Pitt wide receiver Tre Tipton suffered a collapsed lung in 2016 and laid in the intensive care unit at a Miami hospital for four days.
It was the turning point in his young life, despite years of suffering from depression, experiencing gun violence firsthand and dealing with multiple family hardships, Tipton told students at Burrell High School on Wednesday.
“That human hit me so hard that the doctor told me I would’ve had a better chance in a car crash,” said Tipton, an Apollo native and a member of the 2021 ACC champion Pitt football team.
He noted the other patients in the ICU, one who was hit by a train and another who was shot in the neck.
“These people were fighting for their lives,” Tipton said. “Why was I playing around with mine?”
Tipton took the stage at Burrell with teammate Johnny Petrishen, a Lower Burrell native, to talk about eradicating the stigma of mental health.
“I was ignorant growing up,” said Petrishen, a Central Catholic graduate who earned the WPIAL Player of the Year in 2015. “I didn’t think mental health was ‘a thing.’ I thought people who were depressed didn’t want to work hard or they felt sorry for themselves.
“I’m embarrassed that I thought like that.”
Suffering three season-ending surgeries in four years derailed his direct road to the NFL, Petrishen said, and left him wallowing.
“It tested me in every way,” he said. “It felt like a nightmare, and I had to watch as my close friends were drafted. I had to learn to keep clapping for them.”
Petrishen and Tipton told students that they found a way to draw strength from their hardships.
Situations that they each thought would bury them turned their lives around.
“It’s crazy how much value I put into other peoples’ opinions of me,” Petrishen said. “No matter how much money or how many muscles you have, the biggest battle is always between your ears.”
Tipton said that for as many challenges as life threw his way, the most valuable tool to fight them has been his voice.
“You have to learn to be vulnerable and speak up,” he said.
As a three-sport athlete at Apollo-Ridge, Tipton said no one knew his struggles because he never talked about them.
“I was just trying to be like the others. But I looked around and realized I didn’t have what they did,” Tipton said. “My parents couldn’t drive me to practice because my mom worked three jobs, and my dad was in jail for something he never did.”
His parents divorced, a stepmother died and his family moved briefly to Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood. Tipton said typical schoolyard fights turned into gun-slinging.
In coming years, a close friend and family member were killed in separate car crashes. In college, Tipton’s pregnant girlfriend miscarried his baby and an injury ended a football season.
The buildup led to four separate times he thought of suicide — but fate intervened each time.
“It wasn’t until I was laying in that Miami hospital that it turned around for me,” Tipton said. “At some point, you have to be tired of losing to yourself. You don’t get too many chances at life — and I had a difference to make.”
Tipton, along with Pitt wrestler Elee Khalil, founded Living Out Victoriously Everday (L.O.V.E.). It’s a support group that meets weekly to help people with anxiety, depression and other struggles.
For his efforts, Tipton has been named the 2021 Disney Spirit Award winner, given to the most inspiring figure in all of college football.
He also was a nominee for the 2021 Capital One Orange Bowl FWAA Courage Award, earned by those overcoming an injury, preventing a disaster or living through hardship.
“I’ve faced hard things since that hit,” Tipton said. “But that moment built the person you see today. It made me want to be the best person I can be and to always try to make people smile.”
To close the assembly, Tipton walked into the crowd of students and implored them to speak up if they need help.
“I got your back,” he said. “Parents, teachers, friends — they can’t see everything. If you need help, you need to speak up.”
Tawnya Panizzi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tawnya at 724-226-7726, [email protected] or via Twitter .