An Inexplicable Loss
By Wayne Drehs
PHILADELPHIA -- It's a warm spring afternoon, and a handful of Kyle Ambrogi's Penn teammates -- Brad Martinez, Al Wawszcyk and Don Snyder -- are sitting on the patio at a Philadelphia café trying to make sense of their senior year.
Soon they will graduate and move on to the next chapter of their lives. But not without pain.
"We didn't come out of here complete," Wawszcyk says. "One of our friends didn't finish the journey with us."
Not a day goes by that they don't think about their friend. They can picture him running across the football field and walking across campus, but they only can talk to him only in their dreams. There, they ask him how he's doing, why this happened and what it's like where he is now.
"We just hang out and shoot the breeze," Martinez says. "The whole time, I know he's dead, he knows he's dead. But we just hang out and talk."
It's a healing mechanism. Ambrogi's mother, Donna, says hers kicked in the night she found her son.
"Once I came upstairs, I don't know, there was this weird feeling," she says. "Like hands on my shoulders. His hands. And they were telling me, 'You're OK, you're OK.' There was just this overwhelming sense of it's going to be OK."
The Penn football team dedicated its season to Ambrogi's memory, winning the first two games after his death. But wrestling with the emotions of a teammate's suicide, the Quakers lost their final four games, giving Penn its first five-loss season since 1999.
"You know you have a job to do. The world doesn't stop," Martinez says. "But at the same time, you can't help but wonder, 'Should we be here? Should we be doing this?' It just didn't feel right."
Penn running backs coach Steve Downs, who recruited Ambrogi as a senior at St. Joe's Prep, struggled mightily with his emotions after the suicide. He stayed in bed, didn't talk to many people and briefly considered leaving coaching before his wife talked him out of it. He still has a difficult time watching plays by Ambrogi on tape.
One of the biggest challenges Downs says he faces is sitting in another living room asking another set of parents to trust him with their son for the next four years.
"When you recruit a kid, his family trusts his well-being in your hands," Downs says. "I understand the pressures of something that is deeper than things we can explain, but that doesn't change the way I feel. I feel like I let him down. I feel like I let the family down. Donna tells me all the time not to feel that way, but I can't help it. It's the ultimate loss, deeper than any game or anything else I've ever faced."
Perhaps the biggest challenge is the fact that several of Ambrogi's teammates -- and Downs, as well -- never truly believed Kyle would act on his frustrations.
"If I would have had any idea, if there was any inkling in my mind that he was actually going to go that far, I would have moved into his apartment myself," Downs says. "I would have stayed with him all the time. I didn't think he would go that far."
Which is why Ambrogi's friends, family and coaches are doing everything they can to make sure this doesn't happen to someone else. Downs thinks coaches in all sports could benefit from a yearly seminar educating them on warning signs for depression as well as how to help a student-athlete face such emotional hurdles.
"It's a situation where we want to help kids," Downs says. "You're trying to do something helpful without giving bad information or saying the wrong thing. And it's hard. It'd be like one of those doctors or counselors telling the team what to do on a pass route."
Donna Ambrogi already has spoken to kids about the importance of growing emotionally in school as well as physically and mentally.
"The emotional development we forget about," she says. "Instead, you put too many eggs in the basket of being a football player or a great student and that's your whole identity. We don't take time to take care of the other pieces. I think that's where we got into trouble."
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, more than 60 percent of people who die by suicide suffer from major depression. Depression affects more than 19 million Americans, more than coronary heart disease, cancer and AIDS combined. Yet it is the most treatable of psychiatric illnesses, with between 80 and 90 percent of those with the illness responding positively to treatment.
"I was one of those people who thought depression and Prozac and all that was b.s.," Snyder says. "After Kyle, I totally buy into the whole thing. There's no way there could have been anything besides him being physically sick for this to happen."
Many of Ambrogi's friends and teammates now wear blue Lance Armstrong-like bracelets that feature his name, his number and the day he was born as well as the day he died. They sell them for $5 each to help raise money for a Penn football scholarship they hope to give in their friend's name.
They also hope that by telling Ambrogi's story, they can educate other students who face the same stresses -- school, work, sports and the future -- Ambrogi did.
"For one thing, you've got to say something to somebody," Snyder says. "Even if you don't know if it's the right person to talk to, say something."
Adds Martinez: "In a lot of cases, overanalysis can be a bad thing, but not here. The worst that will happen is you might annoy people, whereas if you underanalyze it, it can have real negative consequences."
John Connors, Ambrogi's best friend since first grade, stresses being there for that person as much as you can. Casey Edgar, Ambrogi's roommate, agrees.
"Do things that person enjoys," Edgar says. "Kyle enjoyed eating and going to restaurants. So we'd try to do those things to get his mind off what was happening."
But in the end, there's only so much all the love and support in the world can do. Connors can't begin to count the number of times he'd call Ambrogi to see how he was doing and Ambrogi wouldn't pick up. Martinez has similar feelings about all the times he'd invite Ambrogi to join him for a movie or a meal and Ambrogi would turn him down.
"You can't force it," Martinez says. "Part of them needs to be open to it."
Which is why, when she looks back, Donna Ambrogi's only real regret is her inability to convince her son that if he took his medication and went to his counseling sessions, he eventually was going to turn the corner. He couldn't see things that way.
"I had a wonderful relationship with him," Donna says. "We said, 'I love you' every day. I don't have any regrets other than we couldn't convince him he was going to get better. And that nothing he could ever do would disappoint me."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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