Player suicides lead to tough set of questions for coaches
NEW YORK (AP) A suicide at Northwestern brought back painful memories for Penn track coach Steve Dolan.
It was three years ago that one of his athletes, Madison Holleran, killed herself. He could empathize with what Northwestern coach Joe McKeown and his team were going through when Wildcats guard Jordan Hankins took her own life last week.
''My heart goes out to the students of the team on Northwestern and her family and friends,'' Dolan said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. ''In our society at large, and on college campuses, it's a real problem and we're concerned. It's hard to fathom and deal with it.''
A study released last year found that of 477 deaths of NCAA athletes from 2003-12, 35 had killed themselves , including 13 football players. The overall suicide rate for NCAA athletes was 0.93 per 100,000, lower than the incidence rate of 7.5 per 100,000 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported for all college students.
The sudden loss of a teammate hits players hard, but it presents coaches with a different set of difficult questions. When do they start to play or practice again? Is it a chance to teach or better to give players space and time to grieve?
After the body of 19-year-old Hankins was found in her dorm room, Northwestern postponed its game at Minnesota, scheduled for last Wednesday. The Wildcats played at home on Saturday against Indiana, beating the Hoosiers in an emotional game that included a tribute to their teammate.
The 60-year-old McKeown has coached for almost 1,000 games, but nothing he had faced prepared him for this.
''Everything I'm telling you is off the top of my head,'' he said after the game. ''We're going to lean on each other.''
Dolan leaned on former Penn football coach Al Bagnoli, who had two players who killed themselves during his long tenure at the school.
''I dealt with it a lot more than I ever dreamt of dealing with it,'' said Bagnoli, now the coach at Columbia. ''It's a very difficult scenario. The kids are trying to identify what has happened and there are no answers. There are no answers that can justify the action. It's always tragic when you lose a young person.''
The coaches and players are left figuring out how and when is the right time to move forward.
While Northwestern postponed its game, Dolan had a tough choice when Holleran died. His team had a meet the next morning. With a co-ed team of nearly 100 members, including some who didn't know the freshman that well, he let his players choose whether they wanted to compete.
''The healing process is different for different people,'' Dolan said. ''We had part of the team compete because they wanted to and they thought that was the best way to honor Madison. We had others who didn't and stayed back.''
Dolan sent a few assistants to the meet and stayed on campus to be there for his athletes.
''That's how we did it,'' Dolan recalled. ''I'm not sure there's a right or wrong answer. You try and do things you love to do. Our team likes to do track and field and they chose to do it. It's a physical outlet. It's difficult as a coach, the hardest thing I've had to deal with by far. The challenge of the sadness and the challenge I felt personally, yet trying to still be a strong leader for others.''
One of Bagnoli's players, lineman Owen Thomas, killed himself in April 2010. Thomas' death came five years after Penn running back Kyle Ambrogi killed himself during the season, two days after scoring two touchdowns in a game.
''Our first one happened right in the middle of the season and the second one happened during the spring,'' Bagnoli recalled. ''Each were devastating, each was arguably the most popular kid on the team. Each one had a different set of circumstances. No one saw it coming. ... You question yourself, why didn't I see this. You're dealing with the kids on a very extended basis. That's the first thing you have to come to grips with.''
When Ambrogi died, the team, which included the player's brother, decided the best way to honor his memory was to keep playing, Bagnoli said.
Both Dolan and Bagnoli said the deaths helped bring their teams together.
''I felt that, over time, in a way, it made our team come closer,'' Dolan said. ''We really valued each other, going through this together, we needed to support each other. We needed to pull together.''
McKeown and the Wildcats took their first step by playing Saturday.
''We as a team decided she would want (us) to play,'' Northwestern point guard Ashley Deary said. ''She loved this game. We've been through so much this past week. To get that win for her and get that release, (there was) just satisfaction knowing we could come together and play as hard as it was.''
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