Editor's Note: This story includes a graphic description of a suicide attempt. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- Tre Tipton walks up the pathway along the Fort Duquesne Bridge until he reaches the spot he is looking for and stops.
He leans over the railing and stares down into the water below. The night is warm and still. Cars and trucks rumble across the bridge behind him, but Tipton says nothing, his head bowed, eyes fixated on the Allegheny River.
Six years ago, he left his dorm room on the Pitt campus wearing a black hoodie and started walking in the frigid cold. Tipton felt too numb to notice.
When he got to the bridge, he saw Heinz Field off in the distance, a final reminder of everything that had gone wrong. He climbed over the railing. There was nothing between him and the water 46 feet below. The darkness beckoned him forward.
Tipton remembers this moment in the silence. He has returned here to share his story. Eventually, he looks up. On the railing next to him, someone has written in big black letters:
WE ARE NEVER PERFECT
ONLY ON THE WAY
Tipton cannot remember if that phrase was on the railing six years ago. But it feels as if it was written specifically for him.
Tipton is one of two seventh-year seniors at Pitt, a de facto leader thanks to his experience. Tipton has played in 44 career games, mostly as a backup, after having four seasons cut short thanks to various injuries. But he has carved out a role on special teams as a super senior -- including one of the big highlights in a win over Tennessee, when he downed a punt at the 3.
Ask anybody who knows him, and they will tell you he is the most selfless person they ever met. They always mention his smile: big, bold and bright, disarming and welcoming all at once.
"Tre has always been somebody who positively affects everybody he comes in contact with," said Pitt linebacker John Petrishen, who has known Tipton since they were on the same AAU basketball team in sixth grade. "He's there for everybody and expects nothing in return. I would run through a wall for Tre any day of the week, and that'll never change."
Behind that big smile, Tipton, 25, has had a lifetime filled with pain.
His parents split when he was young, and he moved around a lot, never getting completely comfortable. His mother, Kim Tipton, worked hard to make sure there was food on the table, but as her only child, Tre felt responsible for her as her protector. His father, Charles Tipton Sr., remained involved in his life and tried to support his son as much as he could.
Tipton traces the start to his mental trauma to age 7, when he went upstairs to tell his father's girlfriend that breakfast was ready, only to find her dead in bed. In sixth grade, he lost his great uncle, whom he considered a mentor. Then, in one particularly devastating week when he was 17, Tipton lost his aunt and close friend within three days of each other in separate car accidents.
The trauma felt endless to Tipton, yet he never told anyone how he felt.
"I didn't feel it was right for me to speak up," Tipton said. "We always believe that we're alone because we're taught not to speak up about the things that we're going through. So, I felt that I had to be a man, stand on my own two feet, figure it out."
So he kept smiling his big smile, masking the suicidal feelings in his head, while feeling increasingly alone.
"I wanted to stop feeling the pain that I was feeling," Tipton said. "I was tired of feeling like things were always going wrong."
Sports provided the outlet he desperately felt he needed, calling them his "safe haven." But sports did not provide him complete protection. As one of four Black students at his high school, Tipton recalls dealing with constant racism and slurs. That only intensified his feelings of isolation.
"I was always the outcast, not having friends or somebody to really understand me," Tipton said. "One of the most difficult things I had to go through, and my mom went through, was having to deal with the racism. I was trying to be the bigger person, hold my tongue in certain situations that were very uncomfortable."
If he could just push through the mental anguish, he told himself, he could earn a scholarship and make things better for himself and his family. He played three sports at Apollo-Ridge High about an hour away from Pittsburgh: football, basketball and track. His senior year, he played receiver, quarterback and defensive back, and had 2,018 all-purpose yards and 18 touchdowns.
Despite feeling isolated at school, Tipton always stayed late after practice to help his teammates. Apollo-Ridge coach John Skiba describes Tipton as "one of the best kids I've ever been around. As he got older he really developed into such a great leader, and he loved helping guys."
He chose Pitt so he could stay close to home.
All the while, the self-doubt grew more intense. Despite the scholarship and standout football career, he told himself he wasn't good enough or deserving enough.
"Did I have questions about my own self worth? Every single day," Tipton said. "I used to doubt myself about even being able to get to the next level."
Then when he got to Pitt, his spiral downward intensified.
"That whole freshman year, I was zombified, and just walking through life," Tipton said. "Showing up at practice, not really being engaged, showing up to class, not being engaged, talking to people, but not really being there, being in another planet within my head."
He played in the first four games as a true freshman in 2015, but injured his knee in practice. Now, football was taken away from him for the first time, and the biggest goal he had left -- reaching the NFL -- felt further away than ever.
Sports could no longer provide the sanctuary he so desperately needed to help him channel his pain. All he could do was helplessly watch as his teammates went about their football lives without him.
"I didn't have anyone to reach out to, didn't have another outlet, so I felt myself getting into this mind-set where I felt lonely consistently," Tipton said. "When you feel alone, you don't feel alone because you don't have people around you. You feel alone because your thoughts leave you so desolate in your own head, you don't feel like you have anything but yourself."
He watched Pitt play Duke on Nov. 14 from his aunt's house. Seeing his backup score a touchdown made something in him snap, and he blacked out.
What he remembers next is standing next to the knife drawer and pulling one out, trying to cut his wrist. But he had trouble breaking through the skin and thought to himself, "I can't even do this right." He stared at himself in the mirror and put the knife down.
He told nobody what happened that day.
A month later, he reached a breaking point.
Tipton found himself alone in the dark in his dorm room, sitting on his bed in December 2015, having sunk deeper into the negativity that now dominated his thoughts. He left his room and started walking, up and down the hilly streets, without a destination. He just wanted to walk. As he did, he thought about all the friends and family members he lost, how scared he felt to get close to anyone. How nothing was going right at Pitt. How he hated feeling so alone.
"On that walk, I remember the whole time thinking, 'I just wanna die,'" Tipton said. "I don't wanna be here no more. I don't wanna feel this no more. Everything was just a big jumble. I didn't really understand life."
At one point, he was hoping someone would confront him on the street and fight him, just so he could feel something.
Not one player on his team, not his coaches, not his mother, not his father, knew how badly he hurt.
"No more," he told himself.
"I just remember saying to myself, 'I'm done. I'm not doing this anymore,'" Tipton said. "There's nothing you could tell me that's going to make this life better."
Tipton ended up at the bridge, and decided to make all his pain go away once and for all.
When he climbed over the bridge railing, Tipton steeled himself to jump. He felt no fear, and that made him angrier. He asked himself, "Why are you not scared of dying?!" He stared at the water. But then his foot slipped off the edge, and his hands reflexively caught the railing.
"Immediately something told me, 'You're not ready yet,'" Tipton said. "I even ask that question: 'Why did I catch myself?' And honestly, I don't think it was me. I think it was God. I think it was God putting me in this world for a bigger purpose."
Tipton climbed back over the railing and walked all the way home, vowing to be better at everything -- relationships, school, football. Again, he told nobody what he tried to do.
Tipton sought professional help, but stopped going after two weeks, because he did not feel like the fit was right. When he eventually started confiding in friends in spring 2016 about his suicide attempt, he realized it felt better to talk about it than to hold it all in.
Nobody could believe Tipton had been fighting all alone.
"He'd walk around like there were no problems, which is a problem," Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. "As coaches, we're always fixers, so you just have conversations saying, 'We're here for you, we want to help you, and we'll get through this together.'"
Then, another major setback came. But this one changed his life.
Tipton had a shot for a big year in 2017. But, he says, he was "acting like a dumb kid," and he got into an accident on a bike in the offseason, blowing out his knee. He would miss the entirety of the season.
Tipton was crushed. All three years at Pitt, his season ended because of an injury. One night when he was feeling particularly down about his situation, he called his friend, Pitt student Elee Khalil.
The two met through mutual friends and bonded over their injury misfortunes -- Khalil had his wrestling career cut short because of injuries, too. Once they started talking, they realized they had much in common, including dealing with death at young ages.
"We had to grow up a lot younger than most people, dealing with things kids shouldn't really have to deal with," Khalil said. "That's something that you don't really find people at our age had experienced a lot at the time and as our friendship developed, he became truly a brother of mine."
Tipton wanted to start a support group for Pitt student-athletes, and the initial concept was for them to speak to each other about their experiences dealing with injuries or other adversity. They agreed early they wanted the focus to be on mental prosperity, a term they use frequently to describe one of their biggest goals -- the ability to help others "overcome, succeed and look at things in a beautiful light when things aren't always presented to us that way from the world," Khalil explains.
Those discussions led to a group called L.O.V.E. -- Living Out Victoriously Everyday.
Both had low expectations for the first meeting. Tipton thought if they had five athletes show up, it would be a success.
Instead, they had 50.
"Seeing the different people bond, and telling each other things that they haven't talked about in a long time, it allowed me to feel more comfortable to open up about what I was going through," Tipton said. "That organization, I can say it saved me. It saved me from going back into that deep dark depression because I understood that there were people out there that also feel the way that I do."
Tipton sought professional help again, and he speaks to a counselor on a regular basis. Though he was never clinically diagnosed, Tipton says he struggles with depression and anxiety.
Tipton says L.O.V.E. provided the spark he needed. Because to truly move forward, Tipton needed to identify his "Why." It was not about trying to make others happy anymore. He had to make himself happy, too.
L.O.V.E. showed him how fulfilling it felt to help others in an entirely new way, and he decided to begin outreach efforts beyond the Pitt campus. Tipton gives motivational speeches in the local community and goes back to speak to the athletes at his high school. One of the phrases he uses during his talks is, "I got your back. You got my back." The last time Tipton spoke at Apollo-Ridge, Skiba remembers his players shouting, "I got your back!" as they saw Tipton walking down the hallway.
He plans on continuing as a motivational speaker once he graduates from Pitt.
"Through his L.O.V.E. group, Tre has been able to connect with someone from every single sport that we have here at Pitt," said Lisa Auld, Pitt assistant athletic director for student life. "I've seen the conviction that he has, not just because of his own internal battles, but the passion that he has in wanting to empower others who struggle with some of the same things. It takes strength and vulnerability, courage and passion to be motivated to continue to lift others as he rises."
L.O.V.E. remains a student-athlete led support group, and there are additional mental health resources available through the Pitt athletics department for all student-athletes, including two counselors. Auld said the resources available through the athletic department complement what the L.O.V.E. group offers.
Tipton woke up on June 12, 2021, with his mom on his mind. He knew he had to go pick up her medicine that morning, so he called her before making the one-hour drive home.
He called two more times.
His mother always picked up, so Tipton grew alarmed. He called his aunt and asked whether she had gone out with his mother last night. She said no. Tipton asked her to go check on her, as he sped their way.
"Get here now," she said. "Your mom's not breathing."
Tipton sped the rest of the way, and ran out of the car after he pulled up -- forgetting to put it in park. He saw his two uncles out front, and a police officer, shaking his head. Tipton ran inside.
When Tipton found his mother, he saw her hand under cheek, the way she naturally slept. Kim Tipton had died in her sleep of a heart attack.
Suddenly, Tipton felt chills and flashed back to the day he found his stepmother dead when he was 7. But this time, he understood what he was feeling.
He collapsed to the ground, screaming and crying. His uncles tried to calm him down, but Tipton fought them, shouting, "Mom! Please get up!"
But he knew. Tipton ran out of the house and up the street, ripping off his shirt and falling to his knees. He prayed, asking God for one thing: "Give me the extra amount of strength you need me to have to take care of my family."
"My mom was that beautiful soul that allowed everybody to come together, love, and care for one another," Tipton said.
In the days afterward, his friends and family worried that having to deal with yet another tragedy would set Tipton back. But he focused all his energy on giving his mother the funeral she deserved, telling himself he would be doing her memory a disservice if he gave up on life now.
Pitt coaches and players came to pay their respects, along with Skiba and so many friends he made along the way. They described the service as powerful and uplifting but, most of all, a celebration. Tipton made sure everyone left smiling.
"It definitely took a toll on me," Tipton said through tears. "It's hard. The one person I rely on more than anything is no longer here. But it made me realize something good's coming, and I'm hoping that it benefits the people that my mom wanted me to benefit.
"I want to be a superhero, you know? I hope to change some lives. I hope to save some lives."
Tipton makes it clear that he is still dealing with his grief and pain. Working on his own mental prosperity is not something that will ever end. But he says he stopped feeling suicidal two years ago, and he shares his story hoping one day the stigma attached to athletes openly talking about mental health will be erased.
He says he has more coping mechanisms in place now, and an identity that he hopes will create a safe haven beyond the football field. He may not be able to help those he has lost, but he can help so many others looking to be found.