The events of April 16th, 2007 touched many people. Lives were changed and altered in various ways, from the victims to the survivors to the first responders to the university community. For former Virginia Tech running back Tommy Edwards, the aftermath of the tragedy was a call to action, to return to a place he had left years ago, to try to make a difference.
Hokie fans who have come on board in the last 12 years, since the 1995 Sugar Bowl, may not know who Tommy Edwards is. In nearby Radford, Virginia, Edwards had a storied high school career that saw him amass 57 rushing touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards in just two years of high school football. A decorated recruit, he followed his father (Kenny Edwards, a VT running back from the early 1970s) to Virginia Tech in 1992.
In the 1993 season, as a redshirt freshman, Edwards scored nine touchdowns, and his future was bright. By 1995, though, he was gone, transferred out to Division 1-AA Boise State, where his college football career ended quickly. It was the pre-Internet age, and the large majority of Hokie fans were in the dark, wondering what had happened to "Touchdown Tommy" Edwards to cause him to flame out so quickly.
Tommy Edwards's story is not the story of a prima donna unhappy over playing time, nor is it the story of a smalltown athlete who wasn't talented enough to make the big time. His story is about mental illness and the effects it can have, how it can derail the most promising of lives and careers. The story of Tommy Edwards not only answers the question, "Whatever happened to Tommy Edwards?" It tells you what the events of April 16th mean to him, and why he is inspired to do what he's doing today.
A Promising Start
As a child, Edwards struggled academically due to dyslexia, but as he matured and started to excel in track and football at Radford High School, athletics helped him gain acceptance. "I always felt like somewhat of an outcast, somewhere outside the circle," he says. "But I began to gain some recognition through track and football, and all of a sudden that opened a lot of doors, socially, for me."
It also opened the way to a football scholarship at Virginia Tech. After a decorated high school career (detailed above), Edwards enrolled at Tech in the fall of 1992 and redshirted.
That's when things started to take a turn for the worse. Edwards was already fragile psychologically when he entered Tech. "Some things happened to me when I was pre-school age, or even pre pre-school age, just some emotional and psychological trauma. I dealt with a number of issues when I was growing up," he says.
While he was redshirting, he was stricken with mononucleosis, which was misdiagnosed at first as strep throat. When the correct diagnosis was finally made, Edwards had to quit practicing and training, and he dropped the weight he had put on. By the time spring football rolled around, though, he was back up to 215 pounds and was ready to practice. Still, the physical illness had taken an unseen toll. "I think during that period of time, my brain chemistry was just really stressed."
Add in a traumatic event towards the end of the year ("I had a girl threaten to commit suicide in my room my freshman year the night before my final biology exam"), and Edwards's mental health started to decline.
"That summer (1993) I was an orientation leader at Tech. I was just starting to deal with depression, and it got pretty bad at different periods that summer. I didn't have the same get up and go that I had had my whole life. I slept a lot more, and I rationalized this as going through the after affects of really pushing my body through the mono and not really giving myself a chance to really heal and get over it. I had a real desire to get back into the weight room early, and the doctors okayed it. I really wanted to get my weight back up to be competitive and try to win a spot."
He was successful, and he wound up third on the depth chart entering the 1993 season, behind Dwayne Thomas and Ranall White. Edwards blew up in the first two games, scoring two touchdowns against Bowling Green (a 33-16 win), and four more against Pittsburgh (a landmark 63-21 victory).
"All of a sudden I was leading the nation in scoring and was in the national headlines and all eyes were on me. That created some added pressures and things that I hadn't anticipated," Edwards remembers.
The world is full of people who would handle that stardom just fine, but Tommy Edwards wasn't one of those people. "I started experiencing some anxiety. I didn't have any idea just how public my life had become at that point, and how scrutinized every move I made would be."
He went on to score 11 touchdowns that season, including Tech's Independence Bowl win, but it was mostly as a goal-line specialist. The limited role wasn't what Edwards nor many people around him wanted.
"There was a lot of outside influence, people just speculating why I wasn't playing, and it just became frustrating. My mental state, my emotional state, at the time was somewhat ... not perfect. Having people speculate and create negative ideas really weighed into my mental health and really caused me to start questioning the loyalty of my coaches, when they were doing the best job that they could.
"Looking back on it, there were just too many influences, and I kind of got swept into it. I've known Frank Beamer and Billy Hite for most of my life, and we've been friends, but I had people drive a wedge between me and the people I put my trust in."
The mounting pressures of college football, sudden stardom, and second-guessers exposed Edwards's emotional frailty, and his mental health started to steadily decline.
"At the end of that year, I got into a fight at a fraternity house. One of my friends got jumped by a bunch of guys. I ended up getting arrested. I had always kind of prided myself on being a pacifist, and I just reacted and tried to help my friend. All those years in the weight room, and all those years on the field learning to react kind of took over, and I kinda banged some heads.
"I was charged with malicious wounding, which was grossly exaggerated. The charges were eventually dropped, and I had to do some community service, but it was just really publicly embarrassing. That really sent me into a spiral that summer, and I started drinking more and more to try to cope with the embarrassment and anxiety. I really started to question who I could trust around me, and I started drinking more, and that contributed to the depression and anxiety. I just became more and more unhappy.
The Last Year at Virginia Tech
"Going into my redshirt sophomore year , things just got worse. My depression got worse, my anxiety got worse, and I was throwing up every day before practice and during practice, like it was uncontrollable, like a gag reflex. I was really embarrassed, because P.J. Preston had gone through basically the same thing and had left the team over it. There was all kinds of speculation as to whether he was on drugs, and I didn't want to be scrutinized in the same way, so I just didn't say anything to anybody."
In addition, the Hokies had a change of offensive coordinators, going from Rickey Bustle, who had orchestrated the high-scoring 1993 Hokie offense, to Gary Tranquill, who disrupted everything from strategy to play calling to team chemistry. Tranquill's regime at Tech was short (one year) and unsuccessful, and according to Edwards, it negatively impacted the players he coached, to say the least.
Edwards, by his own words, became more of a recluse that season, and his depression worsened. He started having suicidal thoughts, and more than one night, he sat on the edge of his bed with a shotgun in his hands.
After finishing as Tech's second-leading rusher in 1994 (115 carries, 396 yards, 3 TDs) for the second season in a row, it call came crashing down. Edwards's aunt intervened, forcing him to get therapy, but he struggled to make the appointments, or to do much of anything else.
"I was incapacitated to the point where all I wanted to do was sleep 24 hours a day and do nothing. I pretty much stopped going to class. I took some incompletes and I failed a couple of classes. My family practitioner prescribed me some anti-depressants, which actually made the situation worse."
Edwards knows now, having been diagnosed years later, that he was bi-polar. His mood swung back and forth from depressed to manic. While manic, "I just acted irrationally. My party antics sort of took on a legendary kind of status. I was 'Touchdown Tommy,' and that in a way took on its own alter-ego.
"I didn't feel like that person inside. I've always been an artist and a very creative person, with intellectual pursuits and interests. But I had become this kind of cartoon character in people's minds. When I was in a public setting, especially when I was manic, I lived that, and I really pushed that to the extreme. I just wasn't right. I was sick.
"I can remember after one game in either my freshman or sophomore year, and a bunch of kids were lined up to get my autograph. I really hadn't done much during the game except play special teams. I didn't even get a snap at tailback. My personal self worth was so diminished at that point that I didn't feel worthy of the attention of these kids. I felt that my life off the field was in such disorder and disarray that I didn't feel like they should respect me, or that they should want my autograph. I just wanted to crawl in a corner and die."
In the spring of 1995, he quit going to practice, and he asked Frank Beamer if he could take some time off to sort things out.
"I was incapacitated to the point where there were times where I just couldn't get out of bed. I tried to explain the best I could what was going on, and I told him I needed some time to try to figure things out. I was told that wasn't an option."
Edwards looked for other ways out, and transferring became his focus. He looked at Boise State, the 1-AA national runners-up in 1994, and decided to go there, aided by the presence of some relatives in Boise. His family and friends were pressuring him to stick with football, and he felt a change of venue would improve things.
It didn't. "The whole summer leading up to my transfer, I went through more depression swings. It was exacerbated by drinking too much and partying.
"I got out there, and we were going through two-a-days, and I had an emotional breakdown after a practice. I was trying to talk to my coach and try and communicate what I was going through, and that I was having an anxiety attack. I thought I was having a heart attack at one point. He didn't know what to do or how to react to somebody just breaking down and crying on the field."
Edwards was prescribed Prozac and sleeping pills. "The Prozac made me feel like a zombie, and the sleeping pills made me feel like I was on speed. When I called to tell them what was going on, they told me to just take two. That didn't work."
Edwards stuck with it, but he suffered a shoulder injury that fall, and by the time spring rolled around, he gave up football forever.
Life After Football
He returned home, but home was a place where he was still "Touchdown Tommy," and where everyone thought he should be playing football. His depression worsened, and he abused drugs and alcohol and had several run-ins with the law.
He finally gave up drug and alcohol abuse in 1999, got married in 2001, and moved to California, so his wife could work toward her doctorate at Pacifica Graduate Institute. The marriage failed, but while in California, Edwards's life blossomed. He developed a skateboard company, Sasquatch Skateboards, and his music career also took off. He opened for high profile artists and performed on television a number of times.
Just as things were taking off for Edwards, he had a serious skateboard accident in 2003 and suffered a brain injury. The injury brought on extreme brain chemistry fluctuations, resulting in hyper-mania, and within six months, he had lost his business, his home, and most of his friends.
In our interview with Edwards, he didn't go into great detail about these events. "I've still had to deal with the chemical fluctuations as an adult, and sometimes they've been more detrimental than others," he sums up. "Especially after my head injury, some things really came to light. I kind of understood myself better, as far as what's good for me and what's not.
"A couple of years ago, I met a retired psychiatrist who became a friend of mine and became my mentor. He basically diagnosed me, and we worked towards non-pharmaceutical treatments through nutrition and activities. It's been an amazing journey. Difficult at times, but it's really helped me understand myself, my life, and what's valuable in my life."
April 16th and The Heart of Virginia
Edwards rebuilt his life in San Diego, and then came the fateful events of April 16th, 2007. He was visiting family back on the East Coast when the shootings at Virginia Tech happened.
"I was visiting in Christiansburg [on April 16]. We had heard the sirens, and we thought maybe there had been an explosion at the [Radford] arsenal or something. I turned on the TV at lunch, and it said '33 dead at VT.' I immediately got sick. I didn't know how to respond.
"I just wanted to help somehow. I just wanted to help ease the pain. I wanted to help raise money in some way, and that's where the idea of a benefit concert came from."
That idea grew into something more, and Edwards founded "The Heart of Virginia Foundation." Edwards was greatly affected by the story of Seung-Hui Cho, and how an obviously mentally ill young man had slipped through the cracks and hadn't found treatment.
From his own life experiences struggling with mental illness, Edwards settled on the mission of The Heart of Virginia: to raise awareness of mental health issues.
"I made the decision to drop what I was doing in San Diego and pack everything and move across the country to start this," he says. "I started calling up all my contacts, and I felt there was enough interest from the entertainment world and the folks that I knew to help me feel like it was a legitimate idea, and that there would be some support behind it."
Edwards's goal is to raise $2 million by April 2009 for his foundation, which will in turn donate the money to mental health services to develop, expand and coordinate programs that promote physical and mental health.
As written on his web site, theheartofva.org, Edwards hopes to "create an event that changes the way we, as Americans, deal with the escalation of violence and the deterioration of mental well-being in our country. And to show the world that this senseless tragedy will not pass quietly as one in a string of violent acts, but call for change."
The centerpiece of his efforts, that "event," would be a benefit concert in Lane Stadium. "If Tech doesn't want it to be in Lane Stadium," Edwards says, "we're looking at doing it in Scott Stadium at UVa, or Richmond International Speedway or Bristol ... but we'd really like to do it in Blacksburg, because itís the epicenter of the tragedy."
Edwards wants create something positive and long-lasting from the tragedy, something that is an ongoing force for change. He saw too much negativity from the outside world after the tragedy. "We want to create a positive perspective for the world of what Virginia means to us, especially after the negative aspects and controversy were placed by the national media. That's a trend in our society that actually contributes to more school shootings and more acts of violence."
Starting The Heart of Virginia Foundation has been an arduous, complicated, exhausting task, from the very beginning. "Initially when we went out and tried to gain support, there was a lot of skepticism in what we were doing. Even moving across the country, my car broke down ten times and cost me something like $6,000, which was $6,000 more than I had planned on. It took me almost five weeks to drive from San Diego to Virginia."
But he believes in what he's doing, and he relishes the challenge.
"It's been an amazing process, having to surrender my own timeframe schedule. Sometimes I try to force things to happen, but then I have to stop and take a break, and let it come to me. And it has."
It has been a long, hard road for the former high school star and hotshot recruit, but he has found his calling, and he's determined to see it through.
This Saturday, April 19th, High Point Coffee in Roanoke will be hosting The Heart Of Virginia fund raising event with former Hokie football player Tommy Edwards. There will be live music from 4-10 pm featuring local talent such as, Kristi Emmons, Ben Hurt, Jess Pillmore, Red Mahna, Brad Archer and Donna Pearson, Randy Walker (of the Aardvarks) and the host, Tommy Edwards. In addition there will be door prizes all day and a silent auction. How can you help? Please stop by and/or spread the word.
For more information, visit The Heart Of Virginia web site.
TSL Blogs: Full Text of the Tommy Edwards Interview