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Ishpeming coach Jeff Olson back at state finals after son's suicide


12:00 AM, Nov. 23, 2012 EST

Ishpeming High School football coach Jeff Olson had his son Daniel Olson by his side at football games for years. Daniel Olson's suicide this summer has driven the team back to the state championships, with a desire to win for their coach and with Olson's desire to win for his son. / Olson family photo

In all his years, Jeff Olson never dreaded practice like this. The Ishpeming football coach had no idea how he would react once he got to the field. And that scared him.

Would he collapse? Would he feel nothing? Could he focus? Did he have anything left to offer his kids?

All of these questions -- and dozens more -- darted through Olson's mind as he drove along Lake Superior on the morning of Aug. 6 from his Marquette home to the practice field in Ishpeming. It was the first day of football season, normally one of his favorite times. But 18 days earlier, Olson's 19-year-old son, Daniel Olson, had committed suicide.

For as long as Jeff could remember, Daniel had one dream: to help his father win a state championship. Nearly two years before he took his life, that dream almost came true, when, as a senior quarterback, Daniel led Ishpeming to the Division 7 title game at Ford Field. The Hematites lost to Hudson by two points.

Jeff Olson and Ishpeming are back in the championship game for the second time in three years -- the Hematites play Detroit Loyola at 10 a.m. Saturday. They are back in large part because of the team's desire to win for their coach and by the coach's desire to win the title for his son.

Olson thought of none of this back in early August as he drove to practice. He just wanted to know whether he was still capable of coaching.

A son's battle

About 2 million adolescents try to take their lives every year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. About 2,000 succeed. Nearly every adolescent or teenager who attempts suicide suffers from some form of psychiatric disorder.

Olson is sharing his family's story because he wants to help others and hopes to take away some of the stigma. He wants people to know that even though his son had a severe case of depression, most forms of depression are treatable.

For the last five years of Daniel Olson's life, doctors tried an array of mood stabilizers. In the end, his brain chemistry was simply too volatile.

Such severity is uncommon, doctors told Jeff and his wife, Sally Olson. Last spring, one psychiatrist informed the family that Daniel was dying, much as an oncologist might prepare parents with news of incurable leukemia. Even before the doctor's stark pronouncement, Daniel had tried to commit suicide twice, the last time during his junior year. He had been hospitalized twice.

For Jeff, his son's illness felt so heavy, it carried a bit of inevitability. Every day, he wondered what he would find when he got home.

The dread builds, he said, so that "you can't feel your legs. You go numb. It was nothing I would recommend for anyone. We were walking on eggshells."

But only Daniel's immediate family and closest friends understood the nature of his ailment. He was a bright and energetic kid who fell in love with football the moment his father plopped him onto the sidelines to pass out water on Friday nights. From then on, he spent the fall at his father's side as he grew into an all-state quarterback.

"It was his passion," said his mother, Sally. "It was where he was happiest."

Daniel was able to relax on the field, his father said. He could throw and run and lead the huddle. He could make people miss, which was a good thing, considering he stood about 5 feet 8 and topped out at 165 pounds.

"He was an extremely tough kid," Jeff said. "He could take a lot of punishment. And he was competitive."

A quality, Jeff argues, that kept his son alive.

After graduating in 2011, Daniel went to St. Norbert College in Wisconsin to study accounting and to play football as a defensive back. He navigated the first semester carefully, but in the winter, Daniel's panic attacks returned. Sometimes, they would come twice a day, lasting as long as 90 minutes.

His doctor ordered him back to his family's home in Marquette to rest. Equilibrium returned, at least momentarily. He began selling kitchen knives to earn money. He planned to transfer to Northern Michigan University in Marquette and try to walk onto the football team.

His dad offered him an assistant coaching spot in Ishpeming. By early summer, he was helping players there work out. He taught defensive backs and quarterbacks. He knew all of the kids and had played with half of them.

"He worked so hard," senior linebacker BJ Poirier said. "He wanted us to finish what he started in the championship game."

Despite being home, and back around football, and back next to his father, Daniel struggled to escape his depression.

Jeff supplements his income in the summer with construction work. On July 19 -- a Thursday -- Daniel accompanied his father to a job. The two had lunch together at a local Jimmy John's.

In the early afternoon, Daniel went fishing with his best friend and his younger brother, Isaac, 13. He returned home and spent some time with his two sisters, Taylor, 18, and Jaime, 16. His mother was in Lansing that day at a work conference.

During the late afternoon, Daniel told his family he was going to the bathroom downstairs.

Jeff found his son about a half hour later. He had taken his life in the laundry room.

A team's strength

Jeff Olson had built one of the best programs in the Upper Peninsula during his 20-year tenure. He had made the state playoffs the previous 10 seasons and 13 of the last 14.

When he arrived in Ishpeming in 1992, more kids tried out for the basketball team (28) that year than had shown up the first day of football practice (17). Slowly, he showed the kids they could win, no matter their size, if they put in the work.

No class exemplifies this ethos more than this year's. The senior group -- 12 players -- isn't as talented as Daniel Olson's was. Nor do they have the size. But ask any teacher in the district, and they'll say: "Best group of kids I ever taught."

Jeff said he's never coached a more cohesive, dedicated or responsible group. Or a team that has endured more heartache: The starting quarterback's brother overdosed last year, and during the eighth week of this season, an eighth-grader in the community was killed by a drunken driver. The boy's older sister is a close friend to most of the players.

When the players got the news about Daniel's death, many showed up at his house and camped out till nearly dawn, comforting his sister Jaime, their classmate. Four days later, the team showed up en masse again, this time at the funeral, wearing their jerseys, lining up in the pews normally reserved for the choir.

Senior lineman Brad Wootke got the idea to wear the jerseys and called assistant coach Scott Syrjala. "I went down and met them at the locker room and handed out the jerseys," Syrjala said.

So began the journey that culminates this Saturday when the Hematites -- named after the mineral form of iron oxide that supports the mining community of Ishpeming -- face favored Loyola, a team whose biggest player outweighs Ishpeming's by nearly 50 pounds.

Win or lose, this senior class has taken this community on an unlikely ride, revealing a kind of grace many don't discover until years into adulthood. This shouldn't be surprising. After all, this is the same group of kids who welcomed Eric Dompierre onto the team, a senior with Down syndrome, whose father, Dean Dompierre, spent two years fighting the Michigan High School Athletic Association until it changed its age-restriction rules.

Maybe most remarkable, the team has reminded a coach what it means to coach and helped a father cope with his grief.

Jeff saw that when he pulled into the practice-field parking lot in early August, after the most fretful drive of his career. As he opened the door and stood in the parking lot, he knew he was in the right place, knew that he could talk about his son here and that his players could in turn talk to him about Daniel, too.

"He told us not to be afraid to use his name," Wootke said, "not to be afraid to ask questions and to talk about him."

The conversation continues Saturday.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor

Join us for live coverage of the prep football finals Friday and Saturday at freep.com/sports. Vote for the state's top football rivalry. And if you're at a game and want to contribute score updates, use the #mipreps hash tag on Twitter.

More Details: Warning signs

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, and the sixth leading cause of death for 5- to14-year-olds in the U.S., according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The Academy has identified the following warning signs for parents:

* Change in eating and sleeping habits.

* Withdrawal from friends, family and regular activities.

* Violent actions, rebellious behavior, or running away.

* Drug and alcohol use.

* Unusual neglect of personal appearance.

* Marked personality change.

* Persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating, or a decline in the quality of schoolwork.

* Frequent complaints about physical symptoms, often related to emotions, such as stomach aches, headaches, fatigue, etc.

* Loss of interest in pleasurable activities.

* Not tolerating praise or rewards.

A teen who is planning to commit suicide might complain of being a bad person or feeling rotten inside or give verbal hints with statements such as: "I won't be a problem for you much longer," "Nothing matters," "It's no use," and, "I won't see you again."

 

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