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Teen football star Bryce Gowdy faced struggles before his suicide, family says
South Florida Sun Sentinel - 1/1/2020
Bryce Gowdy, a teen football star about to go off to Georgia Tech on a full ride, had no place to go with his family and checked into a hotel room -- yet another reminder of their enduring financial problems.
It was Sunday night, and he was acting strange, talking a mile a minute, and kept asking his mom large questions about life. He wanted to know if she and his brothers would be OK in his absence. She sent him to get a blanket from the car, not knowing it was the last time she would ever see him.
Early Monday, about five or six hours later and a little more than a mile away, his body was found by the train tracks in Deerfield Beach. The Broward Medical Examiner’s Office on Tuesday ruled it a suicide, concluding he deliberately put himself in the path of a freight train.
His death contributes to the roughly two teens in Florida who take their lives each week, and is the second in about a month to do so by train. On Nov. 26, 17-year-old Alejandra Agredo stepped in front of a train on the Tri-Rail tracks in Miami.
Gowdy’s suicide mirrors that of many teens’ who can’t weigh the future consequences of their actions, experts say.
They don’t have the same capacity to think it through the way adults do, according to Dr. Daniel Bober, a Hollywood child and adolescent psychiatrist and chief of psychiatry for Memorial Healthcare System.
“Very often in the moment, young people will do it without thinking it through," Bober said. "They feel at that moment, there is no hope and taking their life is the only way to make the pain go away.”
There’s never a single crisis or factor that leads to suicide, experts say. Gowdy’s struggle with mental health likely was exacerbated by his family’s financial setbacks and housing situation, erecting a barrier to mental health counseling, Bober said.
“With children, you need to find a Medicaid provider and when you do find one, often there is a long waiting list. It could take months to be seen,” Bober said. “If there’s a mental health issue and the family is not of means, it’s very difficult to get treatment for the child.”
But it’s important to find a way to get help: There are various resources available, such as calling a suicide hotline in a crisis.
Since Christmas about a week ago, Gowdy had been “talking crazy” and “talking in circles” about life, Gowdy’s mother, Shibbon Winelle, said in the video posted on her Facebook page. He was talking about the things they were going through as a family the last few months since they had been homeless. About the things he had to see his mom go through because they were homeless.
“He kept talking about the signs and the symbols that he was seeing all over the place,” Winelle said in the video. “About how he could see the world for what it really was. He kept saying that he could see people for what they really are.”
Winelle said in the video that all this talk concerned her. But he also talked about positive things.
The 17-year-old Deerfield Beach star wide receiver told his family that he was excited to go to Georgia Tech, where he would pursue a degree in finance or engineering on a football scholarship and one day be famous. But he was miserable over leaving his family in an unstable situation, relatives said.
Gowdy, the oldest sibling of three, was trying to support his mother and brothers through a slew of struggles: His and his mother’s mental health issues, financial hardships, and most recently homelessness, according to multiple relatives.
“He had a lot of questions about spirituality, and life. He kept asking me if I was OK, if his brothers were gonna be OK. I told him yeah," Winelle said. “We sat in the car yesterday because we didn’t have anywhere to go, and he sat next to me all day just talking.”
In the last three days, he had become paranoid, she said in the video. He had started describing things that didn’t make any sense, like being trapped by doors and mirrors.
Winelle said she was so stressed trying to support their family and deal with her own “demons” that she wasn’t strong enough to help Gowdy fight his.
“I said, ‘Bryce, you have to dig within and fight these demons that you’re fighting.’ I told him I wasn’t strong enough to help him right now, and I have my own demons that I was trying to fight,” Winelle said in the video.
She said she told Gowdy to “get it together," “toughen up,” and that he needed to “get his mind right.” According to Winelle, he could see that he was upsetting her and tried to hold her hand.
“I wouldn’t let him hold my hand 'cause his energy was so intense,” she said in the video. “I could feel the pain in his soul and it was breaking my heart.”
Winelle said she started having chest pains, and she stayed behind in the car for a bit to decompress. Her boys went up to the hotel room. When she got upstairs, Gowdy repeatedly asked her if she was OK.
She eventually asked if he would fetch her favorite blanket from the car. Gowdy obliged, leaving his phone, wallet and shoes back in the hotel room.
He never came back.
Gowdy’s relatives said they didn’t know if there had been any attempt at seeing a counselor. Many said he took responsibility and wanted to support his family.
He reached out to his aunts and uncles often, usually checking in to see how they were doing. Sometimes, it was to ask them for help, whether it was $50, $150 or $200 here and there. Whatever they could spare.
Mazzie Gowdy-Henderson, Gowdy’s aunt, said he would call her and say: “Hey Auntie, you good?”
“That meant he probably wanted to talk, or he was checking in on us. Or sometimes, he needed something,” Gowdy-Henderson said. “He was a sweetheart. He used to just call and tell me he loved me.”
Gowdy-Henderson said she could tell he was excited that all these different schools wanted him, and he took pride in his grades. But there was also a quiet sadness to him, she said.
“You could tell he wasn’t happy,” Gowdy-Henderson said. “He seemed sad because [his family] wasn’t in a stable place, and you could tell that really bothered him.”
Gowdy-Henderson said they offered for him to stay with them. He chose to stay with his mom and his brothers, even through homelessness.
That type of thoughtfulness was typical of Gowdy, according to his football coach Jevon Glenn.
“He was a great kid,” Glenn said. “A kid that was one of the top football players in the country, one of the top students in the country and one of the top people in the country. A kid that had the wherewithal even going through all the things he was going through, with his family situation and being homeless at times and some of their struggles, he was still able to suppress all that with reaching out and helping others.”
In the video, Winelle said she had been asking for help for months. She described how a job she had gotten often didn’t pay her on time or in full.
“He was in a position he shouldn’t have been in,” according to Gowdy’s cousin, Ashley Lewis. Anytime Gowdy called asking for $200 or so, they sent him money.
Lewis’ husband, John, was going to drive Gowdy to school on Sunday, Lewis said. John Lewis said he spoke with Gowdy a couple times on Sunday, when Gowdy was having “natural college jitters.”
In the morning, John Lewis said he told Gowdy that he would be OK, and that the change of scenery would be good for him. By 4 p.m., Gowdy texted him and said his anxiety was getting worse.
“I told him: I get it. You’ve got a lot on your plate right now,” John Lewis said. “I reiterated what I said before and tried to encourage him to look toward the future, and that in a few more days his life would change for the better.”
Gowdy called him again shortly after midnight. He didn’t say anything on the phone, but Lewis said he thought he could hear an argument in the background. The call dropped, Lewis said. He called back, but it didn’t go through. He went to sleep just before 1 a.m. Around 1:30 a.m., Gowdy texted him asking where his brother Brayden was.
Lewis asked Gowdy if he meant to send that text to him. That was the last communication they had.
There has been an outpouring of help for the family. The GoFundMe page established Monday to assist the family financially surpassed its first goal of $20,000 and had reached nearly $40,000 as Tuesday night.
Glenn said there will be a candlelight vigil at the Deerfield Beach football stadium at 7 p.m. on Thursday. He said Gowdy’s funeral will be at 1 p.m. on Jan. 11 in the Deerfield Beach High auditorium, and it will be open to the public.
There’s help available for those in crisis: Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Brooke Baitinger can be reached at: email@example.com, 954-422-0857 or Twitter: @bybbaitinger
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