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Suicides, drug addiction and high school football

  • Author: Juliet Macur, The New York Times
  • Updated: March 8, 2018
  • Published March 8, 2018

Downtown Madison, Ind., a picturesque town on the Ohio River, Oct. 19, 2017. (Andrew Spear/The New York Times)

MADISON, Ind. — An hour's drive from Louisville, perched along the Ohio River, sits the prettiest little town.

Madison, population 12,000, has won awards for its beauty. Best Main Street. One of the top 20 romantic towns in Indiana. One of 12 distinctive destinations in the United States, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The river walk, down from the main street, is a hot spot for joggers and dog walkers and couples canoodling on benches. In the distance, a soaring bridge that connects Indiana and Kentucky often disappears behind a morning fog.

It's all a lovely distraction from an open secret. On a reporting trip in July, I learned this in the unlikeliest of places: at Horst's Little Bakery Haus, a doughnut shop with just a few tables, not far from the river.

A waitress had overheard me interviewing someone at the bakery earlier, and asked if I was a journalist.

She checked over her shoulder to see if anyone was listening. There was an urgency in her whisper as she said: "I lost my son last month. He hung himself from a tree in our yard and shot himself in the head. I cut him down myself, with my own hands. So many suicides."

She wiped away tears.

"We need your help," she said.

A fog-shrouded bridge over the Ohio River in Madison, Ind., Oct. 13, 2017. Madison has been hit especially hard by the opioid crisis, contributing to a suicide rate three times the national average. Those young adults and teenagers, even middle schoolers, who killed themselves in the past few years have left behind unanswerable questions. (Andrew Spear/The New York Times)

A heart-wrenching epidemic

Madison, in southeastern Indiana, is at the center of a drug-trafficking triangle connecting Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Louisville. It is battling life-or-death problems.

The waitress at the bakery will tell you that. So will her only surviving son, who graduated from high school in May and talks about how he wanted to kill himself a few years ago. The bakery's dishwasher will tell you a story, too. Her 26-year-old daughter died of multiple organ failure in 2015, after years of addiction. She left behind a drug-addicted infant.

Even the head football coach at Madison Consolidated High School knows that this town — like so many others across the country, in both rich and poor areas — is going through hell these days, pushed over the edge by a growing opioid problem that's eating away at communities.

In the coach's preseason speech to his team, he didn't invoke Vince Lombardi or repeat inspirational quotations. Instead, he told the players how he ended up coaching at Madison, what motivated him to stay here and how drugs played a role in that.

Madison is one of the places that have been hit especially hard by the opioid crisis, which has been declared a national emergency. There's no single reason for it.

The unemployment rate here in Jefferson County is around 4 percent, just about the same as it is nationwide, and among those employed residents, about a quarter work in manufacturing. The county is mostly rural, and overwhelmingly white. In Madison, which is marked by three riverfront smokestacks that can be seen for miles, the median household income in 2016 was about $51,500, and two of every 10 children under 18 lived in poverty.

The tourists who travel here see Madison's antique shops and frequent its art, music, food and boat-racing festivals. But beneath all that are the crises that threaten to drag this town under: suicide, depression, child neglect, abuse and addiction to drugs.

"All of these problems go hand in hand," said Tonya Ruble-Richter, executive director for the Southeastern Indiana Voices for Children, which trains court-appointed advocates for children and is based in Madison's historic district.

"There's definitely an underbelly, and people don't want to address it," she said of Madison. "We're on fire here."

And dying.

In 2016, the suicide rate in Jefferson County, a county of 32,000 people in which Madison is the biggest town, was 41.8 per 100,000 residents. It was the highest suicide rate for any Indiana county, and more than twice the state average. Compared with the national rate, it's a startling 3.2 times higher.

The epidemic is heart-wrenching, and it's getting worse, said Rodney L. Nay, the Jefferson County coroner who runs Madison's Morgan & Nay Funeral Centre. He said that from February 2017 to early November 2017, there were at least 15 confirmed suicides in Jefferson County, with many more suspected suicides from overdoses. That includes four suicides the week Madison hosted a suicide awareness walk and a high school administrator who killed himself just weeks after submitting a grant to increase suicide counseling.

Just two weeks ago, a 2016 graduate of Madison Consolidated High School fatally shot himself in the head. He was 20.

"You just can't believe this is all happening in one small community," Nay, 52, said. "In my career, and I've been doing this since I was 14, I've never seen anything like this. So many more young people are dying."

Nay has had to bury the children of his former Madison high school classmates and has wept with those families, as well as many others — because everybody knows everybody here. No one can explain why suicide has become a realistic option.

Many people in Madison must travel out of town for help because there aren't enough counselors here.

"To help someone through a hard time just takes one person listening and providing hope," Nay said. "So that's what we're trying to do."

That's what Patric Morrison, head football coach of the Madison Cubs, is trying to do.

Patric Morrison coaches the Madison Cubs during a high school football playoff game in Sellersburg, Ind., Oct. 20, 2017. (Andrew Spear/The New York Times)

Keeping players on the field

Glance at the high school's trophy cases and you can see that Madison — in the heart of Indiana basketball country — isn't known for its football.

There are awards for basketball, swimming, wrestling, track and field and soccer. But the most impressive football award is a conference championship trophy — from 1973. The figure of a football player atop the trophy is missing most of its throwing arm.

Madison has had just two winning seasons in the past 25 years, yet Morrison — a Madison native who played for the team — still dreamed of coaching there. Going in, he knew there would be obstacles, including that Madison, with just under 1,000 students, plays in a conference with bigger schools.

Winning football games is not his top goal. During his speech to kick off last season, he explained why.

"I have this younger brother," Morrison told his players between two-a-day practices. "He's very athletic, very smart. He can show up for a test without even studying and get 100 — somebody who had to be triple-teamed on the football field. I tried to keep him on the right track."

Morrison, 30, is five years older than his brother, Zach. As a boy, Patric Morrison was dark-haired, husky and cautious. Zach was red-haired, thin and audacious. The boys fished for walleye on camping trips. They were kart-racing daredevils on their 10 acres of property.

The police called Patric Morrison the night before he interviewed for the Madison coaching job. "Just want to let you know that we arrested your brother," the officer said. "We caught him with heroin."

Zach was given a nine-year prison sentence.

"There's a whole correlation between him, and me getting this job," Morrison told his players during that summer speech. "Because of him, I've gained 60, 70 younger brothers, and I want to keep you from doing the things he did.

"I want to save you from that."

Madison High School football teammates wait for a bus trip to their first-round playoff game, at their school in Madison, Ind., Oct. 20, 2017. (Andrew Spear/The New York Times)

Some Cubs players told me Morrison should be meaner. He could push them harder, make them run more hills. Maybe he could curse a little.

Morrison believes he has to be careful about how much he pushes his players because he's afraid they'll quit. Sometimes he's a father figure, sometimes a taskmaster. But it's imperative that he doesn't scare players away.

"I'd rather focus on the kids than the wins," he told me, "because I see what can happen to kids who stray."

He saw it with a player expected to be the starting quarterback. That player, the best athlete on the team, strayed.

"He could throw a ball with his left hand in a perfect spiral more than 30 yards farther than other guys would throw with their dominant hand," said James Lee, an assistant coach and a Madison police officer. "There's no doubt he could've played Division I — if he hadn't melted down."

The player stopped coming to practices. He was suspended from school, and later showed up on a missing-person report. A day before I met Morrison, the player had been escorted from school after being caught with pills.

"It's crushing when you strike out with a player," said Morrison, a middle school technology teacher. "If they have something else going on, like another activity, then it can be OK. But if they have nothing else, that's what worries me. It's the downtime that worries me."

Another player who quit the team eventually dropped out of school and vanished. Morrison later saw a newspaper article about the player.

The police had found the player passed out in a car with a marijuana blunt and a pocketful of prescription pills, including Clonazepam, (an anti-seizure and anti-anxiety drug), Promethazine (an allergy and motion sickness drug) and Trazodone (an antidepressant). He said the methamphetamine pipe in the car wasn't his because he only snorted the drug.

As Morrison told me about that player, a text from Lee, the assistant coach, popped up on his cellphone. It was a warning.

Lee advised Morrison to be aware of students with gummy bears because they could be laced with a synthetic stimulant called flakka, known to cause violent behavior. The text said the candy was "usually individually wrapped, stickier than normal."

Morrison could only sigh.

"I never did drugs, not once, and used to look down on people who use drugs, but now I have empathy for them after what happened to my brother," he said. "I can't just look away. I want them to do better. It's opened my eyes."

Madison High School captains take the field for a high school football playoff game in Sellersburg, Ind., Oct. 20, 2017. (Andrew Spear/The New York Times)

'The reason I'm resilient'

It's a good thing that winning isn't the only thing for the Madison Cubs because their prospects for it weren't great last season.

With the loss of that star who quit school, and the loss of the next quarterback to a knee injury during basketball season, the Cubs were looking at starting a third-string quarterback.

But a reminder of the true value of participating in sports — as defined by Morrison — showed up at practice in July.

Curry Morgan, a 2015 Madison graduate, had returned from college to visit. He wanted to thank his former coach. Morgan is a junior biology and neuroscience major at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, on an academic scholarship, with plans for medical school.

His father was out of his life by the time he was in kindergarten. His brother was addicted to pills and sold drugs. His mother died of liver disease two days before his senior year. The day of the funeral, Morrison ended practice early and dispatched buses of teammates so they could support Morgan.

Afterward, when Morgan didn't have a place to live, teammates offered couches. At graduation, Morrison collected money to pay for Morgan's cap and gown and class ring.

"I was scared people would treat me differently because of my family circumstances, but Coach Morrison, he wouldn't let that happen," Morgan said. "Sports is the reason I'm resilient. It's the reason I'm where I am and not selling drugs right now."

Eyes wet, he buried his face in his hands. It has been an especially rough year for him, he told me. His college roommate, also a 2015 Madison graduate, killed himself in March. Morgan was in an apartment next door, just before dawn, when he got the news. Morgan's brother, who had been visiting, showed up bloodied and crying hysterically. "He's gone," he said. His roommate had shot himself on the living room couch.

"No one knows why, but he did," Morgan said.

A football practice at Madison High School in Madison, Ind., Oct. 4, 2017. Madison, a picturesque town on the Ohio River, has been hit especially hard by the opioid crisis, with a suicide rate three times the national average. For many on the team, football, even a 1-9 season, has been their oasis. (Andrew Spear/The New York Times)

Those young adults and teenagers, even middle schoolers, from Madison who killed themselves in the past few years have left behind unanswerable questions. At least three students in the class of 2015 and one from 2014 have committed suicide.

One, a former soccer star, hanged herself from the basketball hoop in her family's driveway. Another hanged himself in his garage. Another, David Lee Wheeler, shot himself as he hanged himself from a 100-year-old maple tree in his yard.

His mother, Dee Wheeler, was the waitress at Horst's bakery who had asked me for help. She and I met for lunch after her shift had ended.

"This really came out of nowhere," Wheeler said of her son's suicide. "He was fine when I last saw him that night. Before going to bed, I said to him, 'There's crab salad in the refrigerator.' It was his favorite."

Quarterback Jace Humes, lost for the season to a knee injury, at a practice to support his teammates at Madison High School in Madison, Ind., Oct. 11, 2017. (Andrew Spear/The New York Times)

A team becomes an oasis

Madison is a swing-shift town where it's not uncommon for parents to work two or more jobs. So if a child is looking for an available adult role model, a football coach — a Patric Morrison — can be a last, best hope.

Last season, Morrison paid special attention to Jace Humes, who started the season as quarterback. Humes' parents had just disappeared into rehab and prison. Another player was dealing with the suicide of his older brother — Curry Morgan's roommate. So many things for Morrison to worry about outside the X's and O's of the game, but his players appreciated his effort.

On senior night of a 1-9 season, the players gave speeches describing how the team had been their oasis.

"For two years in a row, my sister tried killing herself," offensive lineman Chance Webster told teammates and coaches as he sobbed. "Because of football, I was able to get through life when I was really down. I just want to thank you guys."

In the same week last fall in which Madison won a national award for being a "stellar community," the Cubs played a first-round playoff game against Silver Creek High School, in Sellersburg, Indiana, a suburb of Louisville.

After so many injuries, including to Humes, the season's starter, his backup and the backup's backup, the Cubs were left with a freshman quarterback. Their biggest weakness, though, was defense. The Cubs gave up more than 450 yards, 373 on the ground.

They lost to Silver Creek, 42-7.

Under the field's dimming lights and with chirping crickets in the distance, Morrison gave his season-ending speech.

He remained stoic. Deep down, he had thought the Cubs might win because they'd played a tougher schedule than Silver Creek had. If the Cubs had won, maybe his brother would have gotten out of prison in time to see the team's second playoff game.

The defeat ended that possibility.

Zach Morrison left prison five days later.

"I am proud of every single one of you," Patric Morrison told his players. He addressed the seniors. "No matter where you go or what you do, I will always be a contact for you."

Many of the seniors had been teammates since fourth grade. Now they were crying. The face of Webster, the lineman, was red, his body trembling. He struggled to gain enough composure to talk.

"I'm not crying because we lost, because it really doesn't matter that we lost," he said.

"I'm crying because it's over."

Chance Webster, a senior and offensive lineman, cries after Madison High School’s 1-9 season came to an end, in Sellersburg, Ind. Oct. 20, 2017. (Andrew Spear/The New York Times)