By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
Looking back, Eric Hipple believes that there may be some predisposition to mental illness in his family. Growing up he was what he describes as a “sensitive kid,” but it wasn’t something that overly impeded him. Until 1997 when the former Detroit Lions quarterback, on his way to the airport with his wife driving, handed her a note, opened the car door and jumped out.
At the hospital neither he nor his wife mentioned that the accident was a suicide attempt. Instead, they simply said that Hipple had leaned against the car door, which had somehow opened, causing him to fall out. No one questioned their story. Hipple recovered and went back to his life, burying the episode.
But within a matter of years, there was another hurdle, one that took things even further. In 2000, Hipple’s then 15-year-old son committed suicide.
“I had just moved on,” Hipple said describing the years after his own attempt. “Three years later, my son, was going back and forth between [Michigan] and my ex-wife in Utah. He started to struggle a bit, going through transitions. Then in his freshman year of high school I had him here and after the holidays he started suffering and then he died. That threw me into a loop, into total disintegration, being numb. I picked up a DUI. I decided, ‘I don’t want to be this guy. I want answers for him, I want answers for me I want knowledge.”
From that moment, Hipple embarked on a journey to educate himself in mental illness and suicide prevention in order to be able to devote himself to helping others navigate through their struggles and try to save lives.
It certainly wasn’t an expected or straight path to where he is now. After playing for Utah State, Hipple was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1980 and played there for nine years before being cut mid-season in 1989.
Post-NFL careers weren’t given nearly the attention they are now. While NFL paychecks were good, there wasn’t as large of a discrepancy between what football players made and what other professions made as there is today.
“Most of us then enjoyed the game and didn’t really worry about [post-NFL] business,” Hipple said. “We didn’t make that much more money than the public was making. Salaries really exploded in the 90s. You really didn’t think about it, you just thought, ‘I’m going to fall in line and get a job.’”
After retiring he took a year off and then started his own business, Hipple & Associates, an insurance business targeted toward car dealers. Although it took a bit of time, the business eventually took off and he was earning more money than he had as a player. But, it was then that everything caught up with him.
“It hit the fan, ‘Is this it?’ Hipple recalled thinking. “Is this all there is? Now I’m being known as an insurance salesman and not a football player. It was a mixed emotion, I wanted to be known as a businessman but also as football player.”
From 1995-2000 Hipple worked for FOX doing their Lions pre-game show. Treating the suicide attempt in 1997 as a blip on the radar, that connection to football kept his head above water, until his son’s suicide. Hipple realized it was time to change paths.
“I got trained in suicide prevention through [the QPR Institute] and ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills), “he said. “I started doing suicide prevention work in Michigan and started learning more about depression at the University of Michigan. They put me on full time and I started implementing programs to reach populations that like me didn’t understand. Law enforcement, the Department of Corrections, the military.”
Then working for the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center, Hipple began to make a name for himself and was asked to deliver a keynote speech for the Department of Defense. From there he was approached by the U.S. Fleet Forces to design and implement suicide prevention workshops for the Navy, something he continues to do.
He subsequently developed a program called Under the Helmet, which was initially focused on reaching out to coaches and talking to them about making their teams better by paying attention to mental fitness and how their players were working together. Ultimately that expanded into Hipple developing an education program where he speaks to entire student bodies in Michigan.
Currently Hipple works at the Eisenhower Center in Ann Arbor as an outreach specialist. It is a neurocognitive center for people who have suffered a variety of brain injuries and provides what they describe as, “individualized, multi-disciplinary, personal care.” One program specifically developed for football players and members of the military is called After the Impact, and offers evaluations specifically to determine the best places for treatment based on what sort of difficulties they are having, whether behavioral, legal, family, etc.
“The idea,” Hipple said, “is to knock down the wall and say you’re not alone and someone else has gone through this in a different way and has stories themselves and by sharing those you get a chance to talk about yourself. The NFL Player Care Foundation has funded treatment for some guys and the Player Assist Fund and Trust have also helped.
In 2009, he published a book, “Real Men Do Cry,” in which he chronicles his own journey and which offers resources for people and families dealing with personal challenges of mental illness.
Hipple who has four other children and three grandchildren is now in a much more centered place in his life and continues to move forward with the mission to help those who have experienced similar struggles to his own.
While everyone handles it slightly differently, he firmly believes that the transition out of the NFL needs to be paid attention to. In addition to all of his other work, he has worked with Lions to implement their peer-to-peer program.
“I love the sport,” Hipple said. “But, the day you decide not to play anymore you need to reach out and connect with the resources that are there. Know that you’re not alone. Every player has gone through this. Reach out to another player for support. Players who are getting support can then reach back and help others when they leave.”
For more information about the Eisenhower Center: www.eisenhowercenter.com
The NFL also provides the following resources:
The NFL Life Line, established in 2012, is a 24/7 confidential crisis line available to all members of the NFL family – current and former players, league and team staff and family members of those groups. The free, confidential hotline is independently operated and staffed by trained counselors.
- In 2015, the NFL trained 200 league and club leaders to serve on Critical Response Teams (CRTs), which provide immediate and confidential crisis assistance—including safety, medical, legal and social services—to anyone in the NFL family, including spouses, significant others or other family members who have experienced abuse. All 32 clubs have established CRTs.
- The NFL’s Players Assistance and Counseling Services Program(Employee Assistance Program –EAP), operated by Cigna, connects members of the NFL family with special programs specifically designed for the NFL. EAP services, available for both current and former players, include eight free confidential counseling sessions per issue — regardless of what the issue is or when it might arise. These services are also available to anyone who lives in the household of an eligible current or former NFL player.
- All 32 NFL teams have a player engagement director to support players and their families on and off the field and encourage them to utilize the league resources available to them for health, wellness, education, among others.
- A network of mental health professionals regularly consults with clubs, advising them on best practices for enhancing total wellness among teams, staff and their families. Mental health education is also a part of club training camps and the rookie symposium.
- The NFL Player Care Foundation(PCF) is an independent organization dedicated to helping retired players improve their quality of life. PCF addresses all aspects of life by providing programs and assistance with medical, emotional, financial, social and community issues.
o Created in 2007 by a partnership between NFL owners, the NFL Players Association, Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the NFL Alumni Association, PCF is administered by a board of eight directors. The National Football League, NFL Players Association, Pro Football Hall of Fame and the NFL Alumni Association are each appointed a nominated director. In addition, four outside directors share their expertise in foundation management, mental health, social welfare issues, and healthcare.
o PCF offers free national screening programs to all former NFL players. It includes a series of cardiovascular and prostate screenings and mental health resources and education. Since its inception, PCF has screened more than 4,000 retired players
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.