The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Friday night lights...

turn to darkness, then healing as coach speaks about son's suicide

Jeff Olson wasn't sure he wanted to talk.

The high school football coach from Michigan's Upper Peninsula was heartbroken. His 19-year-old son, Daniel, had taken his own life after years of battling depression. Part of him wanted to share his son's story. Part of him wanted to grieve privately, which is understandable as suicide remains a delicate subject. Olson was unsure how to discuss it — or whether he even should.

For answers he turned to his faith, molded at his home church, Messiah Lutheran in Marquette, Mich., a community on Lake Superior.

"I realized through faith that everything happens for a reason," Olson said.

He also realized that he needed to talk — and that the discussion had to begin at the place where he was happiest, but where he dreaded going. It was the first day of football practice. On the drive over to Ishpeming, an iron mining town 15 miles west of Marquette, Olson wasn't sure how his players would react. That scared him. Just 18 days earlier he had lost Daniel.

For as long as the coach could remember, his son had one dream: to help him win a state championship. Nearly two years before Daniel took his life, that dream almost came true when, as a senior quarterback, he led Ishpeming to the Division 7 title game. The Hematites lost by two points.

Last fall, Ishpeming returned to the championship game for the second time in three years, motivated by the team's desire to win for their coach and by Olson's desire to win for his son.

Removing suicide stigma
About 2 million adolescents try to take their lives every year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. About 2,000 succeed. Nearly every adolescent or teenager who attempts suicide suffers from some form of psychiatric disorder.

Olson shares his family's story because he wants to take away some of the stigma. He wants people to know that most forms of depression are treatable, even though his son's was not.

Despite his volatile brain chemistry, Daniel found relative peace playing football. He loved the action, and had since the moment his father plopped him along the sidelines to pass out water on Friday nights. From then on he spent each fall at his father's side as he grew into an all-state quarterback.

"It was his passion," said his mother, Sally. "It was where he was happiest."

After graduating in 2011, Daniel went to St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., to study accounting and play football as a defensive back. He navigated the first semester carefully, but in the winter his panic attacks returned. Sometimes they would come twice a day, lasting as long as 90 minutes.

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