‘How’s everybody doing?’: Tre Tipton works to end mental health stigma for athletes

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Tre Tipton’s battles extend well beyond the football field — the seventh-year Panthers wide receiver wrestled with anxiety and depression for nearly his whole life.

By Dalton Coppola, Assistant Sports Editor

Redshirt senior wide receiver Tre Tipton, gleaming with sweat, sauntered toward reporters assembled on the outskirts of Pitt’s practice field. The seventh-year wide receiver started his Q&A differently than most other players — he was the one asking a question when he got to the microphone.

“First question,” Tipton said, “How’s everybody doing?”

He looked around at the assembled media, waiting for answers. Tipton meant it. His question wasn’t an obligatory social norm — he seemed to genuinely want to know how everyone was doing.

It was a hot and humid afternoon — the type of weather that few would want to wear football pads in. The rest of the team had already shed their pads and made their way to the locker room for ice baths and a fresh set of clothes. Tipton made his trip to the group of media alongside fellow receiver first year Jalen Bradley.

Bradley struggled on this particular day of practice, with at least three drops, and was visibly frustrated during the allotted practice time for media viewing. Tipton, in his seventh and final year with the Panthers, stayed in the heat to talk and work with Bradley while lending some advice to the struggling first year after practice. 

“[I’m] just trying to keep him from beating himself,” Tipton said. “We can’t have weak links and I’m trying to make sure we don’t have any by giving him as much knowledge as I personally have and give it back to him.”

The Apollo, Pennsylvania native gathered plenty of wisdom over the years, not just on the football field, but in the real world from a young age. Tipton began experiencing suicidal thoughts at just seven years old and lost several family members in his childhood, including his stepfather.

But football was something that kept Tipton going — it gave him something to look forward to and it kept him sane, he said in a segment on UPMC Pitt Livewire. He’s had his fair share of pitfalls on the gridiron, from several knee injuries to fallouts with head coaches. According to Tipton, there’s no love lost for the game of football, and he’s trying to savor every moment. Because once a football player plays their last snap, it’s over.

“One sport that’s like death is football,” Tipton said. “What I mean by that is the day you pick up that football, you have a death certificate when you stop playing that game … football is the one sport, once you put it down, it’s over. So, as long as I’m able and these legs keep running I’m trying to play … I just love the game, the game has been my best friend.”

Back when Tipton was a first-year, he struggled himself — but his battles weren’t on the football field. Tipton played well until he sprained his PCL and LCL in his knee and was relegated to the sidelines.

When his knee injury kept him off of the field and away from his “best friend,” he started experiencing feelings of depression and worthlessness.

“I was so deep in my own depression, there was no coming out,” Tipton said in the same segment on UPMC Live Wire. “I ended up doing some things to myself and the people around me that I would never ever wish upon anybody.”

Eventually, Tipton reached a breaking point.

Tipton stood on the Fort Duquesne Bridge and looked out over the water, prepared to take his own life. As he looked out over the water and toward Heinz Field, something in the back of Tipton’s mind told him not to jump, that it wasn’t his time. He took his shirt off, threw it in the water promising himself he would never be in that position again.

Through prayer and building strong relationships, Tipton learned ways to fight off the feelings of depression and anxiety that he battled for much of his childhood. Head coach Pat Narduzzi gushed with pride at the obstacles the seventh-year receiver overcame.

“Tre is an incredible success,” Narduzzi said. “The measuring stick isn’t big enough to measure what that guy has overcome… it’s amazing what he’s gone through, the things he’s survived when a lot of kids would have just hung their cleats up and said ‘I’m done.’”

Tipton adopted a new mindset — rather than bottling up his emotions, he would be open about his mental health. He uses a metaphor to explain why talking about mental health is paramount to his continued prosperity — the glass cup theory.

“I always used to use the same theory, it’s called the glass cup theory,” Tipton said. “If you take a glass cup and you fill it up with water over and over and over again, what begins to happen? It overflows, right? … And the scary part is with that glass cup is if you begin to overflow and it tips over and breaks, then what? … In order for me to keep my cup half empty but also half full I had to share my experiences, I had to share what I was going through.”

And that’s just what he did.

Tipton started his own organization called L.O.V.E. — an acronym for “Living Out Victoriously Everyday” — to give college athletes a space to talk about their own battles with mental health. Athletes speaking up about mental health is a relatively recent concept, and one that even draws criticism from fans who claim athletes should stick to sports. Tipton aims to do away with this harmful and outdated stigma and give athletes the freedom to speak out through his organization 

“We don’t get a chance to speak up about our situations and if we do we get looked at differently,” Tipton said. To give athletes that opportunity to speak up and say, ‘I’m not okay,’ I want to be the person that does that. If I could be, I’d be the Michael Jordan of mental health.”

Other prominent athletes are also working to end the stigma surrounding mental health. Tennis player Naomi Osaka opted out of the French Open this past May after concerns about the negative impact that playing in the spotlight and talking to the media were having on her mental health. United States Olympic gymnast Simone Biles also opted out of the final event at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — saying she had to focus on her mental health. 

“We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day, we’re human too,” Biles said. “So, we have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

Two athletes at the top of their field opted out of major events to focus on their mental health — whether people liked it or not — catching the attention of the entire world and signifying a change in the way people view athletes.

Tragedy struck once again for Tipton this summer. His mother, Kim Tipton, who he said loved nothing more than seeing her son play football, passed away. Tre’s “glass cup theory,” prayer and strong relationships kept his head above water in a time of need and ensured his glass didn’t tip over and break. As Tipton gets ready to strap it up for one last year with the Panthers, he said this year is for his mom.

“Everyday I go out here it’s me playing for my mom,” Tipton said. “I can’t let her down. I know she’s watching me every chance that she gets.”

Just as Tipton was wrapping up his time with the media, he was asked what his plans after football entailed. A smile crept across Tipton’s face and he began to speak.

“Can I be honest with you?” Tipton said with a grin. “I want to be a superhero. Whatever that entails … I’m going to change lives and I’m going to make a difference.”

Students can reach the University Counseling Center 24/7 by calling 412-648-7930. LifeSolutions, the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program, is available 24/7 by calling 866-647-3432.

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