NFL veterans band together to help military vets
February 5, 2010
By J.D. Leipold
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Feb. 5, 2010) - Depression, suicide, feeling lost and alone: they're all things former NFL quarterback Eric Hipple knows a lot about today. Back in his days of glory, though, a good percentage of his life seemed charmed to the fans who watched him lead the Detroit Lions down the field at the Silverdome on Sunday afternoons.
After a decade-long football career, though, life transitioned for him and his family - from highs to lows, from life with purpose to nothingness, to dependence on alcohol and painkillers, a broken marriage, bankruptcy, time in jail for driving under the influence, to the suicide of his 15-year-old son.
On Monday at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, while the media was dishing out the latest scoop on the match-up between the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV, Hipple and former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rocky Bleier were drumming up support from NFL veterans to raise awareness of mental health issues through a new program called Veterans Supporting Veterans.
"It's an initiative that came about when several retired players were just talking about the issue and it kind of hit us, so we were asked to do some research and run with it," Hipple said via cell phone. "Retired players from the NFL know what it's like to go through transition; though it's not anywhere near the kind of transition the military goes through.
Today, nearly 20 years since he retired from the NFL, Hipple travels the country as an outreach counselor for the University of Michigan Depression Center committed to helping high school students and servicemembers become aware of the signs and stigmas that keep severely depressed and suicidal young people from asking or seeking out help.
"We played a game, while the military is fighting for our safety and putting their lives at risk every day, but we found there were similarities, the close cohesion of a team, concussion, the stigma behind not asking for help when you need it," Hipple said. "The NFL and the military are both unique professions; they both have transitional phases, for us in season and out of season and eventual retirement; for the military, in battle and coming out of battle, in-country, out-of-country."
Vietnam veteran, Purple Heart recipient and four-time Super Bowl winner Bleier transcended both professions, the NFL, the Army, the NFL and retirement, so he understands full-well the similarities between soldiering and playing pro football. He spent a year in the NFL, was drafted into the service, then returned to the NFL. For him, the stigma after returning home from humping an M-79 grenade launcher in the jungles of Southeast Asia was in being identified as a Soldier in an extremely unpopular war.
"You were kind of put into society under the radar; you didn't want anyone to know you were a Vietnam veteran, so you handled the problems yourself and kept the experience locked up; you didn't talk about it," he said. "There were no programs to help with depression and post-traumatic stress, so the people who suffered were your caretakers, your spouses and kids or your parents because they had to put up with the traumatic stress that you had come through. Today, with the all-volunteer force, that's very different, our society is very supportive of our military, but the stigma is still there."
While the Veterans Supporting Veterans Web site is under construction, Hipple suggests military people in need of support visit the following Web sites: University of Michigan Depression Center www.depressioncenter.org; Welcome Back Veterans www.welcomebackveterans.org; and Real Warriors www.realwarriors.net.