Penn copes with its toughest loss: `Mr. Perfect'

College football

October 16, 2005|By RICK MAESE

NEW YORK — New York-- --At a time they should have been celebrating their third straight win, their minds kept going back to the season's biggest loss. The game was over. The sea gulls outnumbered the people as the Penn Quakers took a knee near the 30-yard line and bowed their heads.

Kyle Ambrogi was there only in memory, represented in the giant circle by a small decal - "31" - on the back of each player's helmet.

One week earlier, Kyle ran for two touchdowns in Penn's win over Bucknell. The next day he attended team meetings. And then Monday night, Kyle Ambrogi, 21, the kid people on campus called "Mr. Perfect," killed himself.

No, there's no making sense of this one.

Kyle was a finance major at a prestigious Ivy League school. He'd just completed a summer internship with a prominent investment group and was receiving job offers before his senior year even began. He was the Quakers' third-leading scorer, with three touchdowns through four games.

Penn coach Al Bagnoli could look over his roster and Kyle would be the last one you'd think would contemplate suicide. "There aren't too many kids floating around that can put all that together to the level he could," the coach said.

Coaches recruit and they want to know a kid's time in the 40-yard dash. They check his bench press, his leaping ability. They make sure he can get by in the classroom. What's usually missing is a psychological evaluation. There are so many pressures attacking a student-athlete's psyche that we're fortunate Kyle's case is still an isolated story.

Just four days later after learning of their teammate's death, the Quakers took the field at Columbia with anger thumping deep in their chests.

Defensive back Casey Edgar lived with Kyle. Kyle would wake up Edgar every morning and the two usually talked just before going to sleep. His friend's absence has been unavoidable.

"Throughout this week in practice it's been very difficult not to hear his voice back there, not to look around and see his goofy smile," Edgar said. "For me, today the first punt reminded me of Kyle, I looked up and saw the sun, the sky. It was just very therapeutic."

The past couple of months, Edgar watched Kyle battle a faceless enemy. Depression lives and grows in a vacuum. It's a poison ivy that leeches itself onto the strongest of spirits and won't let go. There are more than 1,100 suicides at colleges each year, the second-leading cause of campus deaths.

Many of us were raised to view suicide as the most selfish of acts, almost discrediting the underlying illness. While machismo might rule on a football field, it has little place in a psychiatrist's office. Mental illness can't be out-muscled or pushed around.

If it could, we wouldn't be talking about Kyle's death. He stood 5 feet 11, a compact 210 pounds. His picture hangs in the weight room at his high school where his work ethic was unmatched.

"Kyle was the standard you'd hold every other player to," said Gil Brooks, head coach at St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia.

You couldn't tell by looking or talking to him, but Kyle's problems grew during his college years, which is not at all unusual. It actually appears to be a trend that is only getting worse.

A 2003 study at Kansas State looked at student mental health complaints from 1998-2001. In that period, the number of students who contemplated suicide or had serious bouts with depression doubled. Mental illness doesn't end with a college degree.

Kyle's depression was the kind of thing that only a professional could see. His mother says Kyle was the best son you could ask for. His coaches say he was the model player. His teachers adored him. He was the young man you wanted your own children to hang around, praying a bit of Kyle might rub off.

"I'd watch him in games, and you'd hit him hard and he'd bounce up and tell you what a great hit you made," said Brooks.

When it came time to talk about his own accomplishments, you'd have an easier time threading a football through a pinhole. He'd rather tell you about his younger brother, Gregg, a sophomore defensive back for the Quakers who also scored last week.

But Kyle is the one who really made chins drop. Back in high school, Kyle ran for more than 200 yards and six touchdowns in his first varsity game. It was good enough to get his picture in Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" feature. You know what he told coaches afterward? "It just reminded me of a JV game," he said. "No big deal."

Kyle had a rough summer, but as fall approached, he seemed to be doing better. That's the disease's deceptive nature, often ducking behind corners rather than disappearing completely.

Kyle's problems were nothing a position coach would be able to spot. Even though schools like Penn offer comprehensive counseling and psychiatric services, athletic departments need to be more pro-active in evaluating players during their college careers.

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