After a long preseason practice in the grueling August heat, Gus was still as energetic as ever. His team returned to the athletic training center to recover after their workout, and there was Gus, in the hot tub, “unwinding.” With a towel wrapped around his head, he was shoulder deep in the water, surrounded by bubbles and swaying back and forth, a wide smile across his face, singing loudly to anyone who passed.
That memory embodies Gus: lively, vibrant and goofy.
Augustus “Gus” Lee, 20, was a sophomore at the University of Richmond, from Vienna, Virginia. He was studying business administration and would have declared his major this semester with a finance concentration, his mother, Phyllis Lee, said. He was doing very well in school, with all A’s and B’s in his courses, she said.
While excelling in academics, Gus also found time to play on the football team at Richmond as a defensive back. As a walk-on for the team, Gus faced the challenge of proving himself to his coaches and teammates, but he surpassed expectations.
On Dec. 11, 2018, it was discovered that Gus had taken his own life.
He is survived by his sister Gillian, brother Jackson, mother, and father, Chris. His parents decided to donate his brain to the Veterans Administration-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation Brain Bank to examine it for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain that is found in people, especially athletes, with repeated brain trauma.
“Because this was so out of character for him, to do something like this, I just wondered if there was something behind it,” his mother said.
But, the most keen and distinct memory shared by Gus’ friends, teammates and family is not his death, but rather his smile.
“He was so lovable,” sophomore Kevin Laughlin, Gus’ teammate and roommate this past year, said. “His smile lit up the room.”
Gus was always the uplifting spirit in a room whenever you were around him, junior teammate Joe Mancuso said.
He had an infectious, happy energy, and even with what he was going through he never showed it, sophomore teammate Ben Maffe said. “I think that was probably the thing that stood out to me the most -- how happy he always was.”
Gus was described as such a good soul, best friend and brother to all who knew him.
“He had a beautiful, infectious smile that was bright and friendly and would just light up his whole face,” his mother said. “That’s how I want to remember him: the smiling Gus.”
Gus’ mother also noted his intrepid spirit and willingness to try anything.
“He was fun and just went along with the gang,” she said. “He was very adventurous. Whatever the older kids were doing, he’d jump right in, whether it was like jumping off a diving board or sledding down a steep hill. He just was all in.”
Gus carried this adventurous, fearless energy with him to UR. During his two years at UR, he was often found exploring the river and downtown Richmond or making impromptu late-night trips to get oreo milkshakes from Cook Out.
“100 percent of the time he was a spontaneous person,” Maffe said.
Maffe also distinctly remembered Gus’ immense confidence.
“He wasn’t scared of anything,” he said.
Whether it was for a drill in practice where no knew what to do or when they first walked into a room where they didn’t know anyone, Gus was always the first one to jump in and do it, Maffe said.
He exhibited this ability to jump into any situation or event at a very young age.
“Gus was the first child in our family to jump off the high dive,” his mother said. “He was like maybe four years old, five years old. He just climbed up that huge ladder all by himself, walked up to the edge and jumped off.”
Gus channeled this lively energy and confidence into his academics and athletics every day. When he wanted something, such as a good grade, he put in the work needed to achieve it.
“He was always a go-getter,” sophomore swimmer Ellie Ronan, who was one of Gus' close friends, said. “If he had a calculus test he’d study ten hours straight. If he wanted to be better at football he was in the weight room every day. Just little things.
“He always told me he wanted to be an [athletic director] at a school… he had goals. He always had a checklist of what he wanted to do.”
Sophomore teammate Jordan Payne described Gus as someone you try to pick up characteristics from and mimic. “I’ve never seen someone so dedicated to just getting better in the classroom and on the field,” he said.
Junior teammate Seyoum Settepani said that Gus had developed into the ideal student-athlete during his time at UR. Head football coach Russ Huesman echoed Settepani’s admiration for Gus.
“[Gus] did everything the right way,” he said. “He was a tremendous teammate. He was everything that you could ask for in a football player… He played a lot for us this year, and he would have continued to produce and play down the road.”
Gus knew as a walk-on that he needed to do extra work, Mancuso said.
Sophomore teammate Markus Vinson said Gus’ best quality was that he always wanted to be a better person and teammate. Yet, Gus not only put in the extra work but did so with such passion and enthusiasm. Both in practice and on his own, he loved getting stronger and improving as a player.
“He also was an absolute beast in the workout room,” his mother said. “He was always determined to break all the records and win all the workout awards and be better than the next guy, and he did.”
Every day he showed up to practice ready to get better, Huesman said. “I actually had a partial scholarship drawn up for him because I thought that much of him.”
Shannon St. Pierre, director for football academic performance, noted that there are two types of guys on the team -- “and” guys and “but” guys.
“Gus was an ‘and’ guy,” she said. “He was always doing this and that and something else to make himself better on the field and in the classroom and in the community.”
And when Gus faced adversity his perseverance seemed unshakable.
“Even when something didn’t go his way he would kind of shake it off really easily,” Maffe said. “I would never want anyone to ever think he was weak-minded or couldn't handle stuff because, like I said, he was the strongest kid I know.”
Although he was a relentless worker both in the classroom and on the field, family, friends and the people Gus cared about were everything to him. He prioritized them and loved to make them happy.
One of the people he loved deeply was his mother.
“He’s definitely a momma’s boy,” Ronan said. “He talked about her all the time.”
Ronan also said Gus’ mother provided a great deal of support for him when he was dealing with his struggles with mental health.
“In the last couple months of his life, he would just talk to me and say, ‘I just need to see my mom. She’ll make everything better,’” Ronan said. “She was just someone that he could go to that he felt like he could tell anything to, and he told me a lot of things, but I don't think anything like he told his mom.”
Gus’ friends meant the world to him as well.
“I’ve never met anyone that is anything like Gus,” sophomore lacrosse player Becca Curro, Gus' girlfriend, said. “He was just a fierce friend.”
Curro said she had spent five or six days of each week with Gus. She added that because he was not the “tough-guy type,” his friends knew how much he cared about them. When Gus cared about people, he showed it.
“I mean, he would end conversations with his friends on Facetime saying ‘I love you,’” Curro said. “You don’t get that from guys very often.”
Teammates Vinson, Settepani and Laughlin each said Gus was like a brother to them despite knowing him for less than two years.
Happy was how Laughlin described him. He said Gus loved everyone he met and those same people loved him back.
“He meant so much to so many people,” Laughlin said. "He meant the world to all of us.”
Senior teammate Duncan Rogers echoed that sentiment and added that Gus was also someone the team admired.
“I think a lot of people, regardless of how old you were, looked up to Gus and respected Gus for who he was just because he was so genuine,” Rogers said.
The connections forged between Gus and his teammates stretched even further to the football staff as well.
“We're leaving his locker down there with his jersey in there so people will walk by and Gus will never be out of our minds,” Huesman said. “I walk through the locker room every day and look at his locker.”
St. Pierre said the whole program felt the loss of Gus.
“I miss him every single day,” St. Pierre said. “There’s something missing. As coach said, he feels like he lost one of his sons. The guys feel like they lost a brother. We’re trying to rally the best we can.”
Gus’ friends off the team might not have a number 28 jersey to walk by, but they will remember Gus from the time he devoted to them.
“He was my best friend,” Ronan said. “We did everything together,” including watching all of the “Cars” movies during a study break.
Curro said one of her favorite memories with Gus was walking up and down the beach in New Jersey when they met up there last summer.
“Every once in a while I forget what his voice sounds like,” Curro said. “But that memory that I have is something I can have forever.”
Left with memories both light-hearted and more sincere, Gus’ friends look back on many exceptional times together and think of the smile Gus wore on his face or the smiles he brought to theirs. They can also reflect on the profound impact Gus had on each and every one of them.
He affected the lives of so many people because, despite everything he was going through, Gus never failed to make time for and check in on his friends.
“He was struggling,” Curro said. “He was able to put his feelings aside and put everybody else before him, which I think is really rare in someone.
“I can’t count the number of times he brought me ice cream when I was sad about something.”
Gus also supported Ronan in all aspects of her life from the start of her first year.
“Your freshman year is always pretty hard, especially when you're an athlete… I was like swimming sucks, school sucks, I don't want to be here anymore, and he was always like, ‘nope, stop that,’” Ronan said. “He was just someone to talk to about everything. Nothing was off limits with that kid.”
Maffe also said Gus was always there when people needed him despite his own struggles.
“He was always the first one to ask if he could do something,” he said.
Vinson said Gus helped him when he was going through things as well.
“He was one of the realest people I ever met,” Vinson said. “He always made me feel at home.”
Rogers felt that Gus’ dedication to his friends was something to learn from.
“Even in his darkest hour I know he still would have been there for everyone else,” Rogers said. “This is a great lesson on why it’s always important to check on the people you’re close to regardless of what’s going on.”
Although the imprint Gus left on the university community was widely felt, it ran deeper than here at UR. As soon as his friends from home learned that Gus took his life, many came to his family’s home in Vienna.
“They came over to the house and they were here every night, every afternoon,” Gus’ mother said. “To have all the kids around was so nice because it was almost as if Gus was still here.”
Rogers said he and his teammates did not realize how many lives Gus had touched until his funeral in December.
“Every single spot in the pews was packed with people squished in,” Rogers said.
There were two or three rows of people standing along the side walls of the church without a seat, Rogers added, and there were people filling the lobby that couldn’t even see the service.
Rogers said hundreds of people showed up to the reception as well.
“I have no idea what went on in his mind and what was going on, but I have a really hard time believing that he really, truly knew how many people he had affected positively,” Rogers said.
Besides his consistent caring actions, Gus was also well known for his comical and unique side.
“Gus was low-key funny,” sophomore teammate Anthonie Powell said. “He was like a funny dad. He was just corny.”
One example of this is the story of his Miami Dolphins’ hat.
Gus wore a Miami Dolphins’ hat his entire senior year of high school, every day, and during his first semester at Richmond. Yet, he was a Redskins fan and would explain to anyone who asked that he was not a fan of the Dolphins.
“He said he thought it looked good on him because it matched his eyes,” his mother said.
Ronan bought herself a Miami Dolphins’ hat after Gus took his life. She laughed as she recalled him telling her “it just makes me look better.”
Along with the hat, Ronan and multiple teammates have gotten tattoos in Gus’ honor, ranging from a small cursive “GL” to a red and blue 28 drawn within the outline of a spider.
Like his smile, his family and friends also distinctly recall his love of food.
“He was a big eater,” Curro said. “He always said that second dinner was just as important as the first dinner.”
Gus loved getting Cook Out, Chipotle and Jersey Mike's Subs with his friends and teammates. He would order an italian sub from Jersey Mike’s at least four times a week, Ronan said.
Another favorite of his: Planet Earth.
“Every Sunday we watched Planet Earth together,” Ronan said. “He was like a weirdo about Planet Earth: Blue Planet. I mean documentaries on Netflix about animals and the world… obsessed with it.”
Both Ronan and Gus’ teammates also recalled his immense fear and dislike of wooden spoons. He didn’t like the texture of the spoons, and the way things tasted when you ate off of them, Ronan said.
He also loved playing every sport possible -- basketball, baseball, lacrosse and football -- as well as Fortnite, with friends.
Gus not only enjoyed a wide array of sports, but he was also very good at them, especially lacrosse and football -- he was recruited by colleges for both.
While playing basketball with Ronan one day, Gus bet her $20 that he could dunk in his Ugg boots, she said.
Although Gus’ time at Richmond may have come to an end, his legacy has continued to impact all who knew him.
Rogers emphasized that Gus’ death is not the only thing that has changed his perspective. Gus himself, by the way he lived his life and cared so deeply about his friends, has set the example of checking on your friends and always being cognizant of how you’re acting towards people, he said.
“He has legitimately, like fundamentally changed the way I look at life,” Rogers said. “I would hope that he can continue to be a blessing to other people even after he’s gone because he was such a blessing while he was here.”
Many of his friends and teammates were surprised by his suicide because, on the surface, Gus was so exceptionally happy and optimistic.
“It makes no sense,” Powell said. “I feel like, out of all of us, he was the most level-headed one.”
But the day he took his life made many realize that checking in on your friends is exceptionally important and something that Gus did frequently.
“If you are having trouble I guess just reach out because that is what [Gus] would want other people to know,” Maffe said.
Rogers emphasized this as well, adding, “there are always people here for you.”
Gus’ family and teammates got immense support after his death, which illustrated the true impact he had both at home and UR.
“When Gus died, when [his friends] were coming over, they all were wearing Miami Dolphins’ hats,” his mother said. “They all went out and bought them, and they bought them for my husband and I as well.”
Rogers explained that football programs across the country reached out to UR’s team to express their condolences. The University of Maine sent UR a number 28 jersey signed by its entire football team, and the U.S. Naval Academy sent a signed football, he said.
Gus’ mother hopes to spread the message that mental health problems are a widespread phenomenon and reaching out to friends and family is of the greatest importance, she said.
“First of all, just talk to your friends, because I think the more you talk to them, the more you realize we’re all on the same boat,” she said. “We all had imperfect childhoods. We all have crazy relatives. We all have anxiety and things about us that we feel are less perfect than we would want or insufficient. But that’s human nature. That’s not anything to be ashamed of.”
Gus’ legacy is now at the forefront of the minds of all who cared for him.
“[His friends and the athletic department] want people on this campus to remember him for what he did and who he was and how good of a person he was, instead of, ya know, this is a tragic case of a 20-year-old who killed himself,” Ronan said.
Ronan also urged people who did not know him and who are not part of the athletic department to still attend the on-campus memorial on Sunday, Feb. 10, at 2 p.m in Cannon Memorial Chapel.
“Everyone can benefit from going,” she said.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Counseling and Psychological Services is located in Sarah Brunet Hall and can be reached at 804-289-8119. Students may walk-in during operating hours 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. For on-campus emergencies, call URPD at 804-289-8911. The Office of the Chaplaincy can be reached at 804-289-8500 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact features editors Melanie Lippert and Abby Seaberg at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Ashlee Korlach and Andrew Wilson contributed reporting.