Penn football team copes with sadness and reality in the wake of two suicides in 5 years

Penn football players and staff are still coping with the suicides of Kyle Ambrogi (above) and Owen Thomas.
Penn football players and staff are still coping with the suicides of Kyle Ambrogi (above) and Owen Thomas.
Posted: August 30, 2010

THIS SHOULD BE A time of unlimited anticipation for Penn's football program.

The Quakers, who won their last eight games a year ago, are coming off their first Ivy League championship since 2003. Even though they were picked to finish second in the preseason media vote, they have just about everyone returning.

With one notable exception, a loss that no one could foresee, and whose impact no one can begin to calculate.

So instead, they're heading into the unknown.

"If you were going to ask me on April 1, how well-positioned are you [to repeat], I would have said if you look at it on paper, I'm as confident as you can ever be heading into a season without being foolish," said head coach Al Bagnoli, who has won six titles in 11 years beginning in 1993. "If you ask me now, my answer is, I'm confident but there's variables that none of us can answer.

"How does it get resolved? I don't know."

Perhaps neither does anyone else.

Everyone's perspective was altered on April 26. That was when junior all-league defensive lineman Owen Thomas committed suicide.

Thomas, 21, from Allentown, had just been overwhelmingly voted one of the captains by his teammates. At the time, Bagnoli called him "the most popular kid on our team."

And for the second time in 5 years, Penn's football team and the university were forced to deal with a tragedy for which there are no answers.

In October 2005, senior running back Kyle Ambrogi, 21, a product of St. Joseph's Prep from Havertown who was being treated for depression, took his own life.

"Statistically, the odds are so astronomical for it to happen once, never mind twice," Bagnoli said. "Not in your wildest dreams. Especially [Thomas]. If you were going to pick one kid that this will never happen . . . "

Yet it did. And once more, a group of people try to cope with the situation as best they possibly can, despite the fact there isn't any handbook.

The first time, the Quakers played a game 5 days later. They won at Columbia, 44-16, in what might have been their best performance of the season, to improve to 4-1. Then they beat Yale at home, 38-21. But they would lose their last four, by a combined 66 points.

They would go 15-15 the following three seasons.

"So much of our success was based on a certain amount of preparation, swagger and confidence," Bagnoli said. "All of a sudden, you're sent into a tailspin. How important is football in the overall context? How can you not have a residual effect? And no one can say how long that's going to [last].

"You don't want to be an authority on suicide . . .

"Certainly, the accomplishment [of 2009] has been tempered. The looking-ahead part got derailed. You're always trying to move the program forward. At the very best, we were in either neutral or reverse. These are the issues we're trying to address."

The team started practicing last week. Today, it will meet with the media for the first time. The coaches and players are going to get asked about Thomas. It doesn't figure to be the last time his name will come up.

The opener is Sept. 18 at Franklin Field against Lafayette. Penn is planning a tribute to Thomas before the game and he will be an honorary captain. His jersey will hang in his locker all season and players will wear a No. 40 decal on their helmets.

"It's not just football-related, or Penn-related," Bagnoli said of suicide. "It's young people-related. This is an epidemic in society. I know more about it than I'd like to know."

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there were 34,598 reported suicides in 2007 (the latest available data). Among those 15 to 24 years old, it's the third-leading cause of death. Although women, overall, attempt to end their lives three times more often than men, men commit suicide at a rate that's four times higher.

When it happens to a friend, a comrade, it's no longer a statistic.

Senior defensive back Bradford Blackmon is one of Penn's captains. He, too, wonders what lies ahead.

"Time helps things get better, for the most part," he said, the heartache in his voice still evident over the phone. "You know Owen's where he wants to be now. This is actually the second time I've had to deal with it, one of my cousins when I was 14. You can contemplate the whys all day, but you'll never know. They made the decision they were going to make. If anyone could have stopped it, they would have let them stop it.

"You take it day-by-day. You don't really worry about what's going to happen next. You worry about what's going on right now. In May, we addressed it to exhaustion, almost like we couldn't talk about it anymore. After a while, you just sit in silence. But I think it definitely helps to talk to other people. It's not something you can control internally."

Like most team members, Blackmon has spoken to Bagnoli. And his position coach, Steven Downs. He also has sat down with Kenneth Meehan, one of the many social workers/therapists with Penn's Counseling and Psychological Services who have made themselves readily available to lean on.

"We had unlimited resources, if we needed it," Blackmon said. "That helped me. Ultimately, you learn that you can't beat yourself up. Any answer you come up with, either you're not going to be satisfied or you don't know that that's the reason. But that's the natural human reaction. We just talked about how with people, you never know what's going on, no matter how things seem on the outside. Either they're not telling someone else or they don't know themselves.

"You want to tell yourself that you learned something from this, but you still don't really know."

And never will. It's the cruelest part of the reality.

"It's certainly hard to predict how a team will respond when a trauma like this affects them," Meehan said. "And then it ripples out. I know when I was at the memorial service, I was standing next to guys on the wrestling team, and women from the basketball team. Everyone needs to grieve and mourn in their own way. The level of concern that everyone showed for each other was huge, from what I saw.

"From an athletic standpoint, male athletes tend to work things out physically. They do it on the field, or the court. And so I'm sure some of that happened over the summer. I would worry about the minority, and there's probably a minority, who still haven't discussed it, come to grips with the fact that one of their own will be absent this fall.

"Probably the students closest to [Thomas] are the ones who are most haunted by the notion of, 'What did I miss?' They want to understand and make sense of it. I tell them that it's not something you get over, it's something you get through. And there's some positive ways to do that, and destructive ways. We encourage them not to feel weak, or different, or alone. They don't have to be in it by themselves."

Athletic director Steve Bilsky is obviously more familiar than he'd prefer to be when it comes to those ripples.

"You hope and pray there isn't a next time, because you don't want to be good at this," he said. "But for lack of a better word, you are better prepared. It impacts everyone. The family extends beyond football. Coaches and players from other teams struggled with it. So you learn to worry about everything. You want to make sure the support system is real and can be relied on.

"These kids are very bright, very inquisitive. They're used to challenges. They don't just take it that this is the way it is and go on. It's different for them. They get to the bottom of a calculus problem that you or I couldn't begin to work out. We're all going to experience things in our lives that you hope make us stronger and better. And not because you win all the time. It's cliche, but I happen to believe it's true.

"Yes, it's troubling for them now. It's understandable. They're kids. It's so complicated. As an athlete you might start to question why you do this, what it's all about. Could that make a difference in an individual being a really good player or not? You have to let it unfold. But that's not a crutch if they don't win."

Nobody's sure exactly what's going to happen on Sept. 18, this season or perhaps even beyond.

What is known is that Bagnoli might be the only coach in America, or at least in recent times, who has had to address such a delicate situation twice, particularly within this short a time frame. It isn't in the job description. Doesn't matter. He's the face of the program. So a lot of people will be looking to him for direction, even to try to restore their sense of normalcy. Given the circumstances, it might be asking too much too soon.

But what other choice is there?

"I think the fact that everybody could get away, have some separation for a few months, and find comfort at home wasn't a bad thing," Bagnoli said. "But I think everybody tries to find rational reasoning behind this. It's not a rational act. We don't like to accept that. We want a ration-al explanation. So you can drive yourself crazy playing that game.

"You try to pick up the pieces. The next challenge is, how do we tastefully recognize what has happened, and how do we tastefully honor him, without making this the front-and-center of our program? It's not going away. How are they going to respond, when they're pushed to the brink? Every kid has to walk by an empty locker, because there'll be nothing but his jersey there. So what's he going to be thinking?

"Suicide is something every coach should be aware of, on any level. Given the numbers, how rampant it is, it should make everyone a little more sensitive. There is no blame, but that's a hard concept to convey. The faster you recognize that it isn't anybody's fault . . . There's nothing you can say, or do.

"There's no question this'll stay with them for the rest of their lives. There's five roommates, the guys in his class, the younger kids. Basically, everyone has to answer the same thing, to varying degrees. They're all different. It can take 2 weeks, 2 months, 2 years. That's the million-dollar question."

|
|
|
|
|