Football Writers Association of America 2001 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE

FIRST PLACE: FEATURE
Chris Harry, Orlando Sentinel

GAINESVILLE Leon Hires remembers hitting his opponent with such ferocity that it planted the defender in the turf. Such impacts are infrequent for offensive linemen, so they must be savored and remembered.

The time was spring of 1997. The place was the Notre Dame practice field. The hit made Touchdown Jesus proud.

It made Hires cry.

Emotionally, he still was back in Bradenton. One week earlier, Hires had been the biggest man at the funeral. Of the 200 or so mourners, he also was the loneliest and most vulnerable. At any age, it's difficult to bury your dad, but Hires had it tougher than most.

His father had shot himself.

Just like his grandfather.

Just like his great-grandfather.

Now the suicide trilogy was upon him. Haunting him. Taunting him.

"I'm next in line," Hires thought.

In his south Georgia drawl, the 22-year-old Hires, now a senior guard at Florida, reflects on this three-generation run of tragedies stoically. At 6 feet 5 and 290 pounds, head shaved, forearms bulging, Hires strikes an imposing presence, but the implications of it all dwarf him.

The common denominator is clinical depression. Its course was charted 75 years ago when Fred Hires, a farmer in Jesup, Ga., put a gun to his head and squeezed. Fred's son, Leon, did the same in 1990 at the age of 78. Then, on Feb. 22, 1997, Leon "Ed" Hires, 43, shot himself at his home in Bradenton. Ed left behind 19-year-old Leon III to ponder a series of events in which the next step is up to him.

"When you're faced with stuff like that, a lot of thoughts run through your head," says Hires, who transferred from Notre Dame to UF in 1998 and is projected to start for the Gators this fall. "You're like, 'Why is this happening to me? Is this even in my control?'

"You wonder if it's not just fate working or what."

Depression affects nearly 10 percent of adult Americans (that's about 20 million people ages 18 or older). The ones who seek treatment find that fate is no factor. Those who don't run the risk of sinking deeper into what suicide survivors describe as "the hole."

"For the longest time, you're scratching and doing whatever it takes to get out of the hole without ever knowing you're in it in the first place," said former UF Coach Charley Pell, whose failed suicide attempt in 1994 was precipitated by depression. "A fleeting thought of suicide is not a bad thing. I'm sure many of us have had that. I know I had, but you never know when that one time is going to come when you find yourself in the bottom of that hole saying, 'Man, it's nice down here. To hell with getting out.'"

Ted Hires, Ed's brother, had been in the hole before. Unlike his brother, Ted found his way out. And he took Leon with him.

THEY STEPPED THROUGH THAT DOOR

"I've been asked many times if I had ever considered suicide. The answer, absolutely, is yes," says Ted Hires, the only one of 12 siblings who talks candidly (if at all) of his family's legacy. "The only difference between my granddaddy and me, my daddy and me and my brother and me is that they stepped through that door. I didn't."

After his father's suicide in 1990, Ted Hires sought professional help, an avenue others in his family refused to consider. Through counseling and medication, Ted, now 53, has been better prepared to confront the illness he'll forever refer to as "the monster."

The willingness to accept his depression for what it is a disease was the guidance his nephew needed in the family's next emotional battle.

"When Ed died, I probably didn't have much time to grieve. Ed and I were very close, but I was more concerned with Leon's welfare and in breaking the cycle," says Ted, the manager of several barbecue restaurants in the Jacksonville area. "I understood what he was feeling.

"After my father's suicide, I got very angry and I had to have some answers. It was through my father's death that I wound up getting treatment and understanding what the disease was and how it affected people. By the time Ed committed suicide, I had done everything in my power to deal with it."

It was time for Leon to do the same.

Hires, who starred at Manatee High in Bradenton, was in his second season at Notre Dame when his half-brother telephoned him in Indiana with the news of his father's suicide. It brought back the memory of seven years earlier when Ed Hires, with Leon at his side, got the call about his father.

Despite his family's history, Ed Hires, like his daddy before him, never accepted his depression. Wouldn't acknowledge it. Wouldn't discuss it.

"Drinking," Leon says. "That was his way of dealing with it."

Later, Leon would recall how his father's upbeat personality would give way to lulls of silence. These were the emotional lows. In the end, problems with alcohol and the pressures from a financially troubled restaurant business pushed Ed Hires past the brink.

"He would get really quiet, sort of confine himself," Leon says. "I was always one of those guys who could make him laugh or cheer him up.

"But that last time, I was 2,000 miles away."

Instead, Leon's stepmother returned home from a morning at the beach. She found her husband lying next to their bed. A rifle was underneath him. He did not leave a note.

Hires returned home, joining his mother, stepmother, their families and dozens more for the funeral. It was there that Leon learned that his great-grandfather, Fred Hires, also had shot himself.

"I couldn't believe it," he says. "I didn't know what to think."

HIS DESTINY NOT PREDETERMINED

Fred Hires was a farmer in Jesup. His son was 13 when Fred shot himself, and the senior Leon would live with that memory for years, rarely speaking of it to his wife and 12 children.

Instead of dwelling on his father's death, he passed on his daddy's blue-collar values. The Hires of Jesup farmed on. Leon III eventually experienced those ways firsthand while spending a summer with his grandfather.

"He had me up at 6 a.m., working the fields and shucking peas. For a little kid, that wasn't a lot of fun, but I really enjoyed being around him," Leon says. "He was a man who was real set in his ways, but a good guy. And I think he was real proud of me the name and all."

Leon Jr. shared that pride. He wanted his son to play football at Florida, but during the recruiting process, Leon III admittedly got caught up in the mystique surrounding Notre Dame. It all seemed so right when he left for South Bend, Ind., in 1996.

It all seemed so wrong when he came back.

"I've watched suicide rip my family apart. It's a terrible, horrible thing," says Wesley Hires, Ted's son, a self-described positive thinker who was bypassed by the depression gene. "When my uncle died, I think a little piece of my dad died with him. Same when their father died. My dad was around to see the aftermath. Both times."

Adds Leon: "If 200 people are going to mourn one person's decision, then it becomes more than just that one person's problem."

A week after the funeral, Leon was back on the field in South Bend, but his passion for football was gone. Violent collisions brought tears to his eyes. He was an emotional wreck incapable of competing, and Irish Coach Bob Davie sensed it. Davie called Dr. Mick Franco, an assistant professor in the university's psychology department. Franco, who was on staff with the athletic department, met with Hires.

"When you're dealing with suicide from a significant other, the emotions are going to be sudden and threatening and overwhelming," Franco says. "What Leon needed to learn, needed to accept, was that his destiny was not predetermined regardless of his family's history.

"He had to understand that he could take control, but to do so, he had to go against the grain. We are, after all, raised in a culture, a context, where people dealing with sadness oftentimes don't reach out for help. In the case of Leon's family, despair led to isolation and eventually to decisions to end it all in an abrupt fashion."

Franco counseled Hires for several months, and both sides agreed the best place for Hires was in Florida with Ted.

Hires left Notre Dame three games into the '97 season and went to live with his uncle in Jacksonville. That fall, Hires chopped chicken and ribs "Mindless work. I loved it," he says and waited tables at his uncle's restaurants.

Hires maintained contact with Franco and took the medication Zoloft to combat the disease's chemical imbalance. He also had his uncle by his side.

Together, they took on "the monster."

"Acknowledging what exists and understanding it is nine-tenths of the battle," Ted Hires says. "The rest is a matter of getting treatment and doing what you're supposed to. It's amazing once you accept the diagnosis."

For a long time, Leon figured his mood swings were normal. His dad used to tell him that everybody had good days and bad days. The thought of illness never entered his mind, but Leon's uncle helped him work through the concept, and neither concerned himself with others' perceptions.

"It made it easier to be around somebody who was going through it at the same time I was," Hires says. "I learned that I wasn't just this sad person. There was a reason for how I felt and what had happened."

Once the reason was defined and accepted, Hires wanted to play football again. All parties agreed it was a good move. Only this time, he needed to be closer to home.

"Florida was probably where I should have been all along," he says.

When the Gators offered Hires a scholarship late that fall, officials at UF and Notre Dame, citing the unusual circumstances of his leaving the Irish, petitioned the NCAA to waive a mandatory rule that requires student-athletes who transfer to sit out a season. The NCAA signed off on the request and made Hires eligible immediately.

I UNDERSTAND IT NOW

Nearly a year removed from his father's death, Hires enrolled at UF in January 1998 and joined the team for off-season conditioning. At about the time he was beginning to find a comfort level, the school newspaper, the Alligator, ran a small item in its sport section. There were no quotes, just a mention of "transfer offensive lineman Leon Hires" and how he had been granted immediate eligibility because his father had killed himself.

"All of a sudden, I was like the black plague," Hires says. "Nobody really knew how to treat me, so I guess they just kind of avoided being around me. I guess they weren't sure how to react. Even though there was nothing wrong with me, I was sort of like an outcast."

UF senior fullback Rod Frazier remembers. "I think there were a few who just didn't know how to respond," he says. "Most of us, though, were there for support if he needed it."

Frazier always had been there. He and Hires met in seventh grade and became teammates at Manatee. Now they're roommates and best friends.

"I've worried about Leon from the very first moment I heard about his father, but I really think he's doing great now," Frazier says. "I used to wonder sometimes what he was thinking and how he was doing, but now I understand he has his mood swings and needs his space. It's really no different than any other roommate."

No different than any other roommate. Hires likes the ring to that.

"I like to think things have gotten back to normal for me," he says. "I have my bad days like everybody else, but it's not like I have a barrel to my mouth when I get a flat tire.

"You have to look at the long-term effects of things. You have to step back and look at the big picture. When something happens, you have to ask, `What is the best thing that can come out of this? What is the worst thing?'"

Adds Ted Hires: "Problems don't cause suicide. Depression does. The monster allows the problems to create a sense of hopelessness. That causes suicide."

Leon Hires admits he has thought about suicide "I think everybody has, one time or another" but believes the cycle will end with him.

"If I got benched, then thrown out of school, and my girlfriend broke up with me and my dog died all in the same day I'd still be all right," he says, adding he no longer takes medication or undergoes counseling regularly. "I understand it now. When I don't feel real good, I understand why, and I know how to deal with it."

Hires, on schedule to graduate in December with a business degree, is looking forward to being a meaningful part of the Gators this season. The past two years have been spent as a backup tackle and guard.

"He's a guard now for good," says offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens, who has Hires penciled in to start the Sept. 2 season opener against Ball State. "There's some advantages mentally to playing different positions, but repetition is the mother of learning. The more you play [one position], the better you're going to get at it. Leon's going to get his chance at guard this fall."

Last season, Hires was on the field for 85 plays in 12 regular-season games. But in the Gators' 37-34 loss to Michigan State in the Florida Citrus Bowl, he was forced into action with the first team when starting tackle Kenyatta Walker was thrown out of the game after a third-quarter fight.

Just like that, Hires was playing the most critical minutes of his college career. On the first play, he flattened a Spartans defender after the whistle. "It was kind of a cheap shot, but it felt great," he says.

And no tears.

"I was sad that we lost the game, but it was still a good personal note to end the year on," Hires says. "Something I could take with me during the off-season. Something to show the coaches. Something to feel good about."

Something to live for.

Comment from the judge, Kevin Sherrington: The toughest story is the one where people don't want to talk, or won't. A skillful and unwavering look at a terrible family legacy of suicide and what it has wrought upon the survivors.

Second place: Jon Solomon, Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail
Third place: Keith Whitmire, The Dallas Morning News
Honorable mention: Al Lesar, South Bend Tribune