Evan Hansen was a senior linebacker for Wabash College when he took his life at age 21 in September 2018. Hansen was a standout athlete, student, and citizen in the Wabash community and in his hometown Carmel, Indiana. But in the year before his death, Hansen battled depression and began struggling with his schoolwork. His parents, Chuck and Mary Hansen, donated his brain to the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank after his death, where researchers diagnosed him with Stage 1 (of 4) Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
Chuck and Mary Hansen are sharing Evan’s Legacy story to normalize mental health treatment for contact sport athletes and advocate for CLF’s HelpLine, Flag Football Under 14, and Team Up Speak Up programs.
By Brandon Boyd
Evan Hansen was an all-conference linebacker and captain for Wabash College football. He worked hard to get good grades. He had a girlfriend. He was well-connected on campus. He was fluent in Spanish and after Wabash planned to work in healthcare in Latinx communities. It would be easy to forgive someone for believing Evan Hansen’s life was perfect.
But Hansen’s father Chuck has a different word to describe the final months of his son’s life.
“It was like an imperfect storm,” Chuck said.
Chuck and Mary Hansen first noticed their son’s athletic prowess when Evan confidently and stably walked across their living room. He soon became a crib escape artist, foreshadowing a life full of adventure.
Evan’s athletic exploits easily translated from the nursery to the field. In youth soccer, Evan’s advanced coordination and speed often led him to enter halftime with more than 10 goals to his name.
He started playing tackle football when he was in the third grade. His natural gifts and fearlessness immediately earned him a role as a do-everything running back and linebacker.
Mary says Evan was “all in” with whatever he did. Tackling was no exception. The family rarely saw a ballcarrier push Evan back for extra yards after first contact. Evan suffered one diagnosed concussion at Guerin Catholic High School when he took a knee to the helmet that left him unconscious on the field for upwards of ten minutes. Outside of the missed time from the concussion, Evan rarely missed a snap.
Many mornings after games, Evan clocked in to work the counter for Joe’s Butcher Shop in Carmel. With an enormous grin on his face, he greeted customers by first name as they entered the store.
“He was humble and unassuming,” Chuck said. “You would have no idea the night before he had 15 tackles and ran for 100 yards.”
Evan’s generosity and kindness weren’t reserved for customers. The book of Evan Hansen is full of stories of service to others.
Evan once finished football practice and rather than going home to rest, stayed at school to encourage a friend who was competing in their first cross country race. The friend finished last by several minutes but crossed the finish line to see Evan as animated as if they had won the Boston Marathon.
After graduating from Guerin in 2015, Evan received a scholarship to play football for Wabash College, a Division III powerhouse. Hansen arrived on campus intending to study Biology and Spanish and, as he told his parents, “light it up” in fall camp so he could earn playing time immediately.
His star shone bright almost immediately. He quickly catapulted up the Wabash depth chart and became the starting middle linebacker as a freshman in 2015. He recorded 67 tackles for the Little Giants on their run to the Division III quarterfinals.
“His tackling was how he got noticed right away,” Chuck said. “When he saw a hole, he knew someone has to fill it.”
Evan recorded 209 tackles in his first three seasons for Wabash. He was never diagnosed with a concussion in college. In hindsight, the Hansens believe Evan had regretfully mastered the art of “shaking it off.”
“He had mashed fingers, knee injuries, back injuries and all kinds of scratches and bruises,” Chuck said. “For him to make a tackle and to feel a little dizzy or disoriented, I think he just figured that that was part of football.”
Evan was never at the top of his class by sheer knowledge alone; he had always been able to put in the work to achieve the grades he wanted. But after the fall term in 2017, Evan told Mary he was struggling emotionally and with his schoolwork.
“’I’m depressed and I have no idea why I’m feeling this way,’” Mary remembers Evan saying.
Evan’s admission shocked his family and those close to him. The Hansens responded by taking Evan to doctors who prescribed different therapies and medications to manage Evan’s depression.
Temporary relief came when Evan went abroad to Spain for his spring term in 2018. He thrived in Wabash’s pass/fail grading system for students abroad. His days were spent traveling and honing his Spanish. Mary joined Evan at one point in Europe and saw her son rejuvenated.
“I think our concerns kind of disappeared,” Mary said. “We thought he just needed a change of scenery and a little bit of pep in his step to finish his senior year.”
Evan returned to the U.S. and completed an internship as a translator for Mansfield-Kaseman Health Clinic near Washington D.C. before returning to Wabash. He was regularly seeing a therapist. He was on medication. From the outside, his mental health seemed managed.
“But anytime you asked him about his treatments, the answer was, ‘I don’t think it’s helping,’” Mary said.
With Evan as a captain, Wabash opened their 2018 season with a win at Hiram College on September 1. They came home for Senior Day on September 8, winning 16-13 over University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. Evan’s grandparents were in attendance. The family went out to a celebratory dinner afterwards. Evan went to a fraternity party that night.
The next morning, Evan attended Wabash coaches meetings and seemed like his normal self. It was the calm before the imperfect storm.
On Monday, September 10, 2018, Evan Hansen died by suicide. He was 21 years old.
Chuck and Mary Hansen sat at the cemetery in the days following Evan’s death when Chuck received a Facebook message from CLF’s co-founder and CEO Chris Nowinski, Ph.D. Nowinski asked the Hansens if they would donate Evan’s brain for CTE research at the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank. They obliged.
While the family awaited the diagnosis from the Brain Bank, the Hansens poured themselves into research about CTE. They learned the symptoms of the degenerative brain disease could affect a patient’s mood, behavior, and cognition. They learned repetitive, subconcussive impacts, not concussions, are the driving force behind CTE. And they learned how CLF’s Flag Football Under 14 campaign aims to prevent CTE by avoiding the subconcussive impacts from youth tackle football before the brain is fully developed.
In fall 2019, Brain Bank researchers told the Hansens their son was diagnosed with Stage 1 (of 4) CTE.
The news confirmed the Hansens’ suspicions. Evan had played 14 years of tackle football prior to his death, 10 of which he played on both sides of the ball. His mood and mental health had declined over the last year of his life, as had his ability to focus and excel academically.
Chuck’s storm analogy describes the confluence of factors surrounding Evan’s suicide. Evan had CTE, which could have contributed to his depression and impulsivity. But he was also on medications that may have affected his cognition. Before his death, Evan was scheduled to have bloodwork done as a first step towards finding depression medications that were more tailored for his genetic profile.
Chuck and Mary have been told by many how Evan had world-changing potential before his death. They can also close their eyes and imagine Evan as a loving husband, an amazing father, a championship coach, or a community leader someday. But they choose to focus on the future.
“We’re trying to help other people learn the dangers of potential brain injuries,” Chuck said. “We want to shed light on all the things we didn’t know about.”
Since Evan’s death, Chuck and Mary have been fundraising and raising awareness for mental health, concussion, and CTE. Among many ventures in Evan’s name, they started an internship at the Merciful H.E.L.P. Center in Carmel where Evan managed the Tools for School program as a summer intern. And in honor of Evan’s #32 at Wabash, they will be donating $3,200 each year to CLF. Their gifts will go towards CTE research and some of our programs that could have made a difference in Evan’s life: the CLF HelpLine, Flag Football Under 14, and Team Up Speak Up.
Losing someone who was as outwardly strong as Evan sparked a conversation about mental health at Wabash, in Carmel, and elsewhere. For football players and other youth athletes at risk for concussion and CTE, the Hansens think the conversation needs to be more a nuanced one.
“I try to tell people that if they are finding out their child is depressed,” Mary said. “Just make sure that whenever they talk with professionals, they tell them that they played tackle football and for how many years. That needs to be part of the discussion.”
Through his story, Evan continues to help others. A friend of the Hansens wrote to them saying how because of Evan’s tragedy, their grandson was going to stick with baseball for now.
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 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 or someone you know is struggling with concussion or suspected CTE symptoms, reach out to us through the CLF HelpLine. We support patients and families by providing 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.