by Josh Suchon
The first time I bought a cell phone was 1999. I was 26 years old. It’s unfathomable to comprehend life without a cell phone. But at the time, it was actually a badge of honor that I held out for so long.
Two years earlier, I nearly bought a cell phone. It was late in the Summer of 1997. I’d just started covering prep sports for The Oakland Tribune, and went down to San Diego to see some college friends before the next school year began. Trying to meet these friends wasn’t as easy as it was when we all lived in the dorms or apartments close to campus. One day, I was at an outdoor mall, saw a cell phone stand, and nearly bought one on the spot. But I was really poor, living paycheck to paycheck, and figured I’d wait for my employer to buy me one.
When I returned to my apartment in the Bay Area suburb of San Ramon, I checked the messages on my answering machine – yes, an answering machine – and heard the frantic voices of my old high school friends.
“Soooosh, something is going on with Coully.”
“Soooosh, where are you? We need you.”
Coully was my high school friend named Jeff Coulthart.
Coully committed suicide when I was on vacation in San Diego.
I missed the whole damn thing. Missed the funeral, missed the burial, missed being a pallbearer, missed the tears, missed the consoling, missed the exchanging of stories, missed the laughs, and missed those discussions that start with “what the hell?” and “why the fuck?”
It would be cliché, and untrue, to say “I think about Coully every day.” He flashes through my mind at weird moments. Certain words or situations prompt an immediate flashback. Re-uniting with my high school buddies usually leads to reminiscing about him. Hearing his name always makes me smile. I’m smiling right now as I type this paragraph.
This week, Coully came to mind for a different reason. Junior Seau committed suicide, a devastating loss to his family, the city of San Diego that considered him an icon, and the entire National Football League.
Millions of beautiful words are being written about Seau. I’d like to share a couple thousand words about my friend Coully.
We met at Foothill High in Pleasanton. Think it was my sophomore year. He was real good friends with my buddy Elliott. We all had a lot in common. None of us had girlfriends. None of us were super popular. None of us had the “traditional” family. All of us loved sports.
The people in our group ebbed and flowed, based on the event, the year, or for no particular reason. The primary crew was all about nicknames. I guess we had a thing for names that started with S. Jeremy was Jerm, and then Slick. Adam was Ad, then Slad. Elliott was El, then sometimes Smell. Coulthart was Coully, or sometimes Slappy. Suchon was Soooosh. Berg was … what the hell was he? I guess he was just Berg.
One of our favorite activities was gambling. Before school. After school. At lunch. On the weekends, when most of our fellow students were at parties, we’d sit around and gamble. It wasn’t the “Cards with the ’Tards” scene from “Can’t Buy Me Love.” But it was pretty close. The money was very real. We didn’t play for nickels and dimes. Looking back, jeez, it’s a miracle we didn’t develop gambling problems, and there was never any blood shed over the outcomes.
We played every sport you can imagine, and invented something called “Pool Ball” that should be an Olympic sport. We played something called “Micro League Baseball” on my dad’s computer, a name that somebody shortened to “Micro” one day, and then Coully shortened to “Vicro” another day. The way he said “Vicro” was so awesome. The name stuck. We all said it like Coully, but Coully’s version was always the best.
We watched sports on TV, and we argued about sports. Oh, did we ever argue about sports.
Coully had the reputation -- deserved or not, it didn’t matter -- for jumping on the bandwagon of whatever team was good. For his birthday in 1990, we bought him a UNLV hat right after they won the national championship in college basketball. Coully loved it. He wore the hat with pride.
My best memories are working with Coully at InFlight, our high school newspaper. He was the graphics editor who laid out the paper. I was the editor in chief who made decision on headlines, story placement, and photos. This was the 1990-91 school year. The computers were old and painfully slow. It took forever. We never finished during school hours. We always stayed late, sometimes extremely late, when the staff adviser was long gone and nobody else was on campus.
Somehow, the faculty adviser trusted me with keys to the building and classroom. I’m sure the administration didn’t know. Sometimes, other students would stay late with us or join us on weekends. Yes, there was some mischief. Of course there was mischief. Usually, it was just me and Coully. There was a ton of hard work, a ton of pride, and a ton of bonding.
We also collected baseball cards. We traded cards and we sold our cards. I vividly recall when Coully and I bought a dealer’s table at a baseball card show in San Francisco. I drove my piece of crap 1978 burnt orange Toyota Cellica to pick him up on a Sunday morning. When he got in the car, it wouldn’t start.
Fearful of us getting stranded in the big city, Coully’s parents changed their plans on the spot. They drove us the hour to San Francisco, explored the city for what was probably 6-7 hours, and drove us the 37 miles back to our hometown of Pleasanton.
Coully’s parents weren’t his biological parents. It was actually his aunt and uncle. They adopted him. I can’t remember the deal with his dad. I recall his mom was a mess, and not really in a position to raise him. His adopted parents loved him, and treated him like their own son.
Most adopted children will tell you it’s not the same. No matter how awesome your adopted parents are, it’s never the same. It’s not their fault. Especially in those formative teen-age high school years, when you start to rebel against all authority figures, the anger toward the biological parents for not being there gets channeled toward the adopted parents who are there for you. It’s not right. But it happens.
Sadly, our group didn’t always help Coully with his inner struggle. We’d say things like, “those aren’t your real parents” and “you don’t have to listen to them.” I’m as guilty as anybody. Everybody in our group had divorced parents, mind you, so similar lines were said about step-mom’s and step-dad’s.
Part of being a guy is “dishing it out” and “being able to take it.” The verbal sparring is a way you test each other. Weaknesses are spotted, and then seized on. Everything is fair game. It’s all fun and games, in theory. You laugh at an uncomfortable topic and it’s not so uncomfortable anymore. Sometimes, those verbal jabs sting. Sometimes, they hurt bad. Usually, the best defense was making fun of yourself first.
Still, I’m not proud of what I said. If I could, I'd take back every word.
I don’t know if Coully’s decision to commit suicide had anything to do with his biological parents not being there. I’m guessing it was a factor, but I have no clue how much of a factor.
That’s the thing about suicide. You don’t know. You’ll never know. You ask yourself “why” over and over and over. Sometimes, they leave a suicide note. Even if they do, it never truly explains “why.”
Not knowing sucks. It just flat-out fucking sucks. We’re used to knowing the answers to all our questions. Nowadays, you can look up the answer to any sports question in less than 60 seconds on your phone. But you can never find out, exactly, why a beloved friend killed himself.
Coully was one year behind me, and the rest of our crew. We all went away in college in the Fall of 1991, and now he needed a new crew for his senior year.
As the theory goes, his new crew was a rougher crowd, more rebellious, not into school at all, more into drinking and into drugs. I don’t know if this is true. We didn’t do drugs. But we drank. We drank too much and did stupid things. I’d like to think we picked our spots wisely on when to drink, made sure we got the important stuff done first, and then cut loose. But that’s subjective. That’s impossible to prove.
I do know this: it makes me feel better, or less guilty, if I can say, “he got mixed up with the wrong group of people.”
Maybe the new set of friends started him on his downward spiral. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Again, we’ll never know.
In the six years between my graduation from high school and his suicide, I’m not sure if I saw him six times. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw him alive. I’ve heard some stories about what happened in those six years, as family and friends tried to piece together what led to his depression, his feeling of helplessness, and his decision to end his own life at age 23.
Sadly, I don’t know any of the details first-hand. We drifted apart. It happens. I drifted apart from almost all of my high school friends, including many others from that group. We lived in different cities and made new friends. It wasn’t easy to stay in touch in those days. This was before cell phones and text messaging and Facebook and Twitter.
Still, that didn’t stop me from beating myself up. What could I have done? What should I have done? The worst part is, at the time when Coully probably needed the most help, it was finally the time in my life that I could have helped.
I’d just moved back to the area. I usually worked 3-11 pm, so I was free in the mornings and early afternoons, and could stay out late because I didn’t have to wake up early. I should have reached out, re-connected. That’s what I told myself.
Maybe it would have helped. Maybe he’d have picked up the phone that fateful final day and asked for my help. Maybe our rekindled friendship would have changed his entire outlook.
Or maybe not. After all, it wasn’t the first time he tried to commit suicide.
Maybe he would have never called me back in the first place to re-connect. Maybe we’d have gotten together, he’d have acted strange, and I’d have blown him off because he was no longer cool enough to hang with me. Maybe we’d have gotten together, everything seemed like the old days, yet that was just his act, and then I’d have been even more shocked when I heard the news.
I’ll never know.
I’ve been told in those final weeks and months, he was reading the bible a lot. Can’t recall him ever going to church or mentioning God ever before. Clearly, he was looking for answers. He’d started writing poetry. One of his poems was titled, “The Good Old Days.” It was about many of these memories that I’ve shared, how much he loved those days, and missed those days. In the poem, he wrote that God would bring him back to those good old days.
These days, I don’t beat myself up. Even though I hate not knowing the answer to anything in life, I’m at peace that I don’t know why he did it, that I never will know, and that no amount of crying or alcohol or soul-searching will ever help me know.
I do know that when I heard about Junior Seau’s suicide, I instantly thought of Coully.
When I watched an amazing documentary called The Bridge, which is about people who commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, I thought of Coully the entire time.
I still shake my head, still in disbelief.
I wonder what type of relationship we’d have now.
Would we be close friends who find a way to see each other in person every few years, even though we live totally different lives in different halves of California? Would we have re-connected on Facebook, looked at each other’s photos, traded a few emails, then gone back to never communicating? Would we constantly text each other during sporting events, no matter where in the world we’re located, because we know the other person is watching too?
Would I have bought him a St. Louis Cardinals hat for Christmas and a Kentucky Wildcats hat for his birthday? I don’t know. But that sure did make me laugh. Coully could always make me laugh. Always.
So the next time I’m back in Pleasanton, I’m buying a hat of whatever team just won the most recent championship, and putting it on his grave. Coully would wear it with pride. Only a few people will get the joke. And that’s the point.
Miss you, Coully.