Teammates aid walk to prevent suicides

October 18, 2006|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

After defeating arch rival Maryland on Friday, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County men's ice hockey team didn't get out of Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton until after 10:30 p.m.

Another game against Maryland was scheduled for Saturday night.

But most of the Retrievers didn't mind getting up early Saturday to volunteer at the "Out of the Darkness" community walk, sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) on the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail.

The team took its place midway through the trail, handing out water bottles and offering encouragement to those taking part in the 7-mile walk.

It was a tribute to a former teammate, John Hoffman, who killed himself in May 2005. The Southern Maryland native had joined the team before the 2002-03 season at age 39, when he went back to school to study engineering. After Hoffman's death, UMBC head coach and Crofton resident Dan Grisanti started wondering why more help isn't available for college students fighting depression.

"I broke down at first, and I couldn't believe it," Grisanti said. "He was so close to us, and he meant so much to us, and I had no idea. I was blindsided. You get this guilt, and you think, `What could I have done? Could I have prevented it?'"

The Retrievers dedicated last season to Hoffman and put a sticker of his jersey number - 28 - on a hockey puck.

But Grisanti wanted more, and others affiliated with the program agreed. Mike D'Archangelo, the assistant athletic director and director of recreation programs and physical education at UMBC, said Grisanti is trying to turn the tragedy into a chance to educate others.

"The fact of the matter is that suicide in colleges is now a major problem," he said. "It's been linked to depression issues, being overworked in terms of studying and the pressure of getting good grades."

According to Suicide Prevention Education Awareness for Kids (SPEAK), Maryland lost 506 residents to suicide in 2004, 86 of whom were younger than 24. But because of insurance considerations and the stigma some attach to suicide, suicides might not be reported as such, potentially making the total much higher.

Justin Marksamer, an UMBC assistant coach, knew Hoffman.

"We are a family, and no one's forgotten," Marksamer said. "He's obviously still in our thoughts. ... We let the new guys know about the issue, and what it's all about."

The Retrievers will donate proceeds from one game to the foundation. They've also named an award in Hoffman's honor, to be given to someone who helps and supports the UMBC program.

Marksamer also said that there will be a message in the team's game program about SPEAK and AFSP.

Both of the coaches said helping at last weekend's walk in Anne Arundel County meant a lot.

"At the walk, everyone was respectful of everything going on there, and they really understood what it was all about," Marksamer said.

In different times, the fact that UMBC came back later that night to beat Maryland for a second straight game would have excited everyone. The two victories gave the Retrievers a 5-0-0 early-season record.

But they had more on their minds. When the walk began, the UMBC hockey family wrote Hoffman's name and jersey number on a yellow balloon and then watched quietly as it floated into the sky.

"They were grateful for being there," Grisanti said. "One player said it. ... `Coach, we're doing a good thing.'"

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