On Sept. 23, 2019, what would have been Augustus “Gus” Lee's 21st birthday, a few University of Richmond students placed sunflowers on the football field’s 28-yard line and reminisced about their favorite memories of Gus, who once wore the number 28 on UR’s football team.
In interviews with The Collegian, senior Ellie Ronan said she remembered how Gus’s eyes would sparkle whenever Gus talked about the things he had loved. Senior Kevin Laughlin, Gus’s roommate, recalled the chilly, winter mornings where he and Gus would roll out of bed and head to the Weinstein Center to lift weights before the sun had risen. It was their shared routine.
These anecdotes are a part of how Ronan and Laughlin remember their friend, Gus, who began the University of Richmond 2018-19 school year as a sophomore. Gus was a defensive back for UR’s football team. On Dec. 9, two years from today, Gus died by suicide.
“He was the first one in the weight room and the last one out," Laughlin said. "He was a heck of a football player."
Behind his bright smile, Gus had internal struggles that he never spoke of, Laughlin said.
Gus's mother, Phyllis Lee, said she had noticed signs of homesickness and loneliness when Gus would call her from college. His smile and happy energy concealed the fact that he was struggling mentally, she said.
Gus's death left unanswered questions in the minds of those closest to him.
“We had a lot of people at our house and family members thinking, 'Why did this happen?'" Phyllis Lee said. "'What could we have done to prevent it?'”
After many sleepless nights, Gus's family decided to donate his brain to the Veterans Administration-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation Brain Bank, Phyllis Lee said.
In doing so, the family hoped to find answers, she said. Phyllis Lee said she thought Gus might have been struggling from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative brain disease that is found in many athletes, according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
Gus's family received the results of Gus's brain injuries examination on Jan. 27, 2020.
Gus did not have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, according to a report by the director of PTSD Brain Bank Russ Huber. However, the results showed molecular and structural changes in Gus's brain — evidence of a history of brain trauma — Phyllis Lee said.
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Gus suffered several high-impact collisions throughout his athletic career, the first being a diagnosed concussion from a collision during a middle school lacrosse game in 2013, Phyllis Lee said.
After Gus's death, the Athletics Department, in conjunction with Counseling and Psychological Services, hired its first-ever athletics staff psychologist, Rachel Turk, who focuses solely on student-athletes.
“People don’t usually see what goes behind the scenes and all the barriers that are really in student-athletes' way, " Turk said. "From having the time they need to get things done or getting the resources that they need, the extra pressure that they feel, the culture in athletics of being tough and pushing through things — all that makes them a population that doesn’t always get the help that they need.
"It means a lot to me to be an advocate for them and also to be that resource for them. Not only the individual work that I do with them but also to break the stigma and to raise awareness about the struggles that they face."
After her son's loss, Phyllis Lee's message to young adults struggling mentally is this: "The most important thing for young people is to know that it is okay not to be okay. If you are feeling overwhelmed or in despair it is okay to share with people. There is always someone who has a compassionate ear," Phyllis Lee said.
In remembrance of Gus's life, his friends, including Laughlin, formed a team for a May 19, 2019, suicide prevention 5K run, named the team “In Gus We Trust," Laughlin said.
“The 5K run was a great way to honor him and to raise awareness about mental health and how important it is to look out for one another,” Laughlin said.
Phyllis Lee said honoring her son by raising awareness of mental health was more than she could have asked for.
On Oct. 3, UR lacrosse player and one of Gus's friends, Becca Curro, organized a socially-distanced suicide prevention walk on UR's campus and walked 2.8 miles in honor of Gus's former jersey number, 28, she said.
"I organized the walk because as a student-athlete and being so close with Gus and knowing that he hid his pain for so long makes me feel responsible to educate people," Curro said. "Student-athletes are good at hiding their pain mentally and physically."
Curro said people should view having anxiety as the same as having a sprained ankle. People should take care of their mental health just like they take care of physical injuries, Curro said.
On the second anniversary of Gus's death, his humor, goofiness and energy remain alive among many of his friends, Ronan said. Gus's motivation to excel in football influences Ronan as she continues to compete on the UR swim team, she said.
“He just grinded on the athletic field," Ronan said, "So I think my mentality changed to think of my sport as, 'How would he do it?'
“When something drastic happens in your life, you tend to look at life differently. Now I look at my life through [Gus's] lens. What would he do? How would he think? How would he approach the situation?”
Confidential on-campus resources for survivors of sexual violence are CARE Advocates (1-804-801-6251 or email@example.com), Counseling and Psychological Services, the Office of the Chaplaincy and PSMAs (firstname.lastname@example.org), who are accessible through email and Zoom meetings during this time if desired.
Non-confidential resources include the University of Richmond Policy Department, Title IX deputy coordinators, the Office of Common Ground and the Westhampton College and Richmond College deans’ offices.
Contact features writer Sana Azem at email@example.com.
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