Eric Wainwright Jr.
Eric Wainwright Jr. was a sports-loving kid who was wise beyond his years. He was the captain of his high school football team before playing three seasons of college football. After college, Wainwright struggled with anxiety and depression along with headaches and sensitivity to light. On August 24, 2018, Wainwright took his life at age 27. His parents donated his brain to the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, where researchers found no definitive evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) but did find evidence of neurocognitive issues and other forms of brain damage. Wainwright’s parents are sharing Eric’s story to emphasize the importance of mental health in athletes and to advocate for Flag Football Under 14.
Warning: This story contains mentions of suicide and may be triggering for some readers.
By Brandon Boyd
April Harrison and Eric Wainwright Sr. remember their son, Eric Wainwright Jr., or “E” for short, always looking into the future.
E was a son of football. Wainwright Sr. played college football and had a brief stint in the NFL before coaching college football. E was the ball boy for his dad’s Delaware State University football team when he was four years old.
He was too young to play for real, but young Eric couldn’t wait for his first games. When he was six, his parents noticed a horrific odor coming from his room. He poured water all over his carpet to simulate what it would be like to play in a rain game.
Eventually, little E got his wish and started playing tackle football when he was seven years old. His speed, strength, and coordination quickly earned him the de facto role perennially bestowed on the most gifted athlete on youth football teams: the star two-way running back and linebacker.
Eric developed his personality as an old soul. He’d make profound remarks about what he saw on television that would cause his parents to look at each other in amazement.
He moved from Delaware to Piscataway, New Jersey in middle school and spent his first years in high school there. But once again, E had his eyes on the next thing. He convinced his parents to send him to Cheshire Academy in Connecticut for a year and then to Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Eric wanted to go to Valley Forge because he thought he might be interested in military leadership one day.
E thrived at Valley Forge. At a school full of future leaders and on a roster of well-rounded athletes, Eric was named captain of the football team.
Football was not the only sport Eric found a team to uplift in his time at Valley Forge. He picked up lacrosse on a whim and excelled, participated in the school’s science teams, and was active in student government. His father described Eric’s way of being as being impressively nerdy.
“He had all the gifts,” said Eric Sr. “He was talented, gifted athletically, an extremely good orator, handsome, and charismatic.”
“He would bring people together,” April added. “He made folks happy.”
After Valley Forge, Eric attended and played football for Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts for two years before a year at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. He then transferred to Wesley College in his home state of Delaware.
Eric quit football by the time he got to Wesley to focus on academics and internships. But even though he was done playing, the effects of nearly two decades of the contact sport stayed with Eric.
Eric’s father estimates Eric suffered five concussions in his football career, and countless more subconcussive blows from playing the two positions most frequently involved in big hits.
“He always let us know when he had concussions,” said Eric Sr. “But it’s those subconcussive hits that we weren’t really aware of. Those are the troublemakers.”
Eric made the most of his time in Delaware, interning for Senator Tom Carper. Over two years, Eric traveled up and down the east cost with Senator Carper, learning about government and the legal system. Eric also worked on the Clinton campaign in 2016, meeting future President Joe Biden in the process.
A product of public education himself, Eric knew firsthand how the system failed so many students, especially students of color, nationwide. His experience in first public then private education, coupled with his time around politics, inspired him to publish his own eBook in March 2016, titled The Miseducation of Poor Americans: A Legacy of Neglect and Deception.
By the time Eric graduated from Wesley in spring 2017, it had been years since his parents had seen him for an extended period; he hadn’t lived with either parent since his sophomore year of high school. When April and Eric Sr. visited him for graduation, they noticed Eric’s trademark ambition was starting to eat away at him.
Eric’s resume and acumen had him dreaming of scoring a perfect, high-paying job directly out of college. But when that offer didn’t come, Eric got anxious.
“He had done so much and done so well in college, he knew after graduation that he was going to go out there and get the job,” said April. “But it takes a while.”
He took a job as a management trainee for Hertz and was living with Eric Sr. back in Piscataway.
“I’m wearing a suit and I’m cleaning cars,” Eric Sr. remembers his son saying to him over the phone. “I’m not supposed to be here.”
Eric Sr. tried to console his son and preach patience, but Eric Jr. struggled to reconcile his current position with the hopes he had for himself. On top of his anxiety, Eric Sr. saw his son seek out dark places to manage his sensitivity to light and avoid headaches. Sr. always knew his son to command the attention of every room he entered. But when he lived with Eric he could see his son was concealing an inner pain.
“When I was able to watch him and be with him, that’s when I was like, ‘Wow, something’s wrong,’” said Eric Sr.
Eric Sr. has his own struggles with various effects of playing football. Through scans and evaluations at Mt. Sinai hospital, Sr. learned he has damage to the white matter in his brain, which can cause memory loss and depression, among other symptoms. At 27 years old, Eric Jr. spoke to his mother about hopefully entering the same evaluations his father had done.
His wishes for evaluation were not able to come to fruition. On August 24, 2018, Eric Jr. died by suicide at age 27.
A coroner came to the home and immediately asked Eric Sr. if Eric played contact sports. She suggested his brain be sent to the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank for research. Eric Sr.’s own familiarity with concussion, CTE, and the Brain Bank’s research made it an easy decision.
While suicide is a complex public health concern with no single cause, studies have shown an increased risk of suicide among those who have suffered a single traumatic brain injury. As April and Eric Sr. mourned the loss of their son and awaited the results from the Brain Bank, they reflected on the cascade of effects football can have on those who play it.
“As spectators of the game, we’re cheering on these guys,” said April. “But we’re not really thinking about what they are going through. This is an American sport that everyone loves, but players, coaches, parents, and spectators all have to be more aware of what it can do.”
For Eric Sr., his son’s tragedy raised internal questions.
“With this and what happened to some of my teammates who I played with over the years who took their lives as well, and with what I’m going through personally,” he wondered. “I’m like, was football really worth it?”
After months of research, Brain Bank researchers told April and Eric Sr. they did not find any lesions of CTE in Eric’s brain. They did identify evidence that Eric was suffering from neurocognitive issues due to a widening cavum between the left and right ventricles of Eric’s brain and the erosion of his myelin sheath, damage that usually precedes CTE formation in the brain.
Eric’s parents were not surprised to learn he had potentially worsening brain damage in his brain when he died.
“It gives the gift of closure,” said Eric Sr. “This helped bring some more understanding of why things had to happen like it did.”
Eric’s parents will forever miss the way their son could effortlessly improve their moods and bring light to everything he touched. They hope the ambition Eric held to improve the world can now be channeled in a different way.
Eric Sr. has been in and around football for most of his life. Sports provided him with an overwhelmingly positive experience he hopes every child experiences. But he doesn’t think kids need to play tackle football until they’re at least 14 years old.
Eric wrote a book on education reform. His parents hope his story can supply another chapter on the topic.
“There are a lot of families that think football is a way out,” said Eric Sr. “We have to dispel that myth. Let’s get them involved in STEM, along with a healthy athletic program. That’s what’s going to generate their income and improve their futures.”
Suicide is preventable and help is available. If you are concerned that someone in your life may be suicidal, the five #BeThe1To steps are simple actions anyone can take to help someone in crisis. If you are struggling to cope and would like some emotional support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to connect with a trained counselor. It’s free, confidential, and available to everyone in the United States. You do not have to be suicidal to call. If you’re not comfortable talking on the phone, consider using the Lifeline Crisis Chat.
If you or someone you know is struggling with lingering concussion symptoms, ask for help through the CLF HelpLine. We provide personalized help to those struggling with the outcomes of brain injury. Submit your request today and a dedicated member of the Concussion Legacy Foundation team will be happy to assist you.