- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
Jason Flatt was 16 when he stood alone in his bedroom, raised his father's .38 caliber, stainless steel Smith & Wesson to his head and pulled the trigger.
There was no suicide note. The only two things Clark Flatt found that July 1997 day in his suburban Nashville home were the crumpled, lifeless body of his youngest son and, as it turned out, a calling.
Flatt grieved, but he also had an awakening. A close friend had asked, "Do you really understand what happened?" and the truth was, Flatt didn't have a clue. Jason was the kind of kid you gushed about in the Goodpasture High School yearbook. Then one day he killed himself.
"I always thought it was something that happened to other people," Flatt said.
He began running the numbers -- that's what insurance executives do, right? -- and he was stunned by the frequency of teenage suicides. So on a kitchen table in the cramped file room of his insurance office, Flatt held the first meeting of his newly established Jason Foundation. Flatt wanted to teach people about teenage suicide, about the "silent epidemic," as he called it, that claims more than 100 Jasons each week.
But nonprofits usually fail in their first two years. So one of the teenage volunteers suggested they get a spokesperson, someone with a national presence.
"Sure," said Flatt, humoring the kid. "Who do you have in mind?"
"Phillip Fulmer," he said.
Fulmer? This wasn't going to happen. Fulmer was football royalty in the state. Anyway, the Tennessee head coach was knee-deep in spring practice preparation and involved with his own charities. There was no way he was going to be the lead blocker for a mom-and-pop foundation in Hendersonville, Tenn.
But the board made up of teenagers wrote a letter to Fulmer explaining what had happened to Jason and why they needed the UT coach's help. Flatt figured they'd get a form letter back wishing them well.
A week later, the phone rang. It was Fulmer. Could Flatt and a few of his teen board members meet with him in Knoxville?
Flatt rehearsed his pitch during the three-hour drive. Ninety seconds into the speech, Fulmer stopped him. Fulmer didn't want to lend his name to the Jason Foundation. No, he wanted to lend everything -- his name, his time, his support, his fundraising muscle, even his own money -- to the cause. Otherwise, no deal.
Fulmer's first fundraiser dinner earned the Jason Foundation about $12,000. "I thought we raised the national debt," Flatt said.
Fulmer did the dinners, the public-service announcements, the speeches and appearances. And if funds were still short, he reached into his own pocket.
If Flatt asked Fulmer to call a kid who was struggling with depression, the only question was, "What's the phone number?" And he didn't hesitate when Flatt asked him to talk with parents who had lost a son or daughter to teenage suicide.
"If it hadn't been for him " said Flatt, pausing a moment to compose himself. "I'm not trying to hype this, but I owe what I'm able to do to honor my son and save other peoples' lives to Coach Fulmer."
I mentioned this to Fulmer several days later. He fidgeted on his office couch and stared at his shoes. "I'm not looking for attention," he said.
Turns out the hard-ass coach has a soft spot for anything to do with families. The man goes absolutely Hallmark at the mention of his wife and four children. Even a Bama fan would admire his devotion to them, and them to him.
"I can't imagine losing a child, period," Fulmer said.
Fulmer has his own children, then the 100 or so players on the Tennessee football roster. He never has suffered a tragedy in his own family, but he said at least one UT player in the past attempted to commit suicide. Several other players contemplated it, and there have been other players who suffered from varying degrees of depression. In some of those cases, Fulmer and his staff were able to recognize the warning signs, arrange for counseling, and, who knows, perhaps prevent another Jason moment.
"Knock on wood," said Tennessee assistant coach Steve Caldwell, "we haven't lost any since we've been here."
If you want to know why Fulmer will never abandon the Jason Foundation, no matter how financially fit it becomes, simply mention Steve Caldwell's name. There will be a wince, a hard silence and a deep breath before he goes on.
In 2002, shortly after UT's freshmen reported for fall practice, Caldwell was working in his office when he was told Fulmer needed to see him. When he walked into the room, Fulmer and assistant coaches Dan Brooks and John Chavis were waiting for him. He doesn't remember exactly what Fulmer said, except that his 20-year-old son Landon was dead.
It wasn't the first time Landon had wanted to commit suicide, but the family thought perhaps he had turned the corner on his problems. Instead, he got a gun and did what Jason Flatt had done.
"I can even go back to when he ended up committing suicide," said Caldwell, his office full of family photos. "The tone of his voice I should have recognized it."
The tone of his voice. The resignation. The withdrawal. The inconsistent behavior. There are all sorts of warning signs and alarms. But even though Caldwell still has fist fights with his guilt, there is a limit to a parent's reach.
Fulmer arranged for Clark Flatt to speak to Caldwell. Caldwell was so touched by Flatt's own story that he asked Flatt to speak at Landon's funeral. Now Caldwell, who until several years ago was too grief-stricken to discuss Landon's death, talks with other parents about teenage suicide.
"You would be surprised at the people who call and are concerned about their children," Caldwell said.
There are still pinholes in Caldwell's heart. The UT assistant coach sometimes still ducks into Landon's room and glances at the 7¾-pound largemouth bass mounted on the wall. Landon caught it when he was about 10 years old.
"You little fart," Caldwell will say, as if Landon were there. "If you'd just stuck around, we'd be doing more of this."
Fulmer knew Landon. Everybody knew him. Landon was a regular at the UT football facility, the practice field and the games.
And, in a way, Fulmer also knew Jason Flatt. Maybe that's why, during a visit to Nashville several years ago, he told Clark that he'd like to visit Jason's gravesite one day.
"We can do it now," Clark said.
So they drove to Woodlawn East Cemetery in Hendersonville, found Jason's marker and spent about a half hour on a nearby bench under a shade tree.
"That was just two dads sitting together," Clark said.
The two dads spent more time together earlier this spring at the state Capitol in Nashville. They were there to lobby legislators for the passage of the Jason Flatt Act of 2007, which would require two hours of suicide awareness training for teachers and principals each year.
Fulmer knew the research numbers by broken heart: Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for those 15-24. It's the second-leading cause of death for college-age students. And of those who commit suicide, four out of five give clear warning signs before killing themselves.
The bill passed, 99-0.
And a week ago, the two dads helped raise about $150,000 for the Jason Foundation at the annual Phillip Fulmer Golf Classic. They think they can do even better next year.
Flatt started with one foundation office in the file room of his insurance office. Two years into it, he quit his job to work on the foundation full time. Now there are 64 foundation offices in 29 states, as well as a presence in India, Russia, American Samoa, Canada, Italy and the United Kingdom. Most of the budget comes from corporate donations, but it still isn't enough.
"He doesn't have enough resources," Fulmer said, "but he will."
That isn't a coach talking. That's a dad.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
21hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler