Titans coach Mike Vrabel determined to keep suicide prevention message going: ‘People are there for you’

Mike Vrabel couldn’t let the call for help go unanswered. Not this one.

Like countless others, the request for assistance reached the inbox of the Tennessee Titans head coach. But this message from the Jason Foundation — a Tennessee-based mission dedicated to preventing youth suicide — grabbed Vrabel, and the coach concluded that he had to act. 

Since 2000, the Titans had donated proceeds from their specialized license plate program to the Jason Foundation and nine other Nashville-area charities. But when broached about lending his voice to the cause, Vrabel eagerly obliged, determined to help fight the “Silent Epidemic.” 

Throughout September (which is Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month), he lent time and resources to the Jason Foundation. He also has done a series of public service announcements as part of the organization’s educational programs geared toward equipping young people, educators and parents with tools and resources to help identify and assist at-risk youth.

Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel wants to keep the message of suicide prevention going all year round. (Photo: Isaiah J. Downing, USA TODAY Sports)

But as September draws to a close, Vrabel doesn’t want the message to fade into obscurity. Although the Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month campaigns may end, the coach intends to remain vocal about preventing suicide.

“It’s something that’s critically important, not only to the suicide prevention, but the mental health and well-being of our adolescents,” Vrabel told USA TODAY Sports in an interview last Friday. “I’ve got a 20-year-old son and an 18-year-old son, and obviously, the environment they are growing up in is different than the environment that I grew up in with the social media and the make-believe that’s portrayed on those avenues.

“So, I really want to spread awareness and try to help prevent what is the second-leading cause of death in people 10 to 24 years old.” 

The mission is important to Vrabel, not only because he’s the father to young men but also because of two painful experiences within his football family. 

In 2012, Hall of Fame linebacker and New England Patriots teammate Junior Seau took his own life. 

Vrabel still remembers the day he learned of Seau’s death. Then an assistant coach at Ohio State, Vrabel was on a recruiting trip in Indianapolis.

Vrabel recalled, “It was a pretty traumatic experience for all of us. … He was a great teammate and I was lucky to have spent time with him.”

Then, in the June 2019, one of the Titans’ equipment assistants, George Cheng, died by suicide, shaking members of the organization. 

When the Titans players returned to the area for training camp roughly a month later, Vrabel, who attended the 28-year-old Cheng’s funeral, began talking with his players about the importance of communication and accountability as tools to help prevent suicide. A year later, the partnership with the Jason Foundation has strengthened Vrabel’s resolve and message to his players, the team’s fans and his sons. 

“The one thing that the Jason Foundation has tried to educate parents and teachers about: what the warning signs could be. If you’re not sure, you have to make sure. Or, you’re telling someone else, ‘I’m not sure about so-and-so.’ It’s not unlike a player that may have had on the field with a head injury. You tell someone, ‘Hey, I’m not sure, but he’s not seeming like himself.’”

As Vrabel points out, simple check-ins with loved ones can wind up making a difference. So, whether with his children, former teammates or Titans players, he makes a point of keeping those lines of communication open, while also maintaining transparency.

“It’s about providing a safe space for them to talk,” Vrabel said, discussing talks with his sons. “I think it’s important to share my own personal feelings and fears. Again, I’ve learned through my own communication and therapy that when you’re in the river, one side is anxiety and one side is depression and you’re trying to steer clear of those. You’re trying to steer clear of worrying about the past and trying not to worry about what could happen wrong in the future. You’re trying to focus on the present.”

The coach understands the mental anguish that isolation and loneliness can create. And that’s part of the reason why immediately after his playing days, he got into coaching, believing that maintaining an active life would help guard against depression. He encourages healthy habits, but more than anything, he hopes to convey the message that it’s always okay and important to reach out to others for help.

“Suicide is not the answer to a bad day or a bad week, and if you feel hopeless or sad, there’s someone willing to help you, to listen, to talk to you,” Vrabel urges. “Whether it’s a coach, a teacher, your parents or an aunt, uncle or a friend, you have to understand that there are always people that will be there for you no matter how bad you feel.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online.

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