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Before a prep football star’s suicide, a desperate hunt for stability and support

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It was after 3 a.m., but Bryce Gowdy couldn’t sleep. Sunk into an easy chair in the corner of the hotel room, he watched his brother collapse onto one of the two beds and saw his mom, Shibbon Winelle, shivering on the other.

Normally he would share a bed with her, but she wasn’t feeling well. She had cranked the thermostat but was still bone cold. She asked Bryce: Can you get my favorite pink blanket from the car?

They had almost slept in the car that night in December 2019. Months before, Shibbon and her three boys — 17-year-old Bryce, 16-year-old Brayden and 12-year-old Brisai — had gone from the comfort of a three-bedroom condominium to the brink of homelessness. They had slept in the car, in friends’ houses, in a barbershop and, when they were lucky, in hotels.

Shibbon had dropped off Brisai with a friend and traded her final few dollars for a few hours of sleep here. They had checked in after midnight. When they checked out in the morning, they would have nowhere to go.

Only Bryce knew where he was going next. A standout wide receiver for Deerfield Beach High, he was days away from leaving Florida for a full-ride scholarship at Georgia Tech. The cost-of-attendance stipend included with his scholarship might have been the lifeboat for his sinking family; the riches of an NFL contract in three or four years might have been the wind that carried them back to shore.

But Bryce was struggling to bear the cost. Few people knew what he and his family were going through, but when he confided in coaches and friends, he admitted he couldn’t imagine enjoying the luxuries of Division I life as his family struggled to find a safe place to sleep.

The final message Bryce sent from his phone was to his girlfriend, Cammie. He wrote, “I feel stuck.” She asked him what he meant. He didn’t reply. She called. He didn’t answer. When he went to get his mother’s blanket, he left his phone and his wallet on the windowsill of the hotel room. He left his slides underneath the chair. He left the latch between the door and the frame so he could come back without a key. Instead, though, he walked deeper into the cold night and onto the train tracks, where he took his own life.

Hours later, when Shibbon awoke, she saw the open door and started to panic. A year later, she still wonders why her son never returned.

Bryce had a hard childhood. He didn’t meet his father, Frankie Gowdy, until his fourth birthday party. The next year, his mother married the father of her youngest son and moved the family to Texas. When that man became abusive — Bryce would later write poetry about seeing him put a gun to his mother’s head — they fled back to Florida. That’s where Bryce found football.

Frankie had been Deerfield Beach’s star quarterback in the mid-1990s, but he couldn’t qualify academically for college. Bryce, on the other hand, would run from practice to the library to borrow biographies and strategy books, determined to succeed where his father had failed.

Bryce suffered his first concussion at 11. While he was sidelined, he told his mom he didn’t see the point of living anymore. The link between concussions and depression isn’t especially clear, but some studies show a higher risk factor in the case of repeated concussions and in people with a family history of depression. Shibbon had been suicidal for years before recovering with help from intensive therapy. She put her son into counseling immediately.

By high school, Bryce’s home life had stabilized. Shibbon held down a 9-to-5 job at a catalogue company. They didn’t have much money, but that didn’t bother Bryce. He bragged about how fast he could type on his T9-enabled flip phone and made everyone call his beat-up Charger a Hellcat. He enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program and started becoming socially conscious, rapping about the illusion of the American Dream and growing long dreads like his idol, J. Cole. (His nickname, “Simba,” was also a reference to the rapper.) He hoped people would stereotype him so that he could surprise them with his intelligence.

“He was the one everyone went to for advice,” said a friend, Avery Johnson. “Whether it was school or girls or anything, he always knew what to say. He was just … wise.”

That wisdom extended to the football field. He was fast and precise, running routes as if they were drawn in the grass. He took pride in using his size — 6-foot-3, 210 pounds — to pancake cornerbacks on running plays. And he never dropped passes, even when there were two or three defenders draped over his shoulders. He got his first scholarship offer from Syracuse as a sophomore in November 2017. By the start of his junior season, he had seven more.

Then things started to fall apart. He broke his leg that November, and he never felt the same about football. He told his mother he was worried about the damage he was doing to his body. Football was no longer an end but a means, a way to make enough money to lift his family from poverty. He told different people about different dreams — to be an engineer or a doctor or a music producer — but he didn’t always look forward to the football life.

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Meanwhile, Shibbon said, she began facing racial hostility at work. She left her job in January 2019. That March, after a dispute over repairs to her unit, her condo complex attempted to evict her, according to court records. About 10,000 people are evicted in Broward County every year, according to data from the Eviction Lab. Black renters, particularly young mothers, are removed from their homes at higher rates than White renters. And the mental effects of insecure housing can be severe and lasting. About half of school-age children who are struggling with homelessness report experiencing anxiety or depression.

To avoid eviction, Shibbon agreed not to renew her lease. She couldn’t afford the deposit on a new apartment, so she sent the boys to live with friends and relatives for the summer. She rented a room from a friend in the same complex, hoping management wouldn’t find out.

On the day they moved out, Bryce led his family and a few friends in a four-hour dance party in front of a floor-length mirror. He brought joy wherever he went, in part because he seemed impervious to embarrassment. He was lactose intolerant, but he would eat a whole Hershey’s bar, wash it back with a quart of milk and just live with what he called “bubble guts.” He would kick off his shoes in class to get more comfortable. He would freestyle his own lyrics over rap songs and laugh when they were bad.

In July 2019, he strutted into a sports bar wearing all white and a golden lion chain. It was time to reveal a secret he had kept closely guarded for months: his college commitment. More than a dozen Division I schools had competed for his services, which could help their athletic departments generate the hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue they raked in every year. Coaches had flown in on private jets to shake his hand. Some even saw the hotels where he was living. But even if they knew he didn’t have a steady home and they wanted to intervene, NCAA rules would have prevented them.

Bryce placed a Georgia Tech hat on top of his dreads. He still had it on hours later when he and Shibbon returned to the condo complex. He was just supposed to drop her off before going to a party with friends — he was among a handful of Deerfield Beach rising seniors who had committed to colleges that night — but Shibbon saw a security guard staking out the gate.

She was worried management had discovered she was renting the room and would kick her out. So while his friends partied that night, Bryce sat in the idling car with his mother, waiting for a chance to jump out, hop a fence and sneak into her rented room.

The coaches dropped a plank of wood on the grass. The players lined up on opposite ends. The whistle blew. Bryce braced himself and sprang forward. The board drill is designed to simulate the grittiest part of the game of football: the moment after the snap, when the offensive and defensive lines surge into each other. The opposing players crashed into the crown of Bryce’s helmet. He fell backward and felt dizzy.

It was his second diagnosed concussion; his mom suspects there were others. But it was also August. Bryce’s senior season was set to begin in a few weeks: one last chance to win a coveted Class 8A state championship. Bryce told his friends that nothing would keep him from the field. He told his mom he was scared.

He was staying with a pair of childhood friends, Cleefton and Avery, having what Avery said amounted to an extended sleepover in his living room. They grew so close, he said, that they would argue about which two of them got to share a couch at night and which one had to sleep alone.

Bryce played guided meditations for them on TV at night, and he woke each morning at 4 to work out. But after the concussion, Bryce started behaving more erratically. He took a swing at a friend who stole a bite of his food. He texted Shibbon that he sensed demons in the house.

“He was a great listener,” said his girlfriend, Cammie. “But he wasn’t always great at communicating how he felt. He only trusted a few people, and he felt like most of the rest were using him for football.”

In September, the family hosting Bryce’s youngest brother sent him back to Shibbon after accusing him of stealing. His other brother also wanted to return to his mother. Shibbon was working three part-time jobs and going to school for massage therapy. She could afford the monthly rent on an apartment, but she didn’t have enough saved for a security deposit and move-in costs.

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Shibbon emailed Broward County’s Homeless Education Assistance Resource Team (HEART) program to ask for housing, food and mental health assistance. In Florida, the number of students struggling with homelessness has tripled in the past decade; Bryce and his brothers were among nearly 100,000 kids who lacked a place to live last year. The state’s Sadowski fund is supposed to fund housing programs, but since 1992 the legislature has redirected more than $2 billion from it to other areas, including general revenue.

Shibbon never received the help she requested, she said. Carole Mitchell, the HEART supervisor in Broward County, said she couldn’t comment on the family’s case. But she said more than 5,000 students (of about 270,000) were struggling with homelessness during Bryce’s senior year. “In Broward County,” she said, “affordable housing does not exist.”

By October, Shibbon felt she was out of options, so she bought an air mattress and squeezed her and the boys’ belongings into four duffel bags. At first, they crashed on the floor of a barbershop where she worked. “I never did that before,” said Mo Blanc, the owner of Just Cuts. “But they were like family, and I felt for her. So I gave her a key and told her to stay as long as she wanted.”

The barbershop opened early in the morning and closed late at night, though, so the kids couldn’t get a good night’s rest. A few nights into the arrangement, the family went to a park to eat dinner and play until sunset. As the streetlights turned on, Shibbon leaned against the car with Bryce, watching Brayden and Brisai become silhouettes. When it got dark, Bryce called out to them, “Let’s go home!”

“Home?” Shibbon asked.

Bryce slapped the trunk of the Charger.

In October, before a game against Monarch, Deerfield Beach football coach Jevon Glenn found Bryce crying in the locker room. In their three years together, the pair had developed a code: If Bryce said he needed his coach, Glenn would drop everything to help. Bryce told him about sleeping in the car and said he needed Glenn’s help. The situation had become so dire that Bryce was considering backing out of his commitment to Georgia Tech and instead enrolling at nearby Florida Atlantic.

At halftime, Glenn didn’t even address the team. Instead, he was in his car making calls. After the game, instead of getting on the team bus, he drove Bryce to a hotel affiliated with a Christian missions organization and paid for a month’s rent, even though he knew it was a rules violation.

Football season was over when it came time to re-up the rental, but Glenn didn’t renew it. He kept helping Bryce where he could, often bringing him lunch money at school, but he believed Shibbon was exploiting his affection for Bryce.

“How did she have no one to turn to but me?” he asked.

Shibbon, though, believed the coach had exploited Bryce’s abilities on the field and left him stranded afterward. “It felt like a punishment,” she said, “for losing in the playoffs.” They returned to the car and then to short-term hotel rentals.

Shibbon and the boys bounced from hotel to hotel, her bank account dwindling with every withdrawal. By her birthday, Dec. 29, 2019, Shibbon was out of money. Only an unexpected gift from a friend allowed her to afford another night indoors — the last she would share with Bryce.

She and Bryce spent that day driving around town, running errands and taking turns napping in parking lots so police wouldn’t interrupt them. In one underground garage, Shibbon noticed how much more intense Bryce was while talking to her.

He told her he thought the world was bound for another war. He told her his friends didn’t understand him. They talked about chakras and spiritual vibrations. At one point, Shibbon was so overwhelmed by the intensity of his emotions that she was scared to hold his hand. She resolved again to get him into therapy, even though he didn’t want it and she couldn’t really afford it. But then Bryce broke the tension to talk about how he would decorate his dorm at Georgia Tech and to ask what kind of car she wanted when he cashed his first NFL paycheck.

“There were signs,” Shibbon said. “If I take away all the talk about Georgia Tech and the future, he was definitely suicidal in the final month of his life. But our lives were upside down, and he couldn’t — or I couldn’t — see how much he was hurting.”

Frankie, Bryce’s father, refused to come out of his room for weeks after the funeral. He wishes he could have convinced his son to stay with him, but Bryce wouldn’t leave his mother and brothers. Still, even now, Frankie struggles to believe Bryce killed himself.

Bryce was buried before he could be tested for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease that has been linked to football and that scientists say results in cognitive impairment, anger control problems and depression. But Frankie didn’t believe football was to blame.

“I’m having a hard time with that phrase, mental health,” he said. “I know about CTE. I never saw any sign of that, though I know he had a few concussions. I mean, I must have had thousands of them. Mental health? His grades were outstanding. I know a few people with real mental health issues, and I don’t want him to be a face of that.”

He paused, took a slow drag off his cigarette and said into a plume of smoke, “If it was a suicide, then it was the only mistake that boy ever made in his life.”

Shibbon used the money from a GoFundMe page to get an apartment for herself and her two sons. Although she could afford a new car, she hasn’t gotten rid of the Hellcat. Bryce’s high school lanyard hangs from the rearview mirror, and his Simba stuffed animal slides around the dash as she drives.

She started two foundations in Bryce’s name, which she hopes will raise awareness about teen suicide — particularly among people of color. Since 2001, the suicide rate for Black teen boys has risen by 60 percent. For Black teen girls, that number is 182 percent. A month after Bryce’s death, a Black classmate named Alexis Marion killed herself in the same location.

“There’s nothing anyone can do or say that will hurt me more than the loss of my son,” Shibbon said. “I take responsibility for the decisions I made and for my failures. I know that how I allowed things to go down played a role in Bryce’s death. But if I’m going to hold myself fully accountable, then I also need to hold the whole system accountable. The schools, the community — everyone. Our society tells these young men that they have to be tough and strong, all the time. There’s no room for error. We must be better than that.”

A few months ago, on her way home from the cemetery, Shibbon braked at a red light. In the middle of telling a story about Bryce, she suddenly paused, shifted the car into park and started to panic. As the railroad warning gates came down, she gripped the steering wheel so hard her knuckles turned white. She heard the distant whistle. It was the first time since Bryce’s death that she had been stopped by a passing train. She remembered what her therapist taught her, and she focused on her breathing.

Then she remembered something else: A few kids painted Bryce’s name in yellow and gold on one of the train cars. She studied each car as it passed, but Bryce wasn’t there. The gates opened, and she shifted back into drive. “That’s okay,” she said. “I know he’ll find me one day.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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