Suicide By Son Of Coach

Thursday, December 29, 2005
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Suicide by son of coach opens door to dialogue


Bob Hill

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Even as the loud, self-important sports world pauses, however briefly, to share in the terrible sorrow of Tony Dungy -- the Indianapolis Colts football coach who lost a son to suicide -- Jan Ulrich understands that for Dungy's family and friends, the pain will never go away.

Ulrich lost her 20-year-old son, Nathan Eisert, a former basketball player at Western Kentucky University, to suicide four years ago. As with James Dungy -- who was found dead in his Florida apartment at 18 after an overdose of painkillers -- Eisert had been dealing with depression. Florida authorities, in fact, said James Dungy previously overdosed on prescription drugs.

"If you become aware of the signs of depression, you will start seeing what you missed," Ulrich said.

"It will torment you. … Perhaps you could have saved his life. … I could have done this and should have done that … and why didn't I?"

Ulrich and her husband, Stephen, found their way through the grief and guilt by working to make people more aware of the grim statistics of suicide -- the deaths nobody wants to talk about.


Among them: About 500 Kentucky residents die every year by suicide -- more than double the homicide rate.

Kentucky has the 19th highest suicide rate in the nation; suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Kentuckians 15 to 34 years old, and the fourth-leading cause of death for 35- to 54-year-olds.

The Ulrichs' mission -- along with many volunteers -- was to lobby Frankfort to make sure there would always be a statewide suicide-prevention program.

"Our beginning goal was to make sure government officials at the top knew there was a problem, and then try to seed local efforts in individual communities," Jan Ulrich said.

State steps in

The result: Gov. Ernie Fletcher unveiled a statewide campaign on Sept. 1 to "help educate and inform Kentuckians about how suicide affects our state." It began a "Suicide Prevention: It's Everybody's Business" campaign featuring radio and television public service announcements.

It has been a slow process. Ulrich has learned that few people, law-enforcement officers or even health professionals have learned to read the signs of clinical depression.

She would like to see the education process expanded into Kentucky schools but understands that's a very delicate task; any information given out must include "a next step solution" for students at risk, and few schools have the trained professionals to deal with those students.

What she has found -- and James Dungy's suicide, however tragic, has prompted more discussion on the subject -- is that more people within the college athletic community have been looking at the problem as it pertains to pressures on student-athletes such as her son.

The Ulrichs have released a personal video on their experience. A paper written by sports psychologists from Ohio State University, Brigham Young University and the University of Oklahoma titled "Suicide risk is real for student athletes" recently was released on NCAA News Online.

It said, in part, that student-athletes might be even more at risk than other students because of sports and academic pressures. They suffer depression at a similar rate as other students but may be even less willing to seek help because of the athletic image.

We don't yet know -- and may never fully know -- what led to James Dungy's suicide.

The best that can come out of his death is more awareness of the problems. Jan Ulrich can tell you more about that -- and where to get help -- at

Bob Hill's column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. You can reach him at (502) 582-4646 or e-mail him at You can also read his columns at


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