By CourtesyApril 4, 2014
By Jim Dresbach
Pentagram Staff Writer
Former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple played 10 football seasons in the National Football Conference's Central Division. That division was also infamously nicknamed "The Black and Blue Division."
Concussions and broken bones were part of Hipple's black and blue football career throughout the 1980s, but black and blue mental health lingered past his football retirement.
Now an advocate for mental fitness and a major supporter of service members, Hipple visited the Pentagon auditorium as a guest of the Office of the Pentagon Chaplain March 27 to speak about suicide awareness and recognizing early signs of depression.
He told those in attendance that now is the time to tackle mental health problems by focusing on mental fitness.
"The 17 years I played football in high school, college and for the Lions, the coaches used to tell me to come into camp in great physical shape," Hipple said. "That's what they'd tell me. They taught us how to do that, but not once did I ever have a coach tell me to come back into camp in great mental shape. Not once. If you want peak performance, you want both. I don't think they taught us [to be in mental shape] because I don't think they knew what it was."
Hipple brought the audience along on a trip through his NFL career and his post-football trials as he candidly spoke of his own suicide attempt, his son's suicide and what he learned that led to his suicide prevention crusade and fight against depression. The former Lions quarterback also demonstrated the violence of the game of football and how head injuries were once treated in the NFL. Hipple showed a video clip of a ferocious sideline hit he received during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After the clip, he told the audience he was back in the game after missing just three snaps.
"There's no way I would have gotten back in the game if that happened today," Hipple said after the video.
In the past five years, the NFL has adopted a policy to keep concussed players off the field.
"Before all this [head injury awareness] was identified, you would get hit, and you would be kind of numb or [feel] a tingle," Hipple said as he discussed concussion symptoms during an interview with the Pentagram. "There was fuzziness, but you'd recover real fast, and you'd continue to play. Today, we know that's not a good thing to do. Even if it is not a complete knockout, a moment of lost awareness and confusion for a moment is just as serious when it comes to long-term consequences."
He mentioned that there must be a self awareness in regard to recognizing head injuries.
"If you don't take yourself out and don't pull yourself out, it's the second and third concussions immediately following when you haven't healed that are dangerous," Hipple said.
While he played a decade of pro football - the average NFL career averages just over three years - he knew retirement loomed on his horizon.
"I played ten years, and I had seven surgeries along the way, and all of a sudden, it started taking a toll on you," he said of the end of his career. "I was 32 years old, I didn't know what to do, and now I'm outside all my support systems. I didn't know how to make a doctor appointment. I had a business degree, so I started a business."
After six years of running the business, depression took over. He isolated himself, his business declined and after taking a new job, he attempted suicide by jumping out of a car.
"I just didn't feel alive anymore," he said. "I didn't know who I was anymore, and I just kind of fell apart."
To tackle the depression and suicide problems, Hipple championed the idea of gathering the most information possible to attain mental fitness.
"Let's starting talking about awareness and awareness of other depressive issues because 80 percent of suicides come from undiagnosed, unreported depression," he said. "We have to get to [mental illness early], and you have to know yourself and respect yourself enough to get something done early."