Eric Hipple: From NFL quarterback to outreach counselor
February 5, 2010
By J.D. Leipold
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Feb. 5, 2010) -- "Hipple, you're starting," came the order from the Detroit Lions head coach back on Oct. 19, 1981. The unknown, third-string quarterback suddenly found himself propelled into the limelight of Monday Night Football with color commentator Howard Cosell and "Dandy" Don Meredith behind the mics.
Rookie Eric Hipple might have been thinking about his days on a full football scholarship at Utah State University where he started for four years, set all-time school records and became known as the school's "quarterback of the century." He might have thought how he could use the football skills that had served him so well in Utah could be applied to defeating the Chicago Bears.
"The Hip," a name he'd had since his high school days in southern California, snapped to and was propelled into the stadium lights. At the end of 60 minutes of play, Eric found himself in the history books as he ran for two touchdowns and passed for four thoroughly thumping the Lions' archrival Chicago Bears 48-17.
For the next nine years, Hipple quarterbacked the Lions suffering through victories, losses and injuries, taking the Lions to two playoff bids and a divisional championship. He had also received the NFL's Most Valuable Player Award in 1981. He was into his best season in 1985 with 17 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards passing, but injuries side-lined him.
After a decade-long football career, life transitioned for him until he finally became dependent on alcohol and painkillers, his marriage ended, he went bankrupt, spent time in jail for driving under the influence, and his 15-year-old son committed suicide.
On Monday at the Miami stadium where the Super Bowl will be played, Hipple and former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rocky Bleier were drumming up support from NFL veterans to raise awareness of mental-health issues facing servicemembers.
Hipple said that in the NFL, he had learned to hide many of his insecurities, the pain and even the sadness he sometimes felt, but he stuffed his feelings inside and kept his feelings to himself -- that was life in the NFL... all business, win the game, play hurt, it's all about the team and your fellow players. "I made a career out of it, you get knocked down and you get up again."
When the inevitable happened and his football career came to an end, he said he could feel it coming.
"The last year I played I was pretty beat up so the idea that somebody would pick me up really wasn't in my thoughts," he said. "I was kind of hanging out and wasn't depending on the Lions picking me up... I didn't think I could make it through another training camp."
Then 32, he and his family decided to stay in Detroit. In 1990 he started an insurance business with two other NFL veterans. His NFL celebrity didn't hurt business.
"When I started a business, it was something new and exciting, so that transition wasn't too bad because it was something different," he said. "It was something I'd never done before, so the questions I had were, 'Am I going to succeed; am I going to excel'' As it turned out I did."
He had his beautiful wife, Jan, son Jeff and his daughters along with the big house. The money was good, NFL fans knew who he was; he even had a television show focused on what was going on with the Lions and his former teammates.
"Then I started having major problems about seven years later because it had all become boring," Hipple said. "It became boring; there was no challenge in it anymore and I started getting into self-medication -- I guess you could say where I was drinking more and mixing prescription pain killers, which were always readily available to deal with my football injuries. I quit paying attention to the business and the relationship with my partners deteriorated almost overnight."
His marriage also failed. Life continued on.
A former coach suggested he see a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, after only a 10-minute exam. Eric was familiar with the disease since one of his cousins had been clinically diagnosed. He ruled out BP. Another psychiatrist diagnosed him with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. Hipple felt that diagnosis was a bit hard to swallow considering he had to concentrate on the intricacies of quarterbacking, remembering plays, reading defenses.
The medications he was prescribed didn't work so he continued to self-medicate
Then one day in 1998, Hipple snapped. As his second wife Shelly was driving him to the airport, he quickly jotted a note to her on a napkin that said, "I can't keep doing this" and tossed it in her lap. Then as the car was tearing down the freeway at 70 mph, he unfastened his seatbelt, opened the door and flung himself out. He woke up in the hospital with a concussion and a major case of road rash.
Still he had no answers to his depression. His business partners were preparing to sue him and he was feeling stressed over his son Jeff's lethargy. Jeff had lost his position as the basketball team captain at high school; his grades were suffering; his appetite wasn't what it used to be; he often felt tired; his self-esteem was low; he couldn't sleep and he lost interest in things that he had loved doing.
Then Hipple's life collapsed. While on a trip to Canada with some friends and business associates, one of his friends received a call from Shelly. He handed the phone to Hipple and said, "Jeff is dead."
It was April 9, 2000. Jeff had found his father's unloaded hunting rifle under the bed. Jeff had somehow gotten a round, gone into the bathroom, removed his shoes and socks, put his big toe on the trigger and shot himself in the head.
As Hipple would later write in his 2008 book, "Real Men do cry:" "All I could think was, "Oh God, how could this have happened'" I was beyond devastated. We all were in shock and couldn't believe that Jeff was dead and wouldn't be coming through the door within a couple minutes. We all expected that he'd soon bring his grades back up and resume his high school sports. We all thought he had so much to live for."
Hipple sank further into depression, feeling guilty -- how could he have not known the signs, what could he have done differently to change the course of his young son's life'
Then he hit rock bottom. He drank more and more asking himself the same questions until one night he was pulled over while driving under the influence. In the end that landed him in jail for 58 days.
It was in jail that he had his epiphany, one that would change and move his life in a different direction.
While he was incarcerated, one of the guards came up to him and said he understood what Hipple was going through because his only son had been killed in a gang-related shooting five years previously. Hipple let go... the tears, the pain, the complete sadness engulfed him. He realized letting go was his blessing.
Today, 10 years later, Hipple has come to understand his depression and that of his son's as a disease, but one that can be overcome by seeking help and treatment instead of burying it behind a tough exterior.
Then one day while he was at a non-profit dinner, the head of the psychology department at the University of Michigan asked him if he would like to do lunch and learn where professors and experts talk about specific subjects such as depression.
"It shook me to a tee and I was intrigued," he said. "The university had a mini medical school that was about depression and you just learn as much as you can, so I got more and more involved and became an advocate.
In 2004, Eric was offered a position as an outreach representative to help those in trouble, especially those who have been contemplating suicide.
"I knew what it was like to be there, to be lost and not understand anything. Now I'm able to look at somebody who is struggling and I try to give them the keys and say, listen, open the door, there's sunlight outside, let's go find it."