Doug Benc, Associated Press
FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2013, file photo, former NFL quarterback Eric Hipple speaks during an NFL Player Health and Safety press conference in New Orleans. Forty years since he graduated as arguably Utah State University's best quarterback, Hipple returns to campus as commencement speaker. His talk will be about recognizing depression and understanding there are treatments available.

LOGAN — Eric Hipple is returning to campus this week to give a talk he wishes he’d heard 40 years ago.

Hipple needs no introduction at Utah State University. He is arguably the best quarterback ever to play for the Aggies. He started four straight years, from 1976 through 1979, led the team to a 15-6-1 record and conference championships his last two seasons, and followed that with a 10-year career in the NFL with the Detroit Lions. At the end of the millennium, when Utah State compiled its all-20th-century team, Eric Hipple was the starting QB.

So no one had to ask “Who?” when USU announced that Hipple will receive an honorary doctorate and give the commencement address to the Class of 2019 this Thursday.

But he isn’t going to talk about football.

He’s going to talk about mental illness.

* * *

There were two Eric Hipples at Utah State. One was the star quarterback, the jock of jocks, the biggest man on campus. The other was a kid far away from home battling depression.

No one called it that, of course. Not in the 1970s. When Eric stayed in bed instead of getting up and going to his classes, when he laid around his apartment not wanting to do much of anything, when he didn’t smile or want to be around people, it was passed off as a moody teenager being a moody teenager, or maybe a star athlete being a prima donna — if it was passed off at all.

There was fallout from Eric’s actions. He flunked some classes. But he got help and plenty of it. The administration and his coaches stepped in to make sure of that. He stayed for summer school and made up his credits to remain eligible to play football and get his degree.

“I received the support because I was the starting quarterback,” says Hipple. “It was very, very quiet, but I got a lot of attention — a lot of people looking out for me. What I was going through wasn’t really identified as anything other than being an athlete. Stuff like that just wasn’t talked about at all.”

A decade of stardom in the NFL didn’t end the bad patches. Nor did marriage and a family and material possessions. The darkness still lurked. After retiring from football, it got so bad that Hipple dove out of a car speeding along a Michigan highway in a vain attempt to end it all.

“I wrote a note to my wife that said, ‘Sorry,’ and jumped out of a car going 75 mph,” says Hipple.

After that didn’t work and he recovered from his physical injuries, the bad went to absolute worse when three years later Eric’s 15-year-old, Jeff, himself a promising athlete but also battling the darkness, took his own life.

All sorts of hell broke loose for Hipple after that — drugs, alcohol, jail time, until the day he was invited to pay a visit to the University of Michigan Depression Center.

“I listened to these doctors talking about depression,” he remembers. “They talked about the symptoms, the brain chemistry that’s involved, the behaviors.

“My jaw dropped. Oh my gosh, this is the thing, this is what I’ve been fighting against. I never had a name for it, nobody did. But what they were describing was something I went through, something my son died from, and now here’s a name for it. In and of itself that was freeing.”

With knowledge came the power to do something about the mental illness that had been recurring throughout his life. He finally found treatment, and with it hope.

That’s when the Eric Hipple, who excelled in the world of top-level football, who was good at figuring out what defenses were trying to do to him before they could do it, turned his competitive focus on depression.

For the past 18 years he has devoted his life to helping others understand what depression is and how it can be treated. He has worked with a number of organizations dedicated to the same, starting with the place where he first learned depression has a name — the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center.

He helped start the After The Impact program, a residential treatment program serving military veterans and former NFL players. He joined forces with Transformations, an addiction and mental health treatment facility in Florida. He talks to high schools through the Mental Illness Resource Association.

The book he wrote in 2008, “Real Men Do Cry,” received a Publisher Presidential Award. Also in 2008 he received the Life Saver Achievement Award from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In 2010 the Detroit Lions honored him with its Courage House Award. In 2015 the University of Michigan gave him its Neubacher Award for his work with combating the stigma that is so often associated with disabilities.

No one can say Eric Hipple hasn’t done all he can do to address head-on the “thing” nobody talked about when he was in college.

He’s thrilled that his alma mater has asked him to speak this week at commencement.

7 comments on this story

“Not only is it a great honor and a great opportunity,” he says, “but they told me the reason they asked me isn’t because of my football career. It’s because of the work I’ve done in mental health. That meant a lot. I actually got choked up a little bit when they told me that.”

The message he’s bringing back to campus is one of understanding.

“Here’s this thing, let’s not die from it, let’s understand it and know that treatments are available, that life is a continuum, that there’s always hope,” he says.

That’s what he wishes he’d heard 40 years ago.