At first, it seemed like a regular day.
But then Tyler Perone’s world turned into a living hell.
It was the first day of spring practice for the 2018 season. Tyler, a rising junior, spent the day throwing out patterns and shouting signals, inching towards getting back the starting quarterback position he lost with three weeks left in the previous season.
After practice, Tyler got back to his room in Willison Hall and planned on playing a video game, Dungeon Defenders, with his teammate, roommate and close friend, Andrew Brncic.
Then, Tyler got a phone call from a paramedic.
His brother, Brendan, had taken his own life.
He was 18 years old.
As Tyler lay on the floor, overcome by flowing tears and paralyzing shock, he didn’t think about the pain of losing his brother.
He didn’t think about the sled rides, or about the video games or the Lego collections they shared growing up.
He didn’t think about not being able to play college football with his best friend, who had just committed to Waynesburg a month before.
He didn’t think about himself, or, strangely enough, about his brother.
No, Tyler’s immediate thoughts were about his mother, Kim.
“The first thing I said was, ‘My poor mom,’ Tyler said. “I remember saying that, and it’s engraved in my head more so than anything. That whole day was just – it was like hell.”
After the phone call, Tyler went home and was away from college life entirely. It’s a good thing his grades were strong because when he returned to Waynesburg four days later, he had no motivation to go to class. When he was supposed to be getting sleep and recharging for the next day, all he could do was stare out the window, the somber sky matching what his world had turned into.
“Just two weeks ago I was talking to my brother, and I’d call him up, asking if he wanted to play video games. And here I am now, in this situation,” Tyler said.
Now, 17 months after Brendan’s passing, Tyler still isn’t recovered— but he’s also motivated to play the game they both loved. For his teammates who he leads, and for Brendan, whose presence he feels every practice and every game.
Depression runs in the Perone family.
Tyler said his mother has lived with it for her entire life. Her father was also depressed, so much so that he took his life when Tyler was in grade school. Despite the traumatic circumstances, or perhaps because of them, Tyler wasn’t even aware of how his grandfather had died until last year—a few weeks before Brendan would suffer the same fate.
His parents had protected him from the details of how his grandfather had died for almost 13 years, but now, in 2018, his father, Mike, told both of his children the truth about what happened.
He did this because he knew his youngest son was hurting and feared the family’s history of depression meant another tragedy lurked in the future, a fear that ultimately turned prescient.
“My brother was very depressed,” Tyler said. “We were worrying about him because he was sleeping a lot and wasn’t coming out of his room a lot. He was going down a dark path. His friends wouldn’t have known. Only we would know that because he didn’t display it around anybody else, just at home. He was trying to outrun the feelings that he was getting.”
Tyler couldn’t really understand his brother’s depression. After all, by Tyler’s account at the time, Brendan didn’t have much to complain about life beyond occasional nosebleeds. He was popular in high school, with a sense of humor that was more outsized than his 6’1, 240-pound frame. Now, looking back, he still struggles to process what his brother was feeling and thinking.
“My brother had nothing to be sad about,” Tyler said. “That’s the heartbreaking thing about it is that he couldn’t help how sad he felt, and he had nothing to be sad about. We didn’t come from poverty or abusive parents. That’s the thing that a lot of people don’t understand about depression is that people that don’t have it don’t understand. I don’t understand what that feels like.”
While Brendan’s future looked promising – a starting offensive lineman in high school, two months away from graduation and ready to make an impact blocking for his older bro at the college level – he was constantly taking part in an Oklahoma Drill against depression. And for all his success on the field, the war for inner peace was much more intense than fending off a defensive end under the Friday night lights.
Brendan opened up to his older brother more so than his parents, so Tyler knew things about his brother’s battle that nobody else did.
While he did well academically, Brendan hated being in school for eight hours a day. And although Brendan loved the diversion the autumn Friday night provided, he would tell Tyler that when he was feeling down, he didn’t want any part of any activity— even football.
Tyler hated watching his brother struggle and hoped that going to college, where Brendan wouldn’t be confined to one building five days a week, could help him.
But Tyler’s plan, however well-intentioned, would never come to fruition.
The night before Brendan took his life, Tyler called him.
It was Easter Sunday.
Perhaps Brendan knew at the time, but Tyler didn’t realize it would end up being their last conversation.
Tyler remembers he was driving back to campus.
Tyler remembers being scared for his brother’s life.
Tyler remembers that Brendan had been drinking.
Most of all, Tyler remembers the horror of his brother telling him that he had come close to ending it all.
Tyler remembers Brendan telling him not to mention that to his parents [which he did immediately after the phone call.]
And Tyler remembers Brendan promising him that his pain would never come to that.
He remembers the conversation ended just like every other call would have— with the words “I love you.”
The next day, Brendan was gone.
“God had that plan,” Tyler said. “For whatever reason, God had that plan. I won’t know until it’s time for me. For whatever reason, Brendan was supposed to go home before the rest of us.”
It was like getting punched in the face.
After Brendan’s death, the burden of guilt had hit him like a Mike Tyson left hook.
Should he have done something? Could he have done something?
Maybe Brendan would have lived to put on his high school graduation gown had Tyler been able to convince his parents to get his brother the help he needed. Eventually, however, the guilt faded as Tyler realized he had tried his best to save his brother’s life.
“I was a friend to him,” he said. “I listened to him. I tried to help him as best I could. I no longer put myself in a guilt situation because there’s nothing good for me to do that. I can’t change the outcome. I just know that I did everything I could.”
He might not have ever gotten to the point of realizing that, however, if not for his teammates—and, of all things, Star Wars.
As he tried to figure out how to cope, Tyler leaned on two teammates in particular. At first, it would seem their common college football trajectories would bring them together.
Andrew Brncic, a defensive back, transferred to Waynesburg in the Spring 2016 semester, the same time Tyler came in after spending the fall at Seton Hill. Tyler’s left tackle, Alex Paulina, started his career at the highest level of football— playing D-I ball for the University of Pittsburgh— before transferring to Waynesburg for the 2017 season.
Despite that common ground, it wasn’t the game, but rather “late-night nerd sessions” in Willison that bonded the 207-pound quarterback, the 185-pound safety and the 335-pound left tackle. The teammates would spend hours discussing not Xs and Os, but the different movies and theories relating to Star Wars.
Though he wouldn’t know the extent of it until later, since Tyler talked about his brother “all the time,” Paulina knew Brendan was hurting.
Paulina said he had hoped that when Brendan started at Waynesburg that he could have a heart-to-heart conversation with him about something bigger than football.
“I really wanted to meet with Brendan and talk him through it, because it’s one of those things that doing it by yourself … and trying to fight it by yourself, you’re fighting a losing battle at that point,” Paulina said. “I didn’t know it was as serious as it was.”
God had that plan. For whatever reason, God had that plan. – Tyler Perone, Waynesburg quarterback.
After Brendan’s death, each friend tried their best to help Tyler cope. While Paulina has been Tyler’s go-to guy for a heart-to-heart conversation, Brncic’s role as his roommate was to try to bring sanity to Tyler’s life— although he understood that things would never be the way that they were.
“What I did was I tried to make it as normal as it could be,” he said. “Whether it’d be joking about a video game, or joking about getting yelled at practice. It’s obviously a sensitive subject, but you have to get it back to the point where it’s as close to normal as possible.”
Five months after his world crumbled, Tyler got the start for Waynesburg’s week two matchup with Westminster.
The previous night, after the team’s weekly Friday evening chapel service, Paulina pulled his quarterback to the side and told him five words that would come to define Tyler’s newfound purpose for playing football: “Play for those who can’t.”
If Paulina’s memory serves him right, the next day, as the team prepared to run through the banner, Paulina said it again.
“Play for those who can’t.”
When he said it the second time, Paulina remembers a “primal” look on the face of his quarterback.
The game, like Tyler’s career leading up to it, didn’t go as planned. He threw an interception on the first possession and was subsequently benched for the rest of the afternoon.
“Between what happened the year before, and this year, it seemed things weren’t really panning out,” Tyler said. “I just couldn’t figure it out. I had been pretty good at football my whole life. All of a sudden– I couldn’t seem to get my feet under me on the field. It just bothered me. I couldn’t figure it out.”
Two weeks later, the Jackets were back at John F. Wiley Stadium, and it looked like another frustrating week for Tyler.
Just like the Westminster game, he got the start.
Just like the Westminster game, he got benched.
Unlike the Westminster game, he won. Tyler led a 77-yard drive to set up a game-winning field goal with 14 seconds to go, and Waynesburg won its first game of the season, 10-7. The Jackets have played seven games since then, and Tyler has started every single one.
Tyler’s career has taken him from a record-setting high school run at Seton LaSalle to a Division II scholarship, to Waynesburg, where he’s yo-yoed in and out of the starting lineup for a team that’s lost more than it’s won.
While college football hasn’t always been kind to Tyler– in fact, it’s abused him at times– his brother’s death has reminded him of why he plays.
“Football is a big deal,” he said. “A lot of people say it’s just a game, but it is a big deal to me. A lot of times in the past, I made it too big of a deal. Rather than enjoying it for the fun it is and playing it relaxed and loose, we’re playing it for other reasons; we’re so tight. Last year, I started to pull back on that. I’m not playing this to be tasked, I’m playing it to have fun.”
This past training camp was the most fun Tyler’s had on a football field in years. Finally, he was the starting quarterback, and there was no debate. Even better, he had fought through his classes to finish Magna Cum Laude, and now only has to take a few online courses as a graduate student.
For Tyler, this training camp was a unique opportunity to drink in the perks of being a college athlete, with minimal worry about life in the classroom.
“I got to be a kid one more time… I got to be a college student one more time,” he said. “I’m still feeling that now playing football. It’s been very healthy for me in the sense that I have time away from my family and some time to myself and some time to reflect with my friends. To be here and truly figure out what I wanted out of life.”
Paulina sees a change in his friend and quarterback as he’s in the beginning stages of his final season. Having gone through hell and found a way back, Paulina thinks Tyler has a perspective that will fuel him on and off the field. All football players have to find something to play for, Paulina said, whether it’s doing it for teammates or personal glory. After Brendan’s death, Tyler knows football—and life— is about much more than that.
“He found a purpose when that all happened,” Paulina said. “Now, it’s a crappy way to find a purpose, but he did. He found out that life’s precious.”