A day after the stunning news of Robin Williams’ suicide after years of battling depression, I can’t stop thinking about Charles Byron Pell. We knew him as Charley, the coach who made Gators dream big dreams. I started dreaming big in February of 1979, flying on Ben Hill Griffin’s private jet with Charley up to Richmond, Virginia, for the scholarship signing ceremony of Maggie Walker High School All-American tailback Gordon Pleasants. NCAA rules were different then. Coaches could attend signing ceremonies and they were allowed to talk openly about recruits.
It was on that flight that Charley Pell painted a picture of the Gators that I never dared to dream before. I was a wait ‘til next year Gator, just like my dad, my uncle, my grandfather and countless thousands of Gators before me. We dreamed about winning Florida’s first Southeastern Conference championship. National championships? Those things were for Alabama and Notre Dame and Southern Cal.
One reason we didn’t dream big was the curse. At least, that’s what we thought it was. The Gators were always that team that came maddeningly close but never grasped the brass ring at the top of the SEC ladder. I was haunted by the tear-streaked face of Jimmy Ray Stephens walking off the field at the Gator Bowl in 1975 after another loss to Georgia that crushed the Gator Nation’s dreams of a first Southeastern Conference championship. “It’s a curse,” Jimmy Ray told me. He didn’t try to hide or fight back the tears. He just let them flow. “There is a curse that won’t let the Gators win the SEC.” He was serious. And if you didn’t believe that 1975 game was ample proof of the curse, then Fourth and Dumb in 1976 was the final straw.
Charley Pell didn’t believe in the curse. Charley Pell believed what his mentor, Bear Bryant, had said all those years – at some point, the sleeping giant that is Florida will awake and the SEC will never be the same. Charley shared the dream with me about halfway up to Richmond that February morning. Right after sucking the life out of one Vantage cigarette and instinctively reaching into his right shirt pocket for another, Charley looked me square in the eye. His whole demeanor changed. The already gravelly voice became the voice of God. Ask any former Charley Pell player about the voice of God and they’ll tell you there was only one voice on earth like that and when it spoke, you listened.
Charley Pell told me, “I may not be the coach who does it, but we’re going to build something here and change Florida football forever. The Gators are going to win national championships. Mark that down.”
I would have marked it down except that I was picking myself off the floor. Charley grinned, not a full grin mind you, just the corners of his mouth turned up. Some might call it smug. I equated it with no way this will fail under any circumstance confidence. Mind you, he didn’t say SEC titles. There I was longing for that first SEC title and here was this 5-9, 175-pound former two-way All-SEC lineman who played for The Bear and remained one of his favorites of all time, talking NATIONAL championships. I didn’t dare question. On that day I dreamed the dream for the first time and in my heart of hearts I knew Charley Pell was right.
Charley wasn’t the one who took the Gators to dream land. He was just the guy who set the plan in motion. Without the foundation he put down there is no way that Florida ranks fourth in college football wins since 1990, trailing only Nebraska Florida State and Miami. Without Charley Pell, the Gators aren’t the winningest program in all of college football since 1990 and the best in the SEC with eight conference and three national titles.
We had no idea in those days that Charley Pell, who could compel billionaire Gators to empty their wallets and write checks of six and seven figures, battled the demons of depression every single day. All that time he was working his fingers to the bone to lift the Florida football program up by its bootstraps, we never realized that his obsession with hard work was just one of the ways he gnarfled the garfunk of depression.
When the Gators got lit up by the NCAA in 1984, Charley fell on the sword for assistant coaches who turned recruiting into a wild west show. Fired three games into the 1984 season, Charley never coached college football again, neither as a head or assistant coach. Guilty as sin assistants coached on, however. Charley wore the weight of the world on his shoulders and nobody realize that it was all but killing him. Without football, Charley was the proverbial fish out of water. He tried business but it didn’t satisfy or succeed. With football and a 24-hour day, Charley always could work the depression demons silly. They couldn’t keep up with his relentless pace and were too tired to destroy him at the end of a day.
Without football, those same demons got their hooks deep into Charley and wouldn’t let go. One day in April of 1994, he guzzled half a bottle of vodka, chased it with sleeping pills and then laid down in the back seat of his running automobile, a hose from the exhaust pipe flooding the car with the carbon monoxide that Charley hoped would end his life.
The carbon monoxide actually saved him. He got sick, made his way out of the car and fell to the ground where he was found by long time friend Malcolm Jowers of the Florida Highway Patrol. Jowers found the suicide note, went searching for Charley, found him in the woods, barely alive and rushed him to the hospital.
In some respects, that botched suicide should be considered one of the great achievements in the history of treating mental illness for with the embarrassment that he couldn’t even end his own life came the decision that he could not only beat his demons but help others win the battles with theirs. In the final eight years of his life, Pell dedicated himself to the people in the state of Alabama who battle depression and other mental illnesses. He became the champion for people who had all but given up on life. His impact was so great that the Alabama Department of Mental Health made a 17-minute film about Charley’s battles and efforts to help people realize that depression is indeed a treatable illness. His legacy lives on today in that state where hundreds and even thousands of people have found that depression is worth beating and life is worth living.
Monday, when Robin Williams grew too weary of fighting the demons, he gave up and hanged himself. Oh, how he could have used a talk from Charley Pell or someone who knows and understands the shame and humiliation of zero self esteem and the depression that weighs on your shoulders like thousand pound anvils.
Chances are, you know someone who wakes up every day feeling that a snake’s belly looks high as the sky. Chances are, you know someone who has all but given up on life. Chances are you know someone whose depression has reached the point that if life simply came to an end, the world would be a better place.
If you battle depression, get help. It’s treatable and there is a terrific success rate for people who are willing to go into treatment. If you know someone who battles depression, reach out a helping hand. You might be saving a life.
Many of the pundits pick the Gators as the team most likely to surprise in the SEC in 2014. Which team do you think is headed for the biggest fall?
Midway through the 1960s, every weekend band playing every high school dance or local bar had to have “Satisfaction” in its repertoire. There was only one problem. Who could duplicate Keith Richards’ lead guitar. A lot of folks tried and only a handful succeeded. “Satisfaction” is still in demand today. Even though the Rolling Stones are a bunch of decrepit old guys still hanging on by fingernails to their youth, they still get their loudest ovations when Richards’ takes off on those first eight chords. You can’t have Screaming Guitars Week without “Satisfaction.”