You may envision the NFL gridiron as a patchwork of guts and glory. Playing under blazing lights to the roar of hundreds of thousands of fans is the fantasy of many little boys who toss the leather-clad ball.
As a former NFL Detroit Lions quarterback, I know the unmatchable adrenaline rush of playing for a full stadium. But very few understand what goes on in the hearts and minds of players after the plastic cups are thrown away and the fans go home. On the outside, it looks like we have it all, but perception and optics don’t tell the full story.
People knew the Eric Hipple I put out for the world to see. As starting quarterback in high school, I led my team to the playoffs twice and landed a scholarship at Utah State University. But the summer before college, a car accident threatened to change my plans. I fractured my skull, blew out an eardrum, and separated a shoulder. The prognosis was bleak: no more football. Instead of accepting the doctor’s orders, however, I found another doctor willing to sign off and put me back in the game.
Those physical wounds healed, but there were other, less visible ones—emotional and mental scars that enveloped me in darkness. When my first college season ended, I slipped into my first real bout of depression and missed class for a quarter of my junior year.
You wonder how a quarterback with so many fans and teammates could feel alone. I was surrounded by many great people, but inside, I was a lonely outsider. That outsider waxed and waned as mental health disorders and depression put me on a roller coaster. I’d be up one day and down the next, especially during challenging life transitions.
I drank to try to outmaneuver my depression. Symptoms started standing out: sleep problems, irritability, loss of concentration, and loss of hope. Risky behavior emerged, and I didn’t understand why. So I used self-medication, workaholism, and avoidance to fight my way through the darkness.
I was a promising athlete, so people propped things around my mental health struggles to keep me going. When my grades made me ineligible to play, my coaches lined up summer school so I could earn my eligibility back. This erased the outward traces of depression, and I led my team to win championships. I was rated sixth in the NCAA for passing yards. I graduated with a business degree. A snapshot of my life showed me as having it all together.
But more hits came. I blew out a knee and initially flunked the physical to enter the NFL draft. I fought back again, and the Detroit Lions eventually drafted me in 1980 as the first pick of the fourth round.
I’d finally made it, I thought. I felt at home as a Lion. I went from third quarterback to the starting quarterback my second season. My first starting game with Monday Night Football was against the Chicago Bears. I had a great game, with four touchdown passes and two touchdowns that I ran into the end zone.
That game launched a ten-year career with three head coaches and five offensive coordinators. Those inconsistencies brought stress and pressure. My fans, teammates, and coaches expected me to be their rock—or so I felt. It seemed all eyes were on me.
More injuries came, and I was placed on injury reserve. I felt separated from the team as they moved forward in the game without me. I had lost charge of my environment. Sitting on the bench fed my depression. I had lost not only the adrenaline from the sport and the team but, in my mind, my relevance too. I felt inadequate at best. My fans were oblivious. And the depression grew stronger.
Midway through the season, I recovered my starting position but continued to struggle. I just couldn’t run like I needed to, and the morning after a poor performance against Minnesota, I was cut.
I hadn’t expected an eternal career in the NFL, but I sure wasn’t prepared for how abruptly it ended. The lights suddenly clicked to black, the stadium gates slammed shut, and a new reality set in. There would be no more cheering fans, no more big plays, no more locker room banter, and no more victories.
Grasping for control, I started an insurance business. It later crashed when the carrier pulled out. I filed for bankruptcy in 1998, feeling like a failure. This last blow was too much for me.
On the way to the airport for a trip to Arizona, I sat in the passenger seat of our SUV as my wife, Shelly, drove. My thoughts spun out of control. I just couldn’t go on this trip. My situation felt hopeless. I felt worthless. I grabbed a pen and a scrap of paper and scrawled the words, “I’m sorry.” Then, as we sped down the freeway at 75 mph, I shoved it onto Shelly’s lap, unlatched the door, and heaved my body out of the car. I didn’t intend to survive.
But God had other plans. I woke up in a hospital bed a day later—my body was beaten up but fully alive. Only Shelly and I knew what had happened. The press said I fell out of a moving car, and talk-show hosts made jokes about it.
Shelly kept the note as a reminder, but we never intended to share it. It would be too complicated and painful, and we’d already dealt with so much. How does a guy who’s been the pride of his city reach such a low? It was hard enough to understand as a family, let alone to explain it to fans.
The doctors, however, knew the truth. They lined up resources to help me deal with my mental health issues, but I didn’t want help. I didn’t want to be “that person.” I felt the stigma. My mind wasn’t clear. I drank more to escape my shame and went lower than I’d ever been before. I had no energy to move upward.
Meanwhile, my son, Jeff, a high school freshman and captain of his basketball team, began his own struggle with depression. The school year started well, but after the holidays, Jeff had no desire to go to school, and his grades dropped. He became ineligible to play basketball. I took him to his primary care physician to prove to him there was nothing wrong, then I headed to the airport and flew out on a business trip.
The next day, Shelly called. Jeff had taken his own life.
Losing my son was devastating. I repeatedly told myself, “Nobody understands how I feel.” I was sure I was the only person in the world who felt the way I did.
I’ve since learned that connection is a powerful antidote to depression. When I lost the most precious thing to me—my own child—I isolated myself, and that made things worse. Depression is all about feeling disconnected and unworthy. You feel like it’s not worth trying to connect to others; besides, you’re certain there’s no connection there for you anyway.
But I know now that it’s through revealing our pain, fears, thoughts, and weaknesses that we find common ground with others. Connection with people. Connection with God. Connection with His beautiful world—these all help us experience and be part of something larger than ourselves. In connecting, we realize we’re not alone.
But I wasn’t willing to connect. So I fought the system, resisted sobriety, and landed in jail for two months with a DUI. Stewing in my cell—desperate, with nowhere to go—I was forced to be still. And being still isn’t easy for someone like me.
At first, I couldn’t face myself. But I was finally able to face God. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
In this enforced stillness, I began to know, to just listen and know that God was God. He was in control and watching over me. He was with me, even when I was at my lowest point.
My natural reaction has always been to fix and control my life—to make split-second decisions. Psalm 46:10 reminded me that my job was simply to trust God.
I found peace in knowing that God was with me and I didn’t have to be in control. Slowly, through prayer and connection with my family, I began to feel their love, despite the huge hole in my heart from losing Jeff. I found comfort in remembering that God had lost His Son too. In fact, His love for me is what led Him to endure the greatest pain that exists.
Instead of outrunning the darkness that had been consuming me, I finally faced it. I began to learn about depression, and the more I did, the more I wanted to help others.
Doors began to open for me. I worked for 11 years in outreach programs with the University of Michigan Depression Center. I built a program for The Eisenhower Foundation called After the Impact, for former professional athletes and veterans leaving the game or the military and going through challenges they might not ever have faced before, including trauma and loss of identity. In 2018, I partnered with the Transformations Treatment Center in Delray Beach, Florida, a facility offering inpatient care for mental health and substance use disorders.
I’ve learned important tools to help people, including myself, combat depression. One of the biggest is coming to terms with who we are—mistakes and all. A therapist once told me, “Eric, your problem is in the discrepancy between the person you think you should be and how you measure up to that. The good news is, you created both of those roles. It’s okay to be who you really are.”
People can’t always accept who they are. Sometimes they need outside resources to help. That’s why I’m passionate today about connecting people to those resources. I’m also passionate about helping people know how to assist someone they love who’s in depression.
It’s important to simply listen and be present, to lay aside personal judgments regarding the person’s thoughts and moods. It’s important to speak words of hope, regardless of how hollow those words may sound to you. Hope can save a life. Without hope, people die. To me, hopelessness is the number-one killer.
Reminding people they have no reason to feel down doesn’t help. Reminding them of all the things they have to be thankful for does nothing for those who feel like they’re in a dark hole. It actually makes them feel worse. But reaffirming what they feel, encouraging them that life can change, and reminding them they are not alone does wonders. Say something like, “I’ll work with you; we’ll be here together.” But make sure you have boundaries in place to preserve yourself in the process.
There’s always hope in reframing one’s perspective. The reason people in Alaska can go through dark nights for winter is because they know the sun will be out again in the spring. That’s what transitions and trauma are all about: understanding that, yeah, it might be dark now, but the sun will come back out again.
If I’d had no hope or knowledge that would happen, I would have lived the rest of my life in darkness. But hope lies in not giving up; it’s found when we grasp something positive that is bigger than us.
We’ve all endured loss that can’t be reversed. But with God’s help, we can use our loss to spread hope to those who suffer.
Finally, I encourage you: if you need help, reach out. Don’t wait until you feel like doing it. Do it now. †