Sacramento Bee

A Mother's Crusade

 By Scott Howard-Cooper – Sacramento Bee Staff Writer

Last Updated 8:45 am PDT Monday, October 9, 2006

Screenshot Jan at Grave

Jan Ulrich visits the grave of her son, Nathan Eisert, in Louisville, Ky., last month. Ulrich said she realized at her son’s funeral service, looking at his teammates, that she had to do all she could to prevent suicides by other student-athletes.    Special to The Bee 

 LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Jan Ulrich needed to know whether Nathan was in heaven or hell, she said, because a mother should look after her child and she was going to find him and comfort him.

That was how it started.

Immediately after her son's death, Jan says she became numb, almost unconscious. She remembers bringing hair gel and a comb to the front of the church before the memorial service, and leaning into the casket to fix Nathan's hair. The people at the funeral home had not brushed down the sides the way Nathan liked.

Jan talked to Nathan a lot as she worked, though she can't remember what she said. She mostly recalls looking over and seeing the man from the funeral home in tears as she chatted away.

When the service began, she became possessed. This, she remembers vividly. She felt called, and she knew exactly what it was she wanted to say.

Nathan Eisert, her son, had killed himself, and college sports were to blame. Jan Ulrich was sure of that.

The call to the campus police at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green was logged in at 8:17 p.m. on June 10, 2002. There had been a possible suicide in one of the dorms, Pearce-Ford Tower, in Room 918.

The report states that four officers responded within four minutes. A white male was discovered on the bed with what appeared to be a gunshot wound to the right side of the head. A handgun, a .380-caliber cartridge and several incidentals also were catalogued. The scene was secured.

Nathan's father, Glenn Eisert, was already there. He was the one who had discovered the body.

Glenn had been home, about three miles from school, when he began the search for his son. Nathan hadn't shown up at the park the day before, when he and Glenn had planned to practice softball in preparation for joining their church team.

It was unlike Nathan, routinely considerate of others, to skip an appointment. But maybe, Glenn thought, Nathan confused the days or went to the wrong park. Maybe he just plain forgot.

Glenn called, and kept calling as the hours passed and the day turned. By Monday evening, he was panicking. He drove to Pearce-Ford Tower.

Nathan's car was in the parking lot, so Glenn went inside and told a worker that he needed to get into Room 918. His son lived there, he said. Something may have happened.

That was Monday. The funeral was Thursday, a daytime service. It was conducted at the church where Nathan had been baptized as an infant, and where Jan had met Glenn in a youth group, before they dated through her high school years and eventually married as she attended the University of Louisville.

Now, in that same church, Jan was struck by the sense that she had to say something. She felt impelled to speak. To a woman for whom Christian faith meant so much, these were not glancing emotions.

Western Kentucky athletes were in the church. They were with Nathan on that day as he had been with them for two years on the basketball team, as a freshman walk-on who scraped his way to a scholarship as a sophomore.

The pastor spoke. Friends and teammates spoke. Jan came last.

She rose from the first row and felt the room clench. A mother was about to eulogize her son, and no one knew what to expect. After all, Jan had already collapsed to her knees once, when picking out the casket; the man at the funeral home had asked her to choose the color for the lining, as if she were picking car upholstery.

But when she rose, friends saw Jan transformed into a mother empowered with purpose. Her crusade for suicide prevention, in fact, began on the spot.

Eventually, that crusade would lead Jan to take on Western Kentucky, the athletic department and basketball coach Dennis Felton, demanding changes in the way they approached the delicate issue of athletes and depression.

In this unscripted instant, though, she focused on Nathan's peers. She chastised every one of them. She told them not to allow what happened to Nathan to happen to them. She said they'd better not dare consider suicide as a way out, told them to sear the image into their minds of their parents picking out their children's caskets.

"I want you to think about what I've gone through the last few days," Jan said to Nathan's friends, his teammates. "I want you to remember this."

She delivered her message: that whatever happened in Room 918, it did not solve any problem. She said it with Nathan in the open casket at her side.

The mother had entered her consuming crusade, without planning it, without realizing it and, of course, without wanting it.

"At first, it was, maybe if I work hard enough, I can bring him back," she said later. "But that didn't work. And I'm still going."

Four years later, Jan seems exhausted from trying to prevent other mothers of college athletes from experiencing what she suffers. Yet, there is always a new mom to meet and console.

That's where the guilt comes now, from not reaching families she hasn't yet met to help stop what she could not prevent with her own son.

Jan eventually was certified by the QPR Institute, a national suicide-prevention group, and she grieves her way through three or four awareness presentations a month. Some are directed at the warning signs of crisis, and intervention; some are support meetings with families and friends left behind by self-inflicted tragedy.

Survivor groups, they call those. Not because the loved one survived, but because everyone around them has to find a way to.

The speeches are targeted at everyone, not only athletes or college students. Sports are part of Jan's story, and that aspect of it connects with audiences. It's Kentucky, after all. Of course she is going to show a picture of Nathan playing basketball.

Beyond that, Jan says she feels certain that sports played a role in Nathan's death -- in particular, the mind-set that athletes can't show weakness, that they must play through pain.

Nathan played through it all until he went to his father's house. He took the gun from there.

Glenn Eisert liked to shoot for marksmanship. The father, divorced from Jan and living in Bowling Green, kept several guns, all locked away, and Nathan was the only person to whom he told the location of the keys.

Glenn said he didn't like the 9 mm pistol anymore, so he didn't notice that the locked metal briefcase had vanished. It's impossible to even know when Nathan took it, only that the ultimate decision in Room 918 was a planned act. Nathan had to take the gun, and he had to get bullets somewhere, because Glenn didn't have any.

Jan says she now believes her son was suffering from severe depression, and felt as if he couldn't ask for help. He was a walk-on at Western Kentucky who had been given a one-year scholarship, and he certainly wasn't going to show himself as unworthy.

Nathan got the scholarship the summer after his freshman season, the 2000-01 school year. It was a major accomplishment for someone who hadn't started playing basketball until his junior year in high school, after sprouting three inches from the year before, to 6-foot-3. Nathan seemed to love college, the chemistry of the team and the success in reaching the NCAA Tournament.

But almost immediately, there was a hurdle. The very day he was put on scholarship, not 30 minutes after telling his father the good news, Nathan severely sprained an ankle.

Jan thinks the depression started then. There was physical pain -- a common trigger of depression, mental-health experts say -- and a brutal rehabilitation, in which Nathan pushed himself almost without restraint.

He couldn't let down the team. His family and friends in Louisville and in Bowling Green had so cheered his success. He couldn't fail them.

His sophomore season came. Trying to compensate for the still-undependable ankle, Nathan developed a back problem.

The team's roster, meanwhile, had changed -- and so had the mood around it. Nathan found himself struggling to get in games, and struggling to perform anywhere close to his expectations when he did play.

Jan could see the disappointment on his face. She ached at the sight, and of Nathan apologizing to her for not getting into a game, after she had driven from Louisville, 110 miles away.

Several times, she says, she confronted him about whether he was still having fun.

"Oh, Mom," Nathan replied. "You don't have to worry about me. I'm fine."

It was Nathan the peacemaker, his mother now says. He didn't like confrontation. He was trusted, the guy other people went to with a problem. He seemed conscious of not being a burden.

One by one, though, red flags were raised. Nathan's grades, once a source of pride, slipped dramatically. His sleep seemed erratic, with Nathan sometimes appearing exhausted. The coaching staff got reports that Nathan had been cutting classes, his father said.

His sophomore season ended abruptly when he was removed from the team because of academic issues, his father said. No one told Nathan it was a permanent decision, only that his scholarship would not be renewed at that time.

Glenn was informed, and he couldn't help but wonder if his son was a little relieved to get away from the expectations. Players were informed, but they still spent time with Nathan and referred to him as a teammate.

No one, least of all Nathan, informed Jan.

Weeks passed. Nathan turned 20 on May 27, 2002, and his mother served cake and ice cream on plates with a basketball motif. Another day, when they were at the mall together, Nathan wondered why people seemed to be staring. Jan said they must be trying to figure out where this tall kid played basketball.

She says she can't get over, now, how those moments must have been such a kick in the gut for her wounded son.

Nathan's last trip home to Louisville ended in a fight with his girlfriend. He was internalizing everything and she was frustrated because he wouldn't talk. Finally, while they were in a car, she said she couldn't be in a relationship with someone who wouldn't open up. The girlfriend later told Jan that Nathan's response to that was to slam his fist into the dashboard and shout, "I'm so angry!"

It had been five weeks since he was kicked off the team. He drove back to Bowling Green that Saturday night, through open country and darkness. No one heard from Nathan Eisert again.

Nathan may have been dead close to two days when his father opened the door and found him, authorities say. No one in the dorms reported hearing a gunshot. The date of death was listed as June 8, a Saturday.

When police responded the night of the 10th, they found a picture of a male and female torn in two alongside a broken frame. Also found was a bottle of 56 Skelaxin pills, a prescription muscle relaxant to treat injuries. But no explanation.

Jan and Glenn had not gotten along since their divorce years earlier, communicating mostly on parental issues, they both acknowledge. After the tragedy, they stopped talking altogether. If there was anything to say, e-mail worked fine. That's how they decided on a headstone for their son, they remember. E-mails.

They share a 21-year-old daughter and, always, a son, and they haven't spoken since days after the funeral, each said. Jan says she has sympathy for what Glenn walked into that night, and shows the courtesy to warn Glenn if reporters might be calling about their son or if she will be speaking about suicide prevention near Bowling Green.

Glenn, for his part, understands that Jan putting herself out there, in hopes of saving someone else's child, is part of the grieving process.

But it ends there. Glenn thinks Jan is too slick in her presentation, that her intimate story is too much. Jan can't forget Glenn failing to tell her about Nathan being kicked off the team, and can't forgive him for the gun.

"I think that she does what she needs to do to help her get through it and cope with it," Glenn said. "Personally, I think she's gone overboard. But if that's what she needs, fine."

Said Jan: "This is all I know to make a difference. One article, one TV appearance, one piece of legislation isn't enough."

Glenn still stays close to the Western Kentucky basketball team. He goes to games and takes photos for the school's sports information department, making a special point to get shots of walk-ons and players at the end of the bench.

"It's a healing process," said Pam Eisert, Glenn's wife. "It's still somewhat of a connection to Nathan. We come here and we can feel him. We still feel support from the players, whether they're still here or not. "It fills an empty void. I don't know if I'm saying this right. It's a comfort."

Jan remains in Louisville, her hometown, with her husband, Stephen Ulrich, and she cannot get far enough away from Bowling Green. She went to the campus to collect some of Nathan's belongings, and has given presentations there. She even took part in ceremonies the next season when the 2001-02 team was honored for winning the Sun Belt Conference and reaching the NCAA Tournament.

But Western Kentucky still mostly makes her cringe.

Jan can't get past coach Dennis Felton not talking to a player, even a former player recently dismissed, for a month after delivering such life-altering news -- not a single call to check on Nathan, a good kid who, as far as anyone knew at the time, simply lost academic focus.

Asked about the incident, the coach has said he couldn't be expected to know that trouble was barreling down when the people closest to Nathan missed it, too.

Felton was right that Jan was as unaware of the signs as anyone. She doesn't deny it. And, besides, as much as she blames an uncaring system for her son's death, her issue with Felton is more what has he done about it since. That is what churns her emotions about Western Kentucky.

Jan wants to know that her son's death made a difference, in much the same way that it spurred her to work for suicide prevention. The athletic department has responded to the tragedy by building a closer relationship with the student-counseling office. During meetings with teams before their seasons start, the athletic department now makes athletes aware of the services offered by the counseling office and encourages athletes to seek help for any emotional needs.

But Jan wants to know that it also changed something with Felton, who left after the 2002-03 season to become head coach at Georgia. She has not spoken with him since.

"I would like him as an ally," Jan said. "I would like him to say: 'It was a loss for me, too. I want to ensure that other coaches don't or won't have to deal with this.' That's what I'd like him to say."

Said Felton: "I don't do anything differently. I have always been attentive to my players. But I don't know that suicide would pop into my mind before, the way it may now.

"She (Jan) never insinuated she had any problem with me. I've always been an ally. We talked as often as she wanted to talk."

Nathan was returned to Louisville for the service and burial. Jan and her husband, Stephen, Glenn and his wife, Pam, eventually ordered the headstone.

"GOD'S BIG ANGEL," it says on the top of the plate in the ground at the head of the grave.

Jan is sure of that, though she says she knows suicide is a sin within the church. On the night of the horrible news, the pastor who had come to the house called everyone together in prayer, and talked about how Nathan could not make a rational decision in a time of such deep grief.

The pastor said Nathan would not be abandoned by a loving God, and at that moment Jan had her answer.

Nathan was in heaven.

About the writer:  The Bee's Scott Howard-Cooper can be reached at Bee staff writer Mark Kreidler contributed to this story.

Nathan Eisert's dream unraveled quickly after he earned
a scholarship at Western Kentucky. An injury slowed Eisert's
play, and then his grades began to slip, leading to the
sophomore's removal from the team. The Courier-Journal

Jan Ulrich has been certified by a national
suicide-prevention group, and conducts
three or four presentations a month that
focus on depression warning signs and
intervention. The sessions also provide
support for family members devastated
by suicide.    Special to The Bee






Nathan Alan Eisert Foundation, Inc.


© Stephen Ulrich 2013