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In Their Words is a weekly feature appearing Sundays in the The Blade's sports section. Blade sports writer Steve Junga talked with former Bowling Green High School teacher and head baseball coach Doug Merrill, who recently stepped away from those positions to form the Power UP Foundation, to promote positive physical and mental health, and help prevent suicide.
Deep down inside, Bowling Green's Doug Merrill sees himself as a teacher and a baseball coach. His Bobcats have done well on the diamond, winning three Northern Lakes League championships in his seven seasons as varsity coach.
But, deeper down inside, Merrill now views himself as having a greater calling.
Having resigned from his teaching/coaching posts at Bowling Green High School, Merrill, 38, has thrown himself full throttle into a quest to promote better mental health through improved physical fitness. More specifically, he seeks to be a leader in the prevention of suicide.
Recounting his own experiences connected to suicide, Merrill wrote a book titled Fighting the Demon of Suicide, which was published in the summer of 2008. Last spring, he started the Power UP Foundation, an organization dedicated to addressing the subject nationally and raising funds to help with prevention. His next project begins Oct. 4 at Fenway Park in Boston prior to the Red Sox regular-season finale against Cleveland. He will be introduced to the crowd, then begin a six-month, 2,043-mile suicide awareness and fundraising journey called "Run to the Keys."
The plan is for Merrill to run one half marathon (13.1 miles) six days a week, working his way down the east coast, and reaching the Florida Keys on April 3.
What started Merrill on his current path was the trail of tragedy that has run alongside his own journey through life. Since the age of 13, Merrill has seen eight people connected to his life take their own lives.
The first was the father of a neighbor and family friend. When Merrill was 16 and attending BGHS, one of his closest friends committed suicide. That was followed one week later when his own former girlfriend took her life. Five years later, a 17-year-old boy whom he had coached in little league took his life. Finally, in a three-year span while he was coaching at BGHS, four students, including two players in the Bobcats' program, committed suicide.
"IT WAS NOT a question of numbers [of suicides]. It was a question of why we continued to have this issue at Bowling Green High School. Some of the current players and students knew that I had gone through this when I was a young man. They were coming to me for conversation and advice. There were the 'How did you handle it?' types of questions. To be honest, I didn't feel that I was doing a very good job. I still had some unresolved issues myself about my friends that I had lost when I was younger.
"One of the last conversations that I ever had with one young person about this issue didn't work out so well. That was with the [former] girlfriend. I was uncomfortable with having the conversation. So, in order to do a better job for them, I just began writing my thoughts about what had happened in my past to try to work through it that way."
"I HAD GIVEN about 30 pages to a former English teacher of mine to review over the weekend. She came back on Monday and continued to encourage me to write more. After about 170 pages I had to make a decision as to whether I was going to have this published or not. She thought that the book would be able to help other people.
"I wanted to give [families discussed in book] the opportunity to change any facts that I may have missed and to have their names changed. Other than a few minor factual mistakes, we pretty much kept the book just the way it was. To my surprise, no one requested a name change. One mother even said to me, she wanted to keep the names in there because, as she said, 'This is who we are.'•"
"I TRAVELED to promote the book and meet people and speak on the issue. I went as far west as Denver, as far south as Houston and Clearwater, Fla. I did 'Out of the Darkness' walks sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The stories that I heard from the road were just horrific, awful. The questions that kept coming to me were 'Why? Why is my son gone? My parents, my siblings, my spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, friend? I didn't have an answer for them, and I'm not quite sure anybody did. Being the competitive person that I am, that didn't sit well with me. I had to do something more to come up with an answer. I felt like I wasn't doing enough with the book."
"I WAS SITTING in my hotel room in Denver and thought to myself about something from my own personal experience about using better physical fitness to achieve better mental health. Three years ago I was about 25 pounds heavier than I am now, and I got involved in running. I started setting goals for myself with my times. The most remarkable thing wasn't that I was setting and achieving goals running, it was what I was achieving outside my goals in my running shoes. I felt like I could accomplish anything. I had a great deal of confidence. I thought, 'This could be an answer.' Not just for me but for other people.' If we take better care of our bodies, our minds kind of follow along. It's a whole mind, body and soul attitude."
"ON OCT. 4, I will begin a run in Boston. Throughout the journey I will have different people run with me, whether it be congressional members, state and federal, mayors, and community leaders. The money will be raised through donations, book sales, and through my speaking engagements. If it rains, I still have to run. Barring a thunderstorm with lightning, or an injury, I'll do it.
"I just felt like this is what I was meant to do. I never thought that there was anything that could come between me and coaching baseball. But this was powerful enough to do that. What I have learned through this process is that we're all more similar than what we think. There isn't one stereotypical group that this issue belongs to. It happens to all religions, races and socioeconomical backgrounds. It's what I call a demon that has no boundaries or limitations."
"I FELT LIKE I was meant to do more than coaching baseball. Coaching is something that I would describe as being time well spent. Certainly, my players have taught me more than I have ever taught them. I have fond memories of it. But I wanted to be able to contribute more to our youth and to those who struggle with this disease. Instead of influencing 45 kids in the spring, I might have the opportunity to influence 45 million."
"If this story has touched anybody, and they feel like they have made a connection with this foundation and would like to support it, I ask them to visit our website at www.powerupfoundation.com."