I really just wish I had gotten the chance to tell you how much I appreciated you, big cat. The light within in me shines so much brighter because we crossed paths.
Going from a high school football program with 35 boys to a collegiate locker room of 100 plus young men from around the country was quite a transition. It was inspiring and amusing and intimidating on a daily basis, with huge individuals and equally huge personalities surrounding me at all times.
As a soft-spoken walk-on who first showed up after preseason ended and played a quiet position, it was pretty easy to get lost in the shuffle of things once the season took off that first year.
I had the unique, oftentimes hilarious opportunity to share both a position and a locker with my buddy Brad freshman year. This essentially rendered us interchangeable in the eyes of many. Most of the team staff and upperclassmen got us confused for a while, at least until they realized that Brad and Jon Saelinger were the real lookalikes in the room.
When I wasn’t known as Brad, I was usually some unfortunate reimagination of a tweak on my last name. While not the warmest of greetings, being truly affectionately referred to as Shitz or Shithead or Shitty never really bothered me that much. Believe me, I realized I had to get over any name-based jokes at my expense in second grade if I wanted to get by in life. I was just glad to have any identity on the team at all; I’m only painting this particular picture for comparative purposes.
There were so many special people in that group, but with Owen it was always different. This man walked, talked, and played like a superhero at all times. He was a tenacious defensive end who moved around the field like a ball of unrelenting fire, with striking red hair and beard flowing out of his helmet. Off the field, he was even more impactful. Owen treated everyone he met as if they had been his buddy for a lifetime and the most important person he had seen that day. Walking into that vast locker room in those early days and being greeted by an enthusiastic, booming call of “LIPPER!!” is a recurring memory that uplifts me always. The smile on his face and the bounce in his step had the simplest yet most profound effect of making me feel like I mattered, like I belonged. No matter how the rest of your day or week was going, a run-in with OT always made you feel energized and loved. The kid was magic.
Owen was the quintissential leader on the field and in the locker room and we all knew he was the perfect person to unite us towards defending our Ivy League title. To no surprise, he was voted captain near unanimously in the Spring of 2010.
Later that same month, Owen took his own life.
The initial feelings of shock and confusion were hard to shake. Here was the brightest star I had ever met, the most genuine spirit I knew, and he was gone just like that?
I remember one day, earlier that year, when Owen and I shared a chance meal together at Hill between classes. We were chatting about school and he told me about the job recruiting process on campus and how he was busy trying to find a summer gig. He sounded stressed about his prospects, but hopeful that his hard work would pay off. That was the only glimmer I got that he was struggling, but it didn’t seem like anything abnormal at the time.
Looking back, it sickens me how these unrealistic expectations of achievement and absurdly high levels of stress were so often accepted as the status quo in those days. I can’t imagine the amount of pressure he put on himself, especially with a whole team looking to him for direction.
After Owen’s death, I dealt with the issue of survivor’s guilt for the first time. I couldn’t understand why I was still around if he wasn’t. The world deserved him, and his absence just didn’t make sense.
There are questions that will never be able to be answered about losing Owen, and there are still days I wonder about things happening differently. But when dealing with death, there comes a time when we have to stop asking ourselves, “what if?” and start dealing with the realities of “what now?”.
I recently heard the term post traumatic growth when listening to a podcast episode of The Unmistakable Creative. I highly recommend this particular segment and the series as a whole for guaranteed inspiration and wisdom during a commute, run, or day around the house. In the episode linked above, there is a discussion about dealing with and learning from loss. The guest Cole Hatter discusses how the only way he could recover from the loss of his two best friends in consecutive accidents was to attach meaning to their deaths and to mark the experience as a transition point in his own life.
Losing Owen forced me to realize that the only way to move forward was to ensure that both his life and his death had a meaningful impact on myself and the world.
In the month’s following his death, it was discovered that Owen’s brain showed signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease associated with repeated head trauma. At the time, CTE had been found in the brains of former NFL players, but never in anyone as young as 21 year old Owen. We will never definitively know if this disease contributed directly to Owen’s death, but his story has undoubtedly pushed the conversation forward when it comes to safety and awareness of head trauma in football. Feel free to read more about the disease and Owen’s diagnosis here.
On campus, Owen’s impact on all he touched was immediately tangible. At a memorial service held on a Locust Walk, poet and Penn basketball player Justin Reilly recited an original work he had written about Owen. The piece has fortunately been preserved by Justin on YouTube. His impassioned diction and vivid imagery capture the essence of OT so brilliantly it gives me chills with every viewing. I want to thank Justin for being a powerful voice and an inspiration, and for his blessing to share this here.
As for me personally, both knowing and losing Owen taught me so many invaluable life lessons that I carry with me to this day. Here are a handful of them, consolidated along with choice lyrics from a few of my familiar favorites.
“But what love got to do with it when you don’t love yourself?”
– Kendrick Lamar, Real
First and foremost, Owen’s personality taught me the virtue of self love. In a world that is constantly creating divisions between humankind and making you think you need to be wealthier and sexier and trendier and more this or more that, Owen simply loved people for who they were.
At a time when I was struggling with being confident in my own identity in a new environment, he welcomed me in with open arms and made me feel at home. Owen never expected anything from you, he simply appreciated you for showing up.
I’ll never forget one early morning a year after Owen’s death when I was alone in my room. Suddenly a question popped into my head for some reason:
“What do I want to be when I grow up?”
The answer effortlessly followed, with remarkable clarity:
This realization that I was already the person I needed to be was liberating, empowering, and altogether life changing. I know I wouldn’t have developed the confidence or the independence to come to such a conclusion if it hadn’t been for Owen’s example. I hope to keep this perspective in mind as I continue to grow and develop, knowing that I must continue to embrace myself in order to best serve myself and thus the world around me.
“Everyday when you’re walking down the street, everybody that you meet has an original point of view.”
– Chance the Rapper & the Social Experiment, Wonderful Everyday: Arthur (originally recorded by Ziggy Marley)
Owen’s unwavering kindness towards all others reintroduced me to the Golden Rule. I remember being a toddler and learning to treat others the way you would want to be treated. It was one thing to be taught this lesson by teachers and parents as a boy, and another thing entirely to meet a young man who wholeheartedly embodied these values in every interaction.
Through leading by his shining example, Owen helped enlighten me to see the inherent value in all individuals. Regardless of race, color, creed, class, occupation, likes, dislikes, we all share a common experience. We all have hopes, dreams, aspirations, achievements, failures, gains, and losses. We all rise with the same sun and are trying our best to make sense of this curious existence we’ve been granted.
Allowing yourself to fully embrace the inherent unity amongst us all rather than focusing on those qualities that make us different opens up the world and presents the possibility for a richer, more diverse life. Go into every conversation with the understanding that absolutely everyone has something valuable to offer and to teach. Just having this mindset and sticking to it is paramount for a meaningful existence.
“If it’s a miracle to be alive and well. If we fell, we feel we’d be ok”
-Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, Miracle
Losing Owen simulateously gave me a massive appreciation for the life I still had, and a dramatic new sense of urgency to make the most of my time here. I try to live every moment in absolute astonishment at the beauty and complexity and interconnectedness of everything around me, knowing how fortunate I am to take each subsequent breath. I can’t imagine the intensity of the demons Owen was fighting that led him to suicide, and I constantly remind myself every single day of the many blessings of good health and the opportunities to continue to explore and learn.
I also know that, quite frankly, the rest of the world out there got cheated when Owen’s life got cut short. Clearly, he had an unforgettable impact on his family, friends, teammates, and acquaintances, and I know he would be making the world a better place if he were here today. I always consider it a privilege and a responsibility to strive to be my best self at every moment in hopes I can have a fraction of the impact Owen had and continues to have.
“If you admire somebody you should go ahead and tell em, people never get the flowers while they can still smell em”
– Kanye West, Big Brother
Going back to my first thoughts here, I really just wish I had one chance to tell OT of the impact he had on me. He was such an inspiration and a role model when I desperately needed one, even if I didn’t know so at the time.
If somebody means something to you, make sure you take the time to tell them. Don’t think they already know how you feel. Even if they do, some reassurance can never hurt. Regularly practicing gratitude towards the people in your life is such a healthy routine for multiple reasons.
Taking the time to think about who and what you are grateful for reminds you of all the good things in your life. We as humans are so dragged down by and even obsessed with negative emotions that it’s easy to disregard the neutral or positive feelings we also have. Take a few seconds and think of someone who you appreciate. See, I can already tell you’re smiling from here.
Taking the next step and actually telling people of your admiration for them can have profound effects on them as well. Think of how nice it is when someone gives you an unprompted thanks or compliment. You never know how much the simplest nice thing you say can uplift your neighbor. By raising the spirits of another individual, you open their eyes to the power of gratitude and the positive feedback loop of appreciation gains momentum.
We live in the age where it is easier than ever to communicate with anyone in the world at any time. How about we start taking advantage of that and spreading some much needed love to those in our lives? I dare you to inch out of your comfort zone today and tell someone how much you love their smile, how much you value their advice, how much you appreciate their honest feedback. Go give someone a hug. Call the first person whose voice you want to hear right now.
Keep sending those flowers today and all days to old friends, new friends, and strangers alike and I promise you that you will find everyday becoming a little more wonderful.
Thank you for everything, Owen. You taught me how to love myself so that I could better love my fellow brothers and sisters and help lead us to a brighter tomorrow. I love you and I hope we’re making you proud.