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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

SPECIAL REPORT PART II: From Suicide Attempt To Standing Up: The Austin Cannon Story

(NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series of special articles from The Herald Progress newspaper and The RVA Sports Network on student-athletes and mental health issues. Former Atlee and current Virginia Tech offensive lineman Austin Cannon bravely opens up about his August, 2016 suicide attempt, how a concussion played a role, and how he has begun a movement on campus in Blacksburg to help end the stigma behind mental illness for young adults from all walks of life. Photos courtesy of Brooke Leonard and Hokie Sports.)


"I remember opening the drawer of the desk. There were two knives. I grabbed the serrated one, and I started cutting my leg with it at first, and obviously that hurt, and I'm sitting there just bawling, just crying. And then I grabbed it and it went right in my leg."

It is the night of August 9, 2016. Virginia Tech freshman football player Austin Cannon is alone in his suite, his roommate away. Heavy on his heart and mind were multiple issues, most notably grief and fear. But his decision that night to attempt to end his young life was also influenced by an event which occurred earlier in the day, a physical condition currently highlighted and monitored in sports, especially in football, like never before: a concussion.

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Cannon was part of what will be remembered as one of the best offensive line units in area high school football history at Atlee High School earlier this decade. Teammates Alec Eberle and Nick Clarke are now college standouts at Florida State and Old Dominion respectively. Cannon wished to be a Hokie. To do so meant, first, a semester at Fork Union Military Academy for post-graduate study, where he earned a letter playing center.

Arriving in Blacksburg one year ago this month, Cannon had to play catch up, as his teammates had just completed an emotional 2015 season, the last for legendary head coach Frank Beamer. Members of the offensive line took Cannon under their wing, helping him become part of a new brotherhood, all experiencing major change as Justin Fuente became their new coach.

A semester and spring practice came and went, and Cannon was preparing for the 2016 season. Late in July on a visit home, Cannon's father, Mike, sat his son down, and broke the news to him of his cancer diagnosis. The news rocked Cannon's world.

"That was a huge blow. He's my best friend, he's the guy I can go to if I have a problem with anything," Cannon stated. "I didn't know how serious it was, whether it had spread. It was hard to sleep for a couple of days."

Today, Austin's father is 85 percent cancer-free and doing well. But in August, with a mind filled with earlier loss, new fear, and plenty of negative memories of being bullied for various reasons in high school, Cannon returned to Blacksburg. Then came August 9th, and a practice that set off a series of events that changed Austin Cannon's life forever. 

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"We were in full pads outside. I was pulling on a play and I cut a linebacker," Cannon remembered. "As I was trying to get off the ground, my tight end, coming around, following the ball, and he soccer kicked me full speed right in the head. I finished the drive, and after practice went to the trainers and I'm completely out of it."

Immediately put into concussion protocol, Cannon was in the locker room sitting with teammate D.J. Reid.

"I remember saying, 'D.J., that's some cool music playing, what is that song?' And D.J. said 'there's no music playing'," Cannon said. "I knew right then and there I was messed up."

Cannon was excused from post-practice meetings, got his to-go meal, and went back to his room, setting the stage for a decision, the result of psychological pain, grief, and fear, and now, added physical pain.

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A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal last year indicated a three-fold increase in long-term suicide risk among adults who suffer one concussion, the risk even higher if the injury occurs during recreational activities like driving a car or falling at home.

Austin Cannon was in full gear, helmet included, at that August 9th practice. Hours later, he was alone, confused, and released a major cry for help. Weak from practice, and now weaker from blood loss, he made another decision that saved his life.

"I ended up crawling to my phone and I just held it, like I couldn't do anything with it," Cannon recalled. "Then I saw some missed calls from trainers and I called back. I got one and told them I've just stabbed myself in the leg and I'm bleeding really bad, I need someone to come get me."

Word quickly reached Fuente, who, moments later, called Cannon, and talked to him as trainers, and emergency medical staff rushed to his room.

"He said, Austin Cannon, put the knife down, breathe, talk to me, and put the knife down. He was my head coach, so I did it, I put it down," Cannon said.

The next hour was filled with images for Cannon. EMT's, football trainers, Fuente and other football team staff members all around him as he was taken to the hospital. Once his leg was taken care of, the next stop was New Horizons Crisis Stabilization in nearby Radford, where he began a week of treatment to get to the sources of his suicide attempt. 

Cannon credits the New Horizons staff, and the Virginia Tech football staff, for not only saving his life nearly six months ago, but helping him begin bouncing back from rock bottom. Fuente told Cannon to go home to visit family before returning to the team. As he's cutting grass, his mind begins to work.

"I thought, what could I do to make such a negative thing that happened to me be a positive thing? A lot of people who go through what I did, they won't speak about their problems, they'll bottle it up, and that's what I did," Cannon said.

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Cannon isn't quiet about his experience anymore. Proudly walking on campus with a t-shirt promoting his Twitter account dedicated to helping students in mental health crisis, a 6' 2", 300-pound offensive lineman is shouting his testimony to everyone who walks by.

It isn't a new initiative for Cannon, recalling a day at Atlee where he saw a student alone at a table at lunch and making the decision to go sit with him and befriend him. 

"He knew exactly who I was, and because of my size, he thought I was going to do something to him," Cannon recalled. "But as I talked, he started opening up, and after that, he'd be like, 'Hey Austin, how's it going?' in the hallways. Making an impact in people's lives, that's what I want to do."

Cannon, who rejoined the team, which finished 10-3 with an ACC Championship Game appearance and an historic comeback win over Arkansas in the Belk Bowl last month, runs the Twitter account "@SU_movement", which he hopes will grow beyond the Virginia Tech campus one day, meant to offer hope to anyone, not just student-athletes, who are struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts.

"That's what I'm here for, I'll be an outlet for somebody," Cannon notes. "I think mental illness issues should be taught at all levels, especially in middle and high school. The transition from high school to college, I think, is where it can hit its peak, with kids that are bullied, who feel they aren't accepted."

The other lesson coming from Austin Cannon's journey is how much more vigilant athletic programs, from youth to professional, need to be in the immediate aftermath of a concussion. Its mental affects, depending upon the situation, may not take years, but merely hours.

(Next Week: Out of incredible tragedy comes daily triumph, even in the midst of struggle, as the hopes of a young lady gone way too soon become a movement to end the stigma of mental illness in teenagers and young adults in the Richmond area.)


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