By Kyle Daubs
Last Thursday, I was trying to go about a new-normal day of online teaching. As I sat in my house listening to faded tunes of nursery rhymes that keep my daughter entertained while my students worked, my phone vibrated with a notification.
One of my colleagues in the coaching community sent me a link to an obituary for Trevor Till, a 2020 graduate of Seneca High School. Till had committed suicide in late October after struggling with isolation due to the coronavirus.
My heart stopped.
I remembered him.
While I never had a conversation with Till, I coached against Seneca, which is in the conference that my team competes in each year for cross country and track. He was a member of the 2018 state qualifying cross country team as one of the team’s backend runners. And he was a state qualifier in pole vault during his junior season.
That wasn’t all.
In his obituary, it stated he was also the president of his high school student body and a part of the National Honor Society. He was a drum major and won the lead male lead in the school musician The Music Man. He was a captain of the speech team, was known as Mr. Irish for his school spirit and was enrolled as a freshman at the University of Illinois.
How could someone so energetic, lively, and talented be gone so quickly?
We have lived abnormally for nine months with the coronavirus, adapting as best we can. But there are only so many Zoom calls, Facebook messenger chats, or Xbox Live parties to create an artificial social environment.
Trevor’s mother, a member of the Illinois High School Sports Central group on Facebook, shared her story earlier this week – which is where my friend saw the notification. His mother claimed that COVID-19 took away the musical and his track season while the college experience he had hoped disappeared. He missed interacting with his friends and educators.
I realized it had been a couple of weeks, maybe a month, since I had talked to some of my athletes. With basketball season right around the corner and the completion of cross country, the month of November and parts of December are usually a break for our spring athletes. A lot of my track and field athletes also participate in basketball and swimming, so they don’t normally join our preseason training early anyway.
Here’s the problem, though: There’s no basketball. Or swimming.
I texted all of my athletes with the same message: “Hey. Going around and checking in. How are you doing?”
Most replied; some didn’t. That’s OK because we all have something going on. What mattered is that most of us talked and they are doing OK outside the struggles of end-of-the-year duties in class.
I am one of those coaches who shares my cell phone number with my kids. I have had kids text me in the past about their struggles with mental health, or have just wanted life advice. Texting back and forth does not bother me. I have always told people they have my number until they give me a reason to not have it.
I am telling all of you who are reading this because we may have to brace for impact. The coach’s role might have to expand past teaching an athlete how to play a specific sport. We clearly don’t coach for the paycheck. We coach because we love the game and we love the kids.
We could be missing signs within our team. Everyone is struggling with battling the pandemic, but the importance of mental health gets lost along the way.
In the deep trenches of my depression, I tried to commit suicide while in high school. I swallowed a bunch of pills, managed to throw up some afterward, but I was still rushed to the hospital. At the time, I never told the doctors or family why I was in so much pain. They thought my appendix was going to burst, and somehow I escaped that night without ever having to talk about why I wanted to kill myself.
And that was when life was “normal” and a virus didn’t linger.
The IHSA is meeting again later this month to determine the timeline for winter, spring, and summer sports. It’s not looking promising, but I will continue to be hopeful that at least a conference-only season can be mustered.
If the decision goes south, I hope that friends, parents, coaches, and the community will continue to support and reach out to one another. Please brace for the full impact on athletes if the winter sports season is canceled.
I don’t want Coles County to feel the loss of what Seneca felt.
Especially if all it takes is just asking: “How are you doing?”