Nobody Saw It Coming Friends and family of Tito Lee, a 19-year-old Nashville football prodigy, never imagined he might kill himself, and they still don't know why he did

August 16, 1998

The news that Tito Lee had committed suicide traveled through
the Nashville area in a hurry. He shot himself at 10 a.m. on
Aug. 3, and by noon most of the members of the 1996 Brentwood
Academy football team had heard the details. One kid called
another, and in no time at all the invincibility of youth was
gone. Just like that.

"No more than a week ago, I was talking with B.J. Jordan about
Tito," former Brentwood tailback Hunter Adkins says. "B.J.
said--and I agreed--that, of all of us, Tito was the one who
always would be happy. No matter what he did in life, Tito would
be happy. Then to have this.... That's the scary thing."

Tito Lee? Dead?

Nothing could make less sense. He was the star. The captain. At
5'10" and 210 pounds, he was the best player on the best high
school team in the state--Tennessee 5-A (large school) champions
for two straight years. He was the fullback who scored 21
touchdowns as a senior. He was even better as a linebacker, a
four-year starter at the position. As a freshman, in the state
final, he took a kickoff on his own five against Cleveland High,
and, though the return was set to go right, with all the
blockers sent to that side, Tito bounced left and somehow, on
his own, went 95 yards for the touchdown. "Uh, Coach?" he said
to assistant coach Ray Dalton when he got back to the bench.
"You can tell 'em I was supposed to do that. O.K.?"

Dead? He was 19 years old. Who had a better smile, especially
with that gold tooth? Who had an easier disposition, a bigger
heart, more charisma? Lee should be a sophomore at a big-time
college now, out on the practice field, drilling people and then
picking them up and laughing about it.

"He was the best player this school has ever had," Adkins says.
"Ask anyone. A kid from the class in front of us, Richard Land,
went to the University of Texas. He's huge, 6'7", 320 pounds. I
talked to him after his first season at Texas. I asked him about
the hits in Division I. Richard said nobody at Texas hit like
Tito. Nobody came close."

The cold statistic is that in the U.S. a young person between
the ages of 15 and 24 kills himself or herself every hour and 49
minutes. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death, after
accidents, of Americans between the ages of 15 and 19. The
suicide rate for black males in that age group has increased
146% since 1980, to 13.78 per 100,000. Tito Lee, the best of the
best, was never supposed to be part of these numbers.

Then again, maybe nobody is. The statistics on suicide are
general, but the tragedy always is in the specifics.

"I had lunch with him about three months ago," Brentwood coach
Carlton Flatt says. "I tracked him down. He'd been staying away,
sort of avoiding the school, not answering phone messages, and I
wanted to stay in touch. We had a nice lunch, talking about all
kinds of things. I didn't put any pressure on him--asking what
he was going to do next, things like that. I wanted it to be easy.

"I've been in this business a long time, and I've seen that kids
click in--become serious--at different ages, different times. I
guess I was waiting for Tito to click in. I probably spent more
time with him than with any child I've ever coached. I wanted to
back off. I think now, maybe I should have pressed, maybe.... I
don't know. That's the thing that happens. You question
yourself. What if I'd done this or that?"

Tito was a different sort of student at Brentwood: a black kid
at a predominantly white school, a poor kid at a school whose
students were predominantly well-to-do, a kid from Nevada Avenue
in West Nashville at a private school in an affluent suburb 15
miles outside the city. The children of recording executives, of
country music stars, go to Brentwood. Larry Gatlin's kids went
there. Brenda Lee's kid. Hank Williams Jr.'s daughters. The
school has a tuition of $7,400 a year and a rigorous academic
program. All 67 students in the class of '97 ended up in
four-year colleges except Lee.

The school also has a high-powered athletic program. Football
gets the biggest emphasis. Despite an enrollment in grades six
to 12 of only 530 students, half of them girls, Brentwood
plays--and usually beats--the largest public schools in and out
of the state. Flatt, the only coach in Brentwood's history, has
built a schoolboy monster, often ranked in the top 10 of USA
Today's national poll.

This hasn't happened without controversy. Brentwood gives out
$200,000 per year in financial aid, some of it to athletes, and
has had to fight charges of recruiting (SI, Aug. 10). Indeed,
last month the school won a lawsuit against the Tennessee
Secondary Schools Athletic Association to overturn sanctions the
group had placed on Brentwood's football program. (The U.S.
district court essentially ruled that recruiting high school
students is legal.)

Tito started attending Brentwood in seventh grade. From the
beginning he was a very good player. There was a controlled
recklessness about him. "He had an innate understanding of the
physics of football," says Tom Nebel, a lawyer whose son Chris
played with Tito. "He understood that if two masses are hurtling
at each other, the one that is traveling faster will deliver the
momentum, and the one that is traveling slower will absorb it.
He kept his eyes open when he made tackles. Not many kids do
that."

The problem was academics. Lee had a reasonably solid start in
middle school, but as the work became harder in high school, he
became less interested. Even with tutors, he never developed
study habits, priorities. He fell further and further behind. He
was bright, charming, an inspiration to younger kids in the
lower grades when he called them by name and took time to talk
with them, but he was struggling scholastically. His grades and
PSAT scores in his junior year indicated that a Division I
scholarship was improbable. There was talk that he would
transfer to an easier high school. "I think about it now and
wonder if it would have been for the best," says Brentwood
director of admissions Nancy Brasher. "But I say no. He loved
this school. And this school loved him."

In the end there were no Division I offers. He was academically
ineligible to play at a four-year college as a freshman. Six of
his teammates went on to play Division I football. Kurston
Biggers, another running back on the team, went to Tennessee.
Lee went to a junior college, Georgia Military in Milledgeville,
to improve his grades.

"I went down there, a seven-hour drive, with a counselor and
Tito and his mother and father, to check out the place, to ask
some questions," Flatt says. "I liked what I heard. I thought
this was just the structured environment he needed, up at six in
the morning and on the move all day until bed at night. He could
get some grades and then transfer to Division I."

Lee reported early for practice in Milledgeville and played the
first two games of the '97 season, on the road against Tyler and
Trinity Valley junior colleges in Texas. He started the second
game at fullback. Then he suddenly left.

Players reported to coach Robert Nunn that someone arrived to
pick up Lee at the dormitory at three o'clock in the morning,
and Lee packed his bags and went home. Nunn says he still
doesn't know what happened. Someone said there had been some
cross words between Lee and a a fellow dorm resident, but Nunn
could never substantiate that. Someone else said Lee had
"personal problems." Nunn also does not know about that. "I
called his house, talked with his mother, but never talked to
him again," Nunn says. "Classes hadn't even started when he
left. He never took a class here."

Back in Nashville, Lee lived at home and kept a low profile. The
Brentwood people didn't see much of him. The rest of the class
of 1997 was at college. The football team was into its next
season.

The few people from Brentwood who ran into Lee said he mentioned
that he had a job and was taking some courses at Columbia
(Tenn.) State, a junior college 40 miles from Nashville, and
planned to transfer to Middle Tennessee State to play football
this fall. He told members of his family, who declined to be
interviewed for this article, the same story. That was strange,
because no friend or acquaintance at Columbia State had seen him
there, and the school had no record of his enrollment. In late
July he gave his two state championship rings to one of his
three brothers and said he was going to Middle Tennessee State
to enroll.

The date of his departure was Aug. 3, a Monday. When the time
arrived, he helped his parents load the family car and then said
he had to go back to his room for something. The Nashville
police would report later that his mother, Mildred, became
worried when he didn't return, and she went to look for him. She
found him in his room. He had shot himself once in the head with
a family handgun, leaving a note to his parents saying that he
loved them.

A spokesman for Middle Tennessee State says the school had not
been in contact with Tito Lee.

The funeral was held on Aug. 6 at the Forest Hills Baptist
Church in Brentwood, the same church where the baccalaureate
service for Lee's graduation took place. The players from the
class of 1997 returned in khaki pants and their Brentwood
football jerseys, red with white numbers, to be pallbearers. The
church was filled, maybe 1,200 mourners, people standing along
the walls, a black-and-white, rich-and-poor mixture from Lee's
two environments.

"I never saw an 18-year-old kid sign as many autographs as Tito
Lee," Hunter Adkins, number 45, said from the pulpit. He was one
of many speakers. "As good as he was as a football player,"
Adkins said, "it's his smile that I will remember most."

"I'd like to read a poem," a kid from West Nashville said. The
poem mentioned "dimples as big as golf balls."

There had been a candlelight service on Tuesday, a wake on
Wednesday. The funeral service lasted more than two hours, a
final chance to listen and think. Why do these things happen? A
minister, Hal Robinson, said Lee should have seen the crowd that
had gathered, a crowd that no one else in that church could have
brought together. He should have seen the love. Would that have
changed his mind?

The questions were maddening. Removed from the familiar
surroundings of Brentwood, the warm cocoon of high school and
fame, was he lost in an indifferent outside world? Why hadn't he
asked for help? Or had he? Had he dropped hints that people had
missed? Should someone have been paying closer attention? Should
everyone?

"As far as suicide goes, I don't think you see anything coming,"
Adkins says. "It doesn't take a kid who jumps in front of cars
and does crazy things to commit suicide. Here's an example:
Tito. It's real. It can happen with anyone."

"They say people who try too hard to please are at risk," Flatt
says. "Tito always tried hard to please everybody. I have three
kids. Two of them try to please all the time. One doesn't. Who
should I watch the closest?"

The easy explanation is that the pressures of athletic success,
of high hopes, were the big factor in Lee's sad choice. A long
story in the Aug. 6 Nashville Tennessean was headlined
EXPECTATIONS TOO HIGH FOR TITO TO CLIMB. This seemed almost too
easy.

"Every case has its own mix of potential factors," says Lanny
Berman, a clinical psychologist who is executive director of the
American Association of Suicidology, in Washington, D.C. "It's
much easier to say, 'Here's what stands out, given what we
know.' The hard part for reporters is that you are limited by
the material you are given. You're dealing with a specific case
without knowing enough about it and trying to apply templates
that may or may not have anything to do with this youngster."

Tito's sister Cadedra Odom was quoted in the Tennessean story.
She didn't buy the explanation of exaggerated expectations. "In
reality, there hasn't been one person on this earth that someone
doesn't hold up to some type of expectations," she said. "Only
Tito knows why he did what he did. Only Tito and god."

After the burial at the Greenwood Cemetery in Nashville, a
reception was held in the Brentwood Academy cafeteria. Mourners
drank punch and ate barbecue and talked in low voices, and if
they looked through the large plate-glass windows on one side of
the room they could see, on a faraway practice field, the red
jerseys and blue jerseys, offense and defense, of the Brentwood
Eagles at practice. The new season begins on Aug. 21.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY What if? Lee's mourners, including former teammates in uniform jerseys, wondered if they could have done something to save him. [Casket being carried out of church] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY [Carlton Flatt] COLOR PHOTO: THE TENNESSEAN [Tito Lee] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY IN THE DARK Tito's parents (center, with Flatt's wife, Judy) didn't know that his talk of attending Middle Tennessee State was a lie. [Mildred Lee, Tito Lee's father, Judy Flatt and others]

"I probably spent more time with Tito than with any child I've
ever coached," Flatt says.

Nothing could make less sense to Tito's friends. He was the
star. The captain.

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