Talks with Hawks: Episode 16 – A look back on the career of a Golden Hawk Hall of Famer and Removing the Stigma of Mental Illness & Suicide (Anthony Maggiacomo and Lee Maggiacomo)

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     In December of last year, I received the horrible news that a friend and former colleague of mine in education had attempted suicide.  Happily married with two young children and universally loved, admired, and respected by all of those who knew him, I was totally shocked by what happened.  Soon after, he succumbed to his injuries.  I have known Anthony Maggiacomo casually for a few years.  We have chatted at a couple of Golden Hawk training camps and after games on a few occasions.  Anthony was a two time OUA champion, a Vanier Cup champion, a 1st team OUA All Star, a CIS 2nd team All Star, a team MVP, a WLU Athlete of the Year, and a 2013 Laurier Hall of Fame Inductee.  At the annual football awards dinner that occurred in January, I was made aware of a scholarship in memory of Lee Maggiacomo who died by an act of suicide in 2006.  I was not aware of that fact.  A few weeks ago, I reached out to Anthony and asked him about his willingness to talk about his career and his brother.  He graciously accepted and we met for some beers in a small Kitchener pub.  Three hours later, I came away knowing a lot more about Anthony, Lee, and the importance of shining a light on a difficult subject. 

David Morrissey:  Tell me why you decided to come to Laurier.

Anthony Maggiacomo: There were two main reasons.  The first was so I could play with my brother. He was 3 years older than me so we never got to play together at any level before WLU.  We got to play two years together (2003 and 2004) in university. He was also a linebacker.  We were never really competing against each other; he was older and better.  In my first year, I was only on the scout team, but in 2004 I got to contribute, mainly on special teams. My brother played a bigger, starting role on the 2004 Yates Cup team.  The other reason why I came to WLU was because I got into my program of choice (Kinesiology) so the decision was easy. 

DM:  Let’s play a game called “How well do you know your own career statistics?”  How many career interceptions did you have and how many of them did you return for touchdowns?

AM:  2, no wait, 3, but I returned 2 of them for TDs!  I got one in 2006 vs Mcmaster.  The game was on The Score.  I spied the running back on a screen pass, Adam Archibald threw it right to me, and I was gone! Then, in 2007, again on Thanksgiving weekend, and again on television, Justin Dunk threw one right to me and I scored again.  It was a crazy game, it was extremely hot and humid, I think I threw up a bunch of times right after doing my postgame interview with Sid Seixeiro.  (Editor’s Note: Once again, it is a small world.  Sid was a student at my high school in Mississauga.  He used to do the morning announcements). 

DM: So tell me about the whole peroxide thing and the 2005 championship team.  Who came up with that idea and did you participate?

AM: Some guys on the team starting doing that in the weeks leading up to the Vanier Cup.  I think it was the receivers and defensive backs who got it started. Every week, a few more guys joined in, including me.  We looked horrible.  We looked like idiots.  Some guys even tried to put purple hawks in their hair. 

DM: You still hold the WLU record for most tackles in a season by a linebacker (two defensive backs, Alan Ruby and Donnie Ruiz, have slightly higher totals) with 60.5 in 2007 in your senior year.  Did you expect to get drafted by the CFL?

AM: Well, after my 3rd year, I was passed over for the East West Bowl, but it wasn’t a huge surprise because we had two other great linebackers, Yannick Carter and Justin Phillips, who were chosen.  In 2005, Jesse Alexander was an All Canadian and Gavin Cond was CIS player of the week twice.  We were incredibly loaded at that position. However, after my 4th season, remember I only played and dressed for 3 seasons, Coach Jeffries somehow got me in the East West Bowl that year.  I thought I played well but I didn’t get drafted.  I did get a free agent training camp invite to Winnipeg.  I spent the offseason working out with the WLU defensive backs to work on my pass coverage skills.  I remember one time in a training camp film session, the defensive coordinator at the time (current U of T Head Coach Greg Marshall), made a positive comment about a play I made so I knew I had a chance to make the team. Yannick Carter gave me some good advice: Get in good with the special teams coach!  So, I made sure I did that. In the next preseason game, I made a couple of tackles on kickoff and a linebacker that they had highly drafted the previous year was cut.  Soon after, I found out I made the team.  Special teams are so important.  I think all coaches at all levels should use their studs on specials.  I lasted the whole season.  At the end of the year, the whole coaching staff got replaced and about ten days before training camp started the next year, I was cut and I was surprised.  I actually found out through reading a media release which was a pretty crappy way to find out.   I caught on much later that year with Montreal.  Ironically, a roster spot opened up for me because a former WLU teammate, Joel Wright, got injured. We won the Grey Cup that year.  That was the game where David Duval won the game on a field goal as time expired.  He missed his first attempt but Saskatchewan had 13 men on the field so he got a 2nd chance.

DM: What did you do when the season ended? 

AM: I started Teacher’s College at Canisius in Buffalo.  My plan was to do one semester in the CFL offseason, and over 3 years, I would have my degree.  I ended up completing it quicker because I was cut in the offseason. The GM, Jim Popp, was very direct with me and I appreciated that. Within a couple of years, I was hired at Jacob Hespeler and ever since, I have been teaching and coaching football there. I did quite a lot of volunteering at that school before I was hired.  I am convinced that it was because of the extra efforts I made on a daily basis volunteering in the classroom that lead them to eventually hire me. 

DM: Tell me about growing up with your brother.

AM:  We were tight.  We started football at the same time.  I was 9 and he was 12.  He was a running back/linebacker in high school.  I looked up to him.  Whatever he liked, I liked.  I latched on to his sports teams, his music, etc. He would give me a lot of football advice, often very harshly though.  I remember showing him some of my high school film, thinking I was pretty good, but coming from his more advanced (he was in university by this time) perspective, he was able to accurately point out my flaws and how I could become a better player.  He also got me into weight training too.  I was very weak in high school.  I was even too shy to work out at school, but Lee took me to the YMCA to work out together there.  Our parents split up when I was in grade 12.  My dad wasn’t around much after that.  Lee was a big mentor for me.

DM: Lee passed away in December of 2006.  In the time leading up to his death, did you ever notice any mental health issues? 

AM: I had absolutely no clue.  Looking back, I do remember a poem he wrote in high school called ‘My Sweet Depression’, so who knows how long he was truly dealing with his mental health issues, possibly as early as from the age of 16 up to 25 which is when he died.  The root of depression is a chemical imbalance, and student debt issues and my parents’ marital breakdown may have only been small triggers that might have at times contributed to his difficulties, but it was just as easily could have been many other things. Lee was working on a postgrad program at Sandford Fleming College in Peterborough. It was December 11, 2006 and I was preparing for exams.  I got a call from one of Lee’s roommates.  They said he was found unconscious and that now he was in the hospital. I picked up my mom, my sister, and his girlfriend and drove to Peterborough. We later learned that he drank engine fluid. He was declared dead on the morning of Wednesday, December 13.  Later on, we found journals he had written which outlined a number of the issues he was dealing with.  Clearly, he had been in pain for a number of years.  In his writings, we even learned about his past attempts to harm himself.  None of us in my family were aware.

DM:  Quite often, when suicides occur, the immediate family keeps that information private.  There is a reluctance to share that information with others outside the immediate family circle. At the time, what did you tell people had happened to Lee regarding the circumstances of his death?

AM: I told people that knew me that it was suicide.  Now, I use the expression ‘death by suicide’ not ‘committed suicide’ as to say he committed something implies a deliberate, negative action.  It implies a conscious, rational act.  Mental illness is a disease.  Had I met you a month or so after his death, I might have just told you something like ‘I have a brother’.  It took me years to get to the point that I could feel comfortable with that.  I didn’t want to bring it up because it would make other people feel bad and there’s nothing that they could do about it.

DM: How would you say your brother’s death has affected you?

AM: Initially, the routine of the football program was really helpful.  I immersed myself in offseason strength training and practices.  I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself and have a bad work ethic. The team was amazing.  They helped raise money for funeral expenses and they did some other things too that were really helpful.  I went to therapy weekly too.  As an adult, it has affected me in many ways. It has helped build my resiliency. I try to be as positive as I can. I am more appreciative of things.  As a teacher, it has made me more empathetic, more tolerant, and more understanding.

DM:  What would you want people to know about Lee?

AM:  He was a great guy. I loved him.  I miss him every day.  He was a better captain than I was in that he was a better communicator with teammates than I was.  I just want people to know that if they are experiencing depression or have negative feelings about their self-worth, just go tell somebody.  Talk to people!  Don’t be stubborn.  Lee kept things inside.  I don’t think he talked to anybody about the issues he was dealing with, not his friends, not his roommates, and not his family.  Lean on the people around you!   

DM: Please check out the following link concerning the Lee Maggiacomo scholarship fund that was established by a number of Lee’s former teammates.  Thank you.

https://www.laurieralumni.ca/s/1681/15/interior-giving.aspx?sid=1681&gid=2&pgid=2795&sitebuilder=1&contentbuilder=1

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