Jeff’s Tragic Misapplication Of The Concept Of Going Out On Top

16 Sep

“Anyone who’s been close to a loved one suffering from depression knows that the vicious cycle behind her condition means that, by definition, she can’t hear the logic or reassurances we extend to her;  if she could, she wouldn’t be suffering from depression.”

–Pico Iyer, “The Value of Suffering”, The New York Times Opinion Pages, September 7, 2013

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When I beat myself up for not being able to get through to Jeff during his final two months, I need to remind myself of these words from Pico Iyer that I read in his article the other day.  Though it is a phenomenon that I simply can’t relate to, Jeff obviously couldn’t hear me no matter how many times I tried to talk sense into him.  Coming to grips with this fact is one of the single biggest challenges I face, along with post-traumatic stress disorder, as I move forward.  In Jeff’s case, though, it was slightly different.  He heard me just fine when he first became depressed; he stopped being able to hear me once the debilitating side effects of misprescribed medication kicked in.  The bottom line, though, is that he couldn’t hear me.

During one of the depressing autumn evenings in late September of 2010,  a couple of weeks after Jeff had confided to Carey and me that he felt hopeless and had gone as far as to think about suicide, I lost my composure during one of my many heart-to-heart talks with him.  The thought of a gorgeous, brilliant, kind and universally-loved superstar having dark thoughts was such anathema to me that, at one point, I just blurted out:

“How can you even THINK of such a thing?”

To this day, Jeff’s reply leaves me stunned and speechless.

“I don’t know, Dad, I just thought maybe it would be best to go out on top.”

Fighting through my shock, I probed Jeff as to what he could possibly mean by that.  He explained that he believed his depression would only get worse over time but since nobody else knew how he felt inside, people would perceive him as having gone out on top if he was no longer here.

However distorted this notion was, Jeff’s message was clear.  In his clouded and medication-damaged young mind, he believed that it was all downhill from where he stood then.  After walking out on his job and feeling like he couldn’t hack it in the real world, Jeff was convinced that his life was in an irrevocable tailspin.  I didn’t know how to even begin to combat such irrational thinking.

About a year after Jeff acted upon these twisted thoughts, I was going through my regular routine of searching for more precious memories of him to savor, and I came across something that literally caused my knees to become weak.  I found an issue of The Middlebury Campus newspaper from November 9th, 2006.  First, it was the date that temporarily caused my breathing to cease—it was exactly four years to the day before Jeff died.  But then it was Jeff’s article in his J.K. Rolling column for that issue that shook me to the core and was extremely eerie in light of the comment he made to me in 2010 about going out on top.

Jeff’s article was about the stunning announcement by New York Giants’ running back Tiki Barber that he would retire at the end of that season.  Barber’s announcement was shocking both because of its timing—fans thought this bombshell would be a major distraction for the team in the middle of its season—and because he’d be walking away while still in his prime as the Giants’ star offensive player.  The latter factor made such a decision almost unprecedented in sports.  Most athletes wait until their skills have eroded significantly before deciding it’s time to call it quits.

amd-tiki-barber-retirement-sign-jpg

Jeff took the minority position and was a huge supporter of Barber’s decision.  But in the context of what Jeff did exactly four years to the day later and what he said to me in September 2010, the words he wrote in his article were chilling and ominous:

“Personally, I can understand people’s bewilderment at Tiki’s choosing to retire at such a high point in his career.  He could easily play another five years at an extremely high level and earn a ridiculous amount of cash (by the ordinary person’s standards, anyway).  Bewilderment, though, should by no means turn into criticism.  There is nothing wrong—and in fact, quite a bit right—with choosing to walk away ‘on top’.” 

Dear God.

There is nothing wrong—and in fact, quite a bit right—with choosing to walk away “on top”, he wrote back then.  I had an immediate flashback to September 2010 when he looked at me with confused eyes and said, “I don’t know, Dad, I just thought it might be best to go out on top.”  Jeff had clearly entered his final crisis-filled two months with a pre-existing belief in the virtue of going out on top, and as I read this article a year after he died, I wondered if he had thought about Tiki Barber near the end.  Did the meds actually cause Jeff to confuse an athlete leaving his sport while on top as being analogous to a person leaving the world when on top?

The sad truth is that, despite the fact that Jeff still had all the attributes that I listed at the beginning of this post, he did not go out on top.  He was depressed, and worst of all in my view, he quit on life.  He didn’t retire from a sport at the top of his game.  He quit life without a fight.  I have accepted the fact that it wasn’t his fault given that his body and mind were thoroughly taken over by the side effects of anti-depressants.  However, that doesn’t make it any easier for me, because there is no doubt that Jeff could have recovered from his temporary setback and thrived in the future that he didn’t allow to arrive.

Like Jeff, I too admire the rare athlete that decides to leave the stage while still on top.  That said, I find it even more inspiring to observe those who persist at their sport after they are past their prime, not because of the money, but because of either a genuine love for their game or due to a fighting spirit that drives them to attempt to reclaim their previous level of success.  Mariano Rivera is another example of an athlete who will leave on top, while Roger Federer is an example of the latter.

 Mariano Rivera has indisputably been the greatest closer in baseball history, and even this season at age 43, he is still one of the best today.  Yet he announced in March that this season would be his last, as he felt he was missing out on precious time with his family.  As a Yankees fan, I have been the loudest voice calling for Mariano to reconsider.  As a father, I know he’s doing the right thing.  And given his views on what Tiki Barber did, Jeff would surely be a big supporter of Mariano’s decision.

I watched Roger Federer get completely taken apart by Tommy Robredo at the U.S. Open last week, and as both a tennis fan and a huge Federer fan, it was painful to see.  The greatest tennis player ever (in my humble opinion) was getting crushed by a guy he had been 10-0 against in his career.  Roger wasn’t just missing shots by a little—he was hitting some shots that landed closer to the stands than the court.  Yet he fought to the end.  Having entered the tournament as a shockingly low seed (#7), he seems destined to drop out of tennis’ top ten just a year after having reclaimed the number one ranking.

After the match, I watched Roger’s press conference, and all I could think of was how much I wished that he had gone through this athletic mid-life crisis three years ago when Jeff was struggling.  He answered question after question, exuding a fierce resolve to work even harder to return to tennis’ upper echelons.  Federer said, “I’ve definitely got to go back to work and come back stronger.  Get rid of this loss now as quick as I can, forget about it, because that’s not how I want to play from here on.  I want to play better.  I know I can.”  Maybe he will.  Maybe he won’t.  I, for one, am inspired by his words and am excited just to see him try.

Using history as a guide, it seems safe to conclude that Roger Federer will not , in a pure tennis sense, go out on top.  The odds are better that, despite his greatest efforts, he will gradually slip in the rankings as he plays on into his mid-30s.

However, I would argue that in a human sense, he will absolutely go out on top whenever he decides to quit.  He will retire after having worked harder at his game, having made adjustments in response to his new frailties and having learned to utilize his experience more than just his raw talent.  He will become even more popular, because most of us are not superstars, and he will now seem more like one of us.  Just like us, he will work hard and do the best he can for as long as he can, and in the same way that Tiki Barber had every right to leave football at the height of his talent, Roger Federer has every right to play tennis for  years to come.

And therein lies the message that Jeff could have sunk his teeth into—Federer will play on, even if it is at a diminished level.  To use Jeff’s own words in taking the opposite position of his, I say that there is nothing wrong—and in fact quite a bit right—with choosing to forge on even when the odds are against you ever being even close to your best again.  Like Roger, Jeff was a star in life who had fallen on rough times.

Even if Jeff was right that, at age 23, he had reached his peak in whatever way he defined that, I believe I could have used today’s example of Roger Federer to make an impression upon him, especially given how closely Jeff followed professional athletes and took lessons away from their successes, failures and how they handled themselves.  Jeff didn’t want to live if he didn’t think he could do so up to his unreasonably high standards.  The fact that he couldn’t see the beauty of taking the journey and dealing with the obstacles as they arose along the way is a tragedy of epic proportions.

On March 8th, 2011, almost exactly four months after Jeff  left us, Tiki Barber filed papers with the NFL to come out of retirement and play professional football again.  But at age 36, after having not played a down for an NFL team for almost five years, Tiki found that there were no takers.  When the 2011 season began, and no team had shown even mild interest in signing him, Barber gave up his dream of making a comeback.  The man who Jeff so admired for going out on top had tried to come back when he was a shell of his former athletic self.

tiki barber comeback announcement

But Tiki Barber could attempt to come back, because his decision to retire was not irrevocable.  Nor is Mariano Rivera’s.  Jeff’s decision to “go out on top” was.  And during those terrible two months in the fall of 2010, that was one of the three themes that I tried desperately to hammer home to Jeff.

The first was how loved he was and how we would devote our lives to getting him back on track.  The second was that his despair was temporary and medication-induced, and that if he stayed strong while the meds gradually left his system, he would be back to his old self before long. And finally, I told him in no uncertain terms that the decision to commit suicide would be irrevocable.  There would be no do-overs or comebacks when it came to that one.  I failed miserably in my attempts to get through to him (there I go again, but I just read Iyer’s article, and eliminating these feelings will take time).

I wish Tiki Barber all the best in his continued retirement from professional football, and I hope Mariano Rivera revels in his family as he begins the next phase of his life next month.  And to Roger Federer, I send my greatest admiration for his determination to plow forward in his career, in the face of tennis mortality, as he searches for his new normal place within the sport he loves.

And to Jeff, I continue to say that you could have been anything that you wanted to be.  Even if that turned out to be something less than the superstar level that you demanded of yourself to achieve, and even if your life was filled with struggles just like the rest of us, I will always regret not having had the opportunity to fight through them with you every step of the way.  That’s what families do.  They band together and fight.

But it’s too late now.  Your deeply flawed application of the Tiki Barber example robbed us all of the opportunity to experience that with you.  Unfortunately, unlike Tiki, you can’t just file papers and make a comeback.   And the tragic irony is that, while Tiki’s attempted return was flatly rejected by NFL teams, your comeback would be greeted by everyone in your world with open arms and tears of joy.  I told you in the fall of 2010, though, that there would be no do-overs if you acted on your thoughts.  I’m so very sorry that you weren’t able to hear me.

-Rich Klein

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One Response to “Jeff’s Tragic Misapplication Of The Concept Of Going Out On Top”

  1. Penny Pepe September 16, 2013 at 9:35 pm #

    Rich, i so agree with you about the all too frequent use and misuse of medication. My nephew, who also took his life at age 22, was on medication and we often think it was th meds that also clouded his judgement.
    I can’t imagine how painful it is, not only to feel this, but to write about it. But if there is one person out here that will rethink their use or their loved ones use of meds, then you will
    have made a difference and maybe will save someone’s life -in Jeff’s name

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