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A tragic turn

Tragic Turn By Wayne Drehs

PHILADELPHIA -- Kyle Ambrogi couldn't get comfortable. He sat. He stood. He lay down. He grabbed a pillow and squeezed it as tightly as he could. Nothing settled his screaming nerves. Staring into Brad Martinez's eyes, bouncing off the walls of his friend's apartment that day this past August, Ambrogi couldn't explain the dark, numb feeling that was rotting his core. He couldn't organize his thoughts. He couldn't complete a sentence.

"You know, man," he'd begin, "I … just … feel … like …"

And then he'd stop. Each second brought more frustration, more pain. He began pulling chunks of hair out of his head, picking at tiny blemishes on his face. His body started to shake. His eyes began to tear up.

"Kyle, what's wrong? What is it? Talk to me," Martinez said. "You can tell me anything." He could, just not today. Not this. So Martinez pulled out a piece of paper and a pen. "Here, write it down," he said. Ambrogi grabbed the pen and scribbled down his emotions. He wrote two sentences.

I feel confused and upset. I can't do anything right.

Then he spoke.

"There's something," he told Martinez. "Something really bad. Last night, I stood on the South Street Bridge for an hour and a half … wondering if I should jump."

Martinez thought back to a month earlier, when Ambrogi asked Martinez if he'd be upset if he jumped off a high-rise. "Of course I would," Martinez had said that day. "I'd be friggin' pissed." Maybe it wasn't such a shock. Maybe the signs were there, but still … Kyle? Ambrogi was acting so strangely, pacing back and forth, squeezing his head in his hands, unable to sit still, that Martinez feared Ambrogi might hurt himself. Here. Now.

"I'm stupid," Ambrogi said to Martinez. "I can't do anything right. I'm a terrible friend. I don't even know why you guys are friends with me."

An Inexplicable Loss Seven months after Kyle Ambrogi's suicide, his family and friends are still struggling to cope and searching for answers. For a look at their plight, click here.

Martinez couldn't comprehend any of it. Kyle Ambrogi was Mr. All-American, the high school football star from nearby St. Joe's Prep with the GQ-cover-boy looks, the artfully chiseled frame and the outgoing, ice-breaking personality. He was a running back on the Penn football team, a senior finance major with a 3.5 GPA in the prestigious Wharton business school and perhaps most impressive, the kid everyone else turned to for advice when feeling down.

"The problem solver," roommate Casey Edgar says.

He was everyone else's rock. But now that rock was crumbling into pieces. And no one -- Ambrogi included -- could figure out why.

In three months, he would devolve from the kid with the commanding presence into an introverted loner. "A wallflower," Martinez says. What started as feelings of worthlessness culminated in front page news on Oct. 10, when Ambrogi shot himself in the head in his mother's Havertown, Pa., home.

Left behind were a football team, a university and a city searching for answers. How did this happen? Why did this happen? How did this 21-year-old, whose picture was plastered all over his high school weight room, fall into such a deep hole of darkness that he would choose life's cruelest exit?

They're questions some of those close to Ambrogi, such as his mother, are no longer physically, mentally or emotionally willing to ask. Donna Ambrogi, who works as the director of hospice and palliative for Jefferson Health Systems, refers to a line from the book, "My Son, My Son," as her motto.

"I'll never know why, I'll never know why, I'll never have to know why."

"You can beat your head against the wall for a long time and never come up with that answer," she says. "I miss Kyle every day. I cry every day. But you can't know what's in someone's heart. At some point, you have to let it go, you have to continue on your own journey."

But others, like some of Ambrogi's college friends, see a sunny, spring afternoon on the Penn campus, a perfect excuse for a game of Wiffle Ball, and can't help but wonder how this high-achieving, world-wrapped-around-his-biceps kid chose death over life.

"Here's a kid who was successful by every single measure of society," Martinez says. "And yet, for whatever reason, it wasn't good enough for him."

Not a negative bone in his body

Donna and Chris Ambrogi divorced when Kyle was 3. Afterward, both he and his younger brother, Greg, lived with their mother. As he grew older, Kyle assumed the role of the man of the house, waking up early to keep his mother company as she got ready for work and helping to make Greg's lunch for school.

At Penn, each day began with a call to Greg, a sophomore defensive back on the football team, to make sure he was awake for class. And it ended with a call to Mom, telling her how much he loved her. Both kids kept in touch with their father after the divorce and visited him frequently. But after Kyle's death, some of his friends would wonder what effect the split might have had on his psyche.

"Just taking over the man of the house role, it wasn't something anybody put on him," Martinez says. "He put it on himself. That's the way he was. He loved Donna and Greg more than anything."

To Donate Those wishing to donate can send contributions to: Kyle Ambrogi Scholarship Fund Football Alumni Office University of Pennsylvania Weightman Hall North 235 S. 33rd Street Philadelphia, PA 19104

At St. Joe's Prep, where the running back was best remembered for his 322-yard, four-touchdown performance in a junior year showdown with eventual Detroit Lions player Kevin Jones, friends described him as the most unlikely of football heroes -- the kid who paid just as much attention to the fifth-string JV guard everyone ignored as to the first-string quarterback everyone adored.

"He had an inside joke with everyone," says John Connors, Ambrogi's best friend since first grade.

From as early as Donna can remember, her oldest son had a passion to succeed and an endless supply of energy to help him do so. He performed layup drills in the driveway at age 3. While his Penn roommates were sleeping off a late Friday night, Ambrogi would be up at 7 tackling his statistics homework.

Ambrogi was a concrete thinker: Everything in life made sense and could be plotted on paper. When he didn't want to go to after-school day care as a 9-year-old, he pieced together a detailed itinerary -- broken down into 15-minute increments -- as to what he and Greg could do until Donna got home at 6 p.m.

He recorded gratuities he made from caddying in an Excel spreadsheet. He created a diagram for how to mow the lawn. He drew elaborate football plays in his school notebooks. And he once told Connors, a teammate of his at Prep, that he had a strategy for how to fight every member of their high school team, even though he had never been in a fight in his life.

Through it all, he would talk to strangers and make new friends seemingly everywhere he went.

"He made you feel good about who you were," says Steve Downs, Ambrogi's running backs coach at Penn. "He didn't have a negative bone in his body."

"Like the sky had fallen in on me"

Standing in the Prep weight room one afternoon in September, admiring the shrine to his best friend, Connors pulled out his cell phone and called Kyle to say hello. Ambrogi explained he had just left the psychiatrist's office.

"Oh yeah," Connors said, unaware of Ambrogi's recent bouts with depression. "What did he say? You're a nutty fruitcake?"

"Umm, yeah," Ambrogi responded. "Listen, I went to the Walt Whitman Bridge today. I thought about jumping."

Why Does It Happen?

To Florida State psychology professor Thomas Joiner, author of the book, "Why People Die By Suicide," Ambrogi's plight isn't much of a mystery at all. Joiner believes two characteristics contribute to a person's dying by suicide: the ability to overcome the human sense of self-preservation and the feeling of being a burden on others. Ambrogi, a successful college football player who was battling depression and obsessively worrying about the effects his illness was having on friends and family, had the ability to do this and the motivation to pull it off. "It's pretty clear that he had a pretty serious mood disorder," Joiner says. "That disorder distorts perception. You can be popular, capable, full of promise, but you don't see yourself that way. And anytime you conclude that you're a burden or you're not pulling your weight, you're at high risk. Especially for somebody who has the wherewithal to act on it."

A few weeks earlier, sitting at the kitchen table, Ambrogi told his mother he wasn't feeling right. The kid who was rarely sick couldn't sleep, couldn't eat and had an upset stomach. He said he felt bored, numb. And that he had thought about jumping off a bridge.

The next day, Donna took him to the family doctor for a series of tests. They came back fine. He would later visit the Penn counseling center, where he was diagnosed with depression, put on anti-depressants and ordered to see a counselor on a daily basis. But Ambrogi couldn't comprehend being sick and didn't like taking medicine.

"He didn't think it was doing anything," brother Greg says. "And why take something that isn't doing anything?"

One afternoon, when the pain became too much to bear, Ambrogi drove his white station wagon to the Walt Whitman Bridge, crisscrossing the span four times while weighing whether he should pull over and jump.

After debating his options, he broke down and called his mother for help. Donna called coach Downs, and the two met Ambrogi to talk with him and bring him home.

"I just kept trying to see what he was feeling," Downs says. "Maybe one or two things he would say could help him down the line. But in his mind, it wasn't good for people to go out of their schedules to help him. He kept worrying about what this was doing to everyone else."

When Ambrogi explained to Connors what had happened that day, Connors immediately drove to the Ambrogis' home, meeting Kyle and Donna in the driveway. Donna greeted him with a hug.

"It was like the sky had just fallen in on me," Connors says. "I felt horrible. I felt guilty. Maybe I wasn't looking out for Kyle. Maybe I wasn't taking care of my friend."

That night, the two best friends, the kids who wrote letters to each other during a high school retreat saying they'd always be able to tell each other anything -- forever -- spent six hours picking at what was wrong.

Was it girls? Six months earlier, shortly after returning from a spring break vacation to Jamaica with his friends, Ambrogi broke up with Christine Mancuso, whom he had dated since he was a senior in high school. That day, Mancuso says, Ambrogi couldn't put into words why they were splitting up. He grabbed a pen and paper and tried to write it down, but left the house without writing a word.

"I still wonder what he was going to write," Mancuso says.

But Ambrogi told Connors that Mancuso had nothing to do with it. "It's not girls," he said.

Was it football? Ambrogi was an all-city running back as a junior and senior at Prep but entered his senior year at Penn as primarily a backup. "If it's football, just walk away," said Connors, who himself quit the Harvard team as a sophomore. "It's just not worth it."

Ambrogi insisted it wasn't football.

"I like my teammates. I love coach Downs," he told Connors. "They're going out of their way to help me out, put packages in for me, and I feel like I'm not doing anything with it. It's not football." Was it work? Connors knew Ambrogi had been frustrated by a summer internship at an area investment company.

"It's not work," Ambrogi answered.

Connors pressed on, going over every single thing he could think of.

Did you steal something?

Did you kill somebody?

Did you hurt someone?

Are you in trouble?

Are you gay?

All Connors got was a constant reply of no. As the conversation shifted to what Kyle was doing on the bridge that day, Connors shared the story of a co-worker who had committed suicide earlier that summer. For five minutes, Connors went into detail about his co-worker's wife, how she was cheating on him, what was going to happen to their daughter, on and on. When Connors finally finished, Kyle had only one question.

"How'd he do it?" he asked.

That revealing response was lost on Connors, who was buried in throwing out all the psychobabble he could come up with.

"If you want to do it, if you ever want to do it again, call me," Connors said. "I'll be on a train. I'll get in a cab. I'll get on a bus. I'll get a car. I'll come home. Just please, don't do it. I can't live this world without you."

Ambrogi promised he wouldn't do anything. He would make the same promises to his brother Greg, his Penn roommates and his counselors.

"I told him, 'You're going to get better,'" Connors says. "'This is just a minor glitch. Ten years from now, we're going to look back and say, "What were you thinking?" I promise.'"

"Life's a garden -- dig it"

Through everything he was facing, Ambrogi still went to class and still played football. He, his mother and his counselors discussed his taking a semester off or quitting the team, but he wanted to keep a familiar routine. Everyone agreed that was a good idea.

But it wasn't unusual for Ambrogi to return home from class, walk into his apartment and march right into his bedroom, ignoring his roommates. He'd close the door, turn out the lights and lie on top of his bed, staring at the ceiling in silence.

"I'd go in there to talk with him, try to share some of my problems to see if that helped," Edgar says. "And through all this, he'd still be the one giving me advice."

In early October, everything changed. Ambrogi, who Edgar said had lost interest in his classwork, began taking notes in class once again. He smiled, he laughed, he watched "The Simpsons" with his roommates. He even went out with his friends for a few beers, something he hadn't done in months.

Back at Harvard, Connors touched base with Ambrogi and marveled at how good he sounded. During the conversation, Connors thought back to a quote from one of their favorite movies, "The Adventures of Joe Dirt." Seconds later, without a prompt, Ambrogi said the quote: "Life's a garden, dig it."

"I was like, 'This is a great sign,'" Connors says. "It was perfect. He didn't seem apprehensive or worried about things. He was his old self. Life seemed good."

That Saturday, on a rainy, gray, fall football afternoon, with one of his Prep teammates on the other side of the field, Ambrogi scored two touchdowns in a 53-7 route of Bucknell. It was the one and only time he would score two touchdowns in a college game.

"With everything he had been going through, the personal issues, not being able to sleep, battling those demons, still going to school, going to class, focusing on football, it was just incredible," Downs says. "I felt like a proud father standing there. A proud father. I was so happy for him."

Earlier in the game, Greg had pounced on a fumble in the end zone, scoring a touchdown of his own. For Kyle, the decision to keep his routine the same appeared to be paying off. The Ambrogi brothers were the story of the game. Afterward, a smiling Kyle mingled with Edgar's parents, Martinez's parents and even asked for a beer.

"I told him, 'I got my boy back,'" Edgar says. "And he smiled. A great big smile. I thought everything was cool. We came home, went out that night; everything seemed normal."

The next day, at the team's Sunday film study, everyone teased the Ambrogi brothers about Greg's catching up to Kyle in the touchdown race. Both brothers laughed, smiled and soaked it all in. It was the last time Greg and most of Kyle's teammates ever saw him.

"He seemed like he was finally at peace," Downs says. "Some people might say he was at peace because he knew what he was going to do. I'll just say that the Kyle I saw that night was more the Kyle I always knew."

The next morning, when Edgar woke up, he looked out the window and discovered Ambrogi's car was missing. He had a bad feeling. He called his friend about 12:20 p.m. and asked whether he was ready for their 1:30 class. Ambrogi explained he was having lunch down on South Street.

"He sounded really strange when he said it," Edgar says. "Sort of bizarre."

When Ambrogi didn't show up for class, Edgar panicked. He called Ambrogi's cell phone some 20 times. But the calls went straight to voice mail. Edgar began asking everyone: "Have you seen Kyle? Have you seen Kyle?" Nobody had seen him.

Later that night, around 9, Edgar got in touch with Donna at home. She had arrived home from work, seen Kyle's car in the driveway and found him dead in the basement.

"Is Kyle there?" Edgar recalls asking.

"Yeah, he's here," Donna said. "He shot himself."

"Is he OK?" Edgar asked.

"No," she replied. "He's dead."

Meeting his match

According to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, a life is lost to suicide every 18 minutes. Ninety-five percent of college kids who commit suicide are suffering from a mental illness, usually depression. Sixty percent of people who kill themselves do so with a firearm.

Warning Signs

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, depression is present if at least five or more of the following symptoms are present during a two-week period. At least one of the symptoms must be either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities. Are you or someone you know depressed? Find help at WebMD's Depression Health Center: Launch WebMD • Depressed mood • Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities • Change in appetite or weight • Change in sleeping patterns • Sleeping and/or moving with unusual speed or slowness • Decrease in sexual drive • Fatigue or loss of energy • Feelings of worthlessness, self-reproach or guilt • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, slowed thinking or indecisiveness • Thoughts of death or suicide or wishes to be dead

But none of those statistics matters to those who knew Kyle Ambrogi. He was their friend, their brother, their teammate and their son. Some have sorted through every memory of their time with Ambrogi, searching for an answer, wondering what they did wrong.

What about the day Ambrogi was in the bedroom of friend and teammate Al Wawszczyk, surfing the Wal-Mart Web site looking at guns? Or the day Ambrogi's car got a flat tire and he said to Wawszczyk, "I'm an idiot. I should shoot myself." Or the day after he died, when his friends found Ambrogi's bedroom, a room he kept painstakingly clean, littered with garbage?

"Afterward, you look back and wonder, 'Why didn't I connect all this in the first place,'" friend and teammate Don Snyder says. "If he would have said two weeks before, 'I'm going to kill myself unless you do this, this and this,' it could have been anything. People would have lined up to do it."

But Ambrogi himself couldn't figure out what "this" was. Depression was too abstract a concept for the concrete thinker. He needed a why. Why was he feeling this way? Why was he struggling with this illness?

If it had been a football injury, a doctor would have held up an X-ray, showed him the broken bone and put him on a rehab plan to get back on the field. If he had been struggling with football, he would have lifted more, run extra. If it had been a problem in the classroom, Ambrogi would have studied more, worked harder and eventually aced the final. But with depression, the more he thought about it, the more he dug into it, the more confused he became.

He was trying to squeeze 1,000 jagged little pieces into a 500-piece puzzle. In the end, the kid who never met a challenge he couldn't overcome had finally met his match.

"Everything that drove him and made him successful in life turned against him," Connors says. "His mind was just eating away at him.

"And once his mind was made up, it was over. There was nothing any of us could do."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for He can be reached at

An Inexplicable Loss By Wayne Drehs

PHILADELPHIA -- It's a warm spring afternoon, and a handful of Kyle Ambrogi's Penn teammates -- Brad Martinez, Al Wawszcyk and Don Snyder -- are sitting on the patio at a Philadelphia café trying to make sense of their senior year.

Soon they will graduate and move on to the next chapter of their lives. But not without pain.

"We didn't come out of here complete," Wawszcyk says. "One of our friends didn't finish the journey with us."

Not a day goes by that they don't think about their friend. They can picture him running across the football field and walking across campus, but they only can talk to him only in their dreams. There, they ask him how he's doing, why this happened and what it's like where he is now.

"We just hang out and shoot the breeze," Martinez says. "The whole time, I know he's dead, he knows he's dead. But we just hang out and talk."

It's a healing mechanism. Ambrogi's mother, Donna, says hers kicked in the night she found her son.

"Once I came upstairs, I don't know, there was this weird feeling," she says. "Like hands on my shoulders. His hands. And they were telling me, 'You're OK, you're OK.' There was just this overwhelming sense of it's going to be OK."

The Penn football team dedicated its season to Ambrogi's memory, winning the first two games after his death. But wrestling with the emotions of a teammate's suicide, the Quakers lost their final four games, giving Penn its first five-loss season since 1999.

"You know you have a job to do. The world doesn't stop," Martinez says. "But at the same time, you can't help but wonder, 'Should we be here? Should we be doing this?' It just didn't feel right."

Penn running backs coach Steve Downs, who recruited Ambrogi as a senior at St. Joe's Prep, struggled mightily with his emotions after the suicide. He stayed in bed, didn't talk to many people and briefly considered leaving coaching before his wife talked him out of it. He still has a difficult time watching plays by Ambrogi on tape.

One of the biggest challenges Downs says he faces is sitting in another living room asking another set of parents to trust him with their son for the next four years.

"When you recruit a kid, his family trusts his well-being in your hands," Downs says. "I understand the pressures of something that is deeper than things we can explain, but that doesn't change the way I feel. I feel like I let him down. I feel like I let the family down. Donna tells me all the time not to feel that way, but I can't help it. It's the ultimate loss, deeper than any game or anything else I've ever faced."

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the fact that several of Ambrogi's teammates -- and Downs, as well -- never truly believed Kyle would act on his frustrations.

"If I would have had any idea, if there was any inkling in my mind that he was actually going to go that far, I would have moved into his apartment myself," Downs says. "I would have stayed with him all the time. I didn't think he would go that far."

Which is why Ambrogi's friends, family and coaches are doing everything they can to make sure this doesn't happen to someone else. Downs thinks coaches in all sports could benefit from a yearly seminar educating them on warning signs for depression as well as how to help a student-athlete face such emotional hurdles.

"It's a situation where we want to help kids," Downs says. "You're trying to do something helpful without giving bad information or saying the wrong thing. And it's hard. It'd be like one of those doctors or counselors telling the team what to do on a pass route."

Donna Ambrogi already has spoken to kids about the importance of growing emotionally in school as well as physically and mentally.

"The emotional development we forget about," she says. "Instead, you put too many eggs in the basket of being a football player or a great student and that's your whole identity. We don't take time to take care of the other pieces. I think that's where we got into trouble."

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, more than 60 percent of people who die by suicide suffer from major depression. Depression affects more than 19 million Americans, more than coronary heart disease, cancer and AIDS combined. Yet it is the most treatable of psychiatric illnesses, with between 80 and 90 percent of those with the illness responding positively to treatment.

"I was one of those people who thought depression and Prozac and all that was b.s.," Snyder says. "After Kyle, I totally buy into the whole thing. There's no way there could have been anything besides him being physically sick for this to happen."

Many of Ambrogi's friends and teammates now wear blue Lance Armstrong-like bracelets that feature his name, his number and the day he was born as well as the day he died. They sell them for $5 each to help raise money for a Penn football scholarship they hope to give in their friend's name.

They also hope that by telling Ambrogi's story, they can educate other students who face the same stresses -- school, work, sports and the future -- Ambrogi did.

"For one thing, you've got to say something to somebody," Snyder says. "Even if you don't know if it's the right person to talk to, say something."

Adds Martinez: "In a lot of cases, overanalysis can be a bad thing, but not here. The worst that will happen is you might annoy people, whereas if you underanalyze it, it can have real negative consequences."

John Connors, Ambrogi's best friend since first grade, stresses being there for that person as much as you can. Casey Edgar, Ambrogi's roommate, agrees.

"Do things that person enjoys," Edgar says. "Kyle enjoyed eating and going to restaurants. So we'd try to do those things to get his mind off what was happening."

But in the end, there's only so much all the love and support in the world can do. Connors can't begin to count the number of times he'd call Ambrogi to see how he was doing and Ambrogi wouldn't pick up. Martinez has similar feelings about all the times he'd invite Ambrogi to join him for a movie or a meal and Ambrogi would turn him down.

"You can't force it," Martinez says. "Part of them needs to be open to it."

Which is why, when she looks back, Donna Ambrogi's only real regret is her inability to convince her son that if he took his medication and went to his counseling sessions, he eventually was going to turn the corner. He couldn't see things that way.

"I had a wonderful relationship with him," Donna says. "We said, 'I love you' every day. I don't have any regrets other than we couldn't convince him he was going to get better. And that nothing he could ever do would disappoint me."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for He can be reached at