderson had spoken with him by phone, a call in which father and son had talked and laughed together, same as usual, Cason died by suicide.
Listen Anderson’s message. If you’ve already watched the video, watch it again. And absorb every word of it, whether it’s you who needs help or you who needs to give it.
It’s a heartbreaking story and an important, meaningful, powerful message, this is all of that and more. There may be a little dust in here, a whole lot of dust.
Anderson has significant reasons, every reason, to provide his deep thoughts, having been so profoundly affected by this subject — and all the parts of his existence that not just brought him to it, but that grabbed his mind, heart and soul en route.
I wanted to write a feature column about Anderson’s life, especially his last few years, all the stuff that reaches far beyond football. I was told “no” by those guardians at the school who are in charge of such access, that the coach was not yet prepared to discuss these delicate, personal matters. I’m glad that that was his response then. He’s ready now — so he did the video, coming directly from him. There’s nothing that could be written that would have more meaning, more impact, more heft than hearing his words coming from his mind and mouth.
There’s nothing even speakable or imaginable that could bring more devastation upon a parent than a phone call informing him or her that a beloved child has taken their own life. Crushing is the word that comes to mind.
“He was always the biggest smile in the room,” the father says.
Grief had been a part of the Andersons’ lives, as wife and mother Wendy had been diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago, had fought the monster with great courage, but ultimately had succumbed to a disease that takes far too many away, fracturing the lives of loved ones all around.
Cason’s grandfather had also died over that span. His uncle, Blake’s brother Brian, for whom Cason worked, had just been diagnosed with colon cancer.
Life is hard — for everyone at one time or another, or a lot of times, and the effect it has on folks, or can have, especially those with certain vulnerabilities, can be severe.
It’s not a matter of being weak. It’s a matter of being human.
Anderson talks about this in his video. He, like a lot of men, was raised with the idea that it’s somehow manly not to show emotion, not to cry, not to show signs of exposure or susceptibility of any sort. You get hurt, you suck it up. You feel down or low, you pick yourself back up without revealing a thing. You throw your burdens on your own back, never reaching out for a hand in lifting those burdens.
“You get up, dust yourself off, tape it up, get back to work,” he says.
Unfortunately, he says he spent most of his life, as a father and a coach, teaching that same way, that same thing.
That is exacerbated in the world of football, where supposed strong individuals rule the realm. Mental health concerns? Please. Don’t be weak. Don’t be soft. On the other hand, if an athlete, or anyone else, is afflicted by a physical condition, whatever it might be, then it’s, “Get the help you need to heal.”
Here’s the thing: whether it’s physical or mental, we all need to heal.
Mental health wasn’t talked about in Anderson’s family, he says.
“I don’t think my family knew what mental health was.”
They do now.
Of the stress that came with the battles against cancer and the subsequent heavy family grief, Anderson says, “We didn’t know what to do with it.”
They leaned on those they trusted, and fought their way through, as best they could.
And then, the bottom dropped out when Cason disappeared on that awful night six months ago, and was found when it was too late, after he was done and gone.
The rugged guy’s, the football coach’s goal here, then, is to do whatever he can to raise awareness to prevent tragedy of this kind wherever it can be prevented. Anxiety, depression, inside pain, grief, darkness, whatever it is, however it manifests itself, whatever its trigger, whoever feels it, reach out to friends, parents, professionals, seek help. Heal.
You don’t want to share your burden because you don’t think anyone wants to carry it alongside you?
Anderson’s answer to that: “People around you would much rather carry your burden than carry your coffin.”
Take it from a tough-as-a-buzzard football coach who’s never been tougher than he is now, who’s never been laid so low to stand so tall as he does now, as he hurts and weeps and pleads.
Anderson and his football team have dedicated Utah State’s game on Saturday with UNLV to raising mental health awareness, doing what they can to highlight the importance of getting aid to those who need it. In the video, Anderson urges anyone feeling pain or existing in darkness of any kind to get support. And for their loved ones to love them before the darkness arrives, while it stays, and after it leaves.
Shame or embarrassment has no place in any of this.
Only awareness, help and healing.
Watch the video, watch it again, ask others to watch it, please.