The death of Bryce Gowdy: ‘We’re still trying to recover’

Bryce Gowdy, a Class of 2020 recruit from Deerfield Beach, Fla., signed with Georgia Tech on Dec. 18, 2019. Less than two weeks later he died. (Georgia Tech Athletics)
Bryce Gowdy, a Class of 2020 recruit from Deerfield Beach, Fla., signed with Georgia Tech on Dec. 18, 2019. Less than two weeks later he died. (Georgia Tech Athletics)

The Dec. 30 death of Bryce Gowdy, a Georgia Tech football signee, was ruled a suicide in a preliminary report. While the full report from the Broward County Medical Examiner’s office could come back with more or different information, those close to him consider the death a suicide as he struggled with the idea of leaving his family behind in difficult circumstances. It likely will take another several weeks before a full report is released.

DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — Two duffel bags sat in a corner of the wood-paneled room, one stacked on the other, lying next to a couch. They were in the front room of the home of Frank Gowdy, and they belonged to his great-grandson Bryce Gowdy.

The luggage contained the belongings that the 17-year-old Gowdy, a prized football recruit, was to take to Georgia Tech on that very day, Jan. 4, accompanying him as he began the next chapter of his life. Along with the bags, Gowdy also would be transporting something far more precious — his dreams and hopes of football and academic greatness.

On this afternoon, though, the bags were not symbols of a journey about to begin, but something heartbreaking, painful and loaded with guilt — an adventure that would never take even its first step.

Outside the modest three-bedroom home on Southwest 5th Court, friends and family were gathered, some under the ficus and palm trees on the patio in the front of the house. Gospel, R&B and hip-hop music played. The sun shined and light breezes blew.

Together, rather than celebrating a beginning, they grieved the death of Gowdy, who would never bring those bags and dreams to Atlanta. Five days before, in the early-morning hours, he took his life, according to authorities.

Afternoon gave way to nightfall. A steady rain moved in, scattering visitors. Gowdy’s paternal grandfather Frankie Gowdy Sr. took shelter under a carport next to the house.

“All I know is, I lost my grandson and I’m hurt by it,” Gowdy said. “My hope is that this can become something that can help others.”

Bryce Gowdy, a Class of 2020 recruit from Deerfield Beach, Fla., signed with Georgia Tech on Dec. 18, 2019. Less than two weeks later he died. (Andrew Ivins/247Sports)
Bryce Gowdy, a Class of 2020 recruit from Deerfield Beach, Fla., signed with Georgia Tech on Dec. 18, 2019. Less than two weeks later he died. (Andrew Ivins/247Sports)

‘Trying to get to Saturday’

Thinking of others seemed to come naturally to Bryce Gowdy. At Deerfield Beach High, he was the type of student who held the door for classmates. He was “yes, sir/no, sir” polite with campus security. He encouraged and counseled younger teammates on the football team.

He performed well enough in a rigorous academic program to graduate a semester ahead of his peers. And he was a gifted football player.

“I loved that kid,” Deerfield Beach coach Jevon Glenn said. “There was no doubt that he was going to be successful. And his success wasn’t going to be just limited to on-field success, football success. There’s no doubt I thought he would have gone to Georgia Tech and thrived.”

Glenn spoke in the empty space in his team's players lounge, sitting on a folding chair. It was Jan. 2, a Thursday. Students would return from winter break the following Monday. In about an hour, Glenn would have the somber task of coordinating a candlelight vigil at the stadium for his fallen player. He wore a black T-shirt with a red bleeding heart.

In the quiet of the players lounge, Glenn spoke of the torment that Gowdy was feeling as his high school graduation and enrollment at Tech approached. Even as he expressed his excitement about Tech, Gowdy confided in Glenn his feelings of guilt over leaving behind a mother and two brothers whose housing situation had become unstable.

“We just needed to get through that rough patch,” Glenn said. “And we thought if we did that, the family would be great and he’d be great.”

Once he reached Tech, he would have been on full scholarship, with his housing, meals and other needs covered. He would have had access to medical and mental-health professionals. He would have received a cost-of-attendance stipend of $1,600 per semester and likely would have been eligible to receive a Pell Grant. It wouldn’t have solved all of his and his family’s problems, but it would have helped address them.

“We had things set up, because Georgia Tech, obviously, per NCAA rules, can’t really provide services until he actually becomes a student,” Glenn said. “But we had already contacted (Tech) coaches and had counseling and had different services, situations where he could try to help his mom, and we were just trying to get to Saturday.”

Gowdy never made it.

On the surface, Gowdy was a young man whose world was about to spread open. However, the struggles of Gowdy’s family and his impending departure for college may have been too much for him to bear. They are stressors that can lead to suicide, according to Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), a nonprofit organization that describes itself as “one of the nation’s first organizations dedicated to the prevention of suicide.”

“It doesn’t surprise me at all on a couple levels,” Reidenberg said of Gowdy’s death. “One is the level that what we see on the outside is not always what’s going on on the inside, and, in fact, that really sounds like very much the case for this young man — his outward appearance that he was happy and doing well and successful not only academically and getting his scholarship and moving ahead with his life, but on the inside, he was tormented about what was happening to his family.”

 

The path to Tech

Deerfield Beach, located between the south Florida cities of West Palm Beach to the north and Fort Lauderdale to the south, is about 15 square miles with a population of about 81,000.

“You can look through Deerfield pretty much if you stand on Dixie Highway,” said Frankie Gowdy Sr., referring to the well-traveled roadway that runs north and south through the community.

Like Bryce’s father, Frankie Jr., himself a renowned football star at Deerfield Beach, Gowdy grew up playing sports. He was a member of the Boys and Girls Club. He lived with his mother and two younger half-brothers. He was brought up in a church where his grandfather’s brother is a bishop.

“Just a loving child,” Gowdy Sr. said. “He’d do (anything) for anybody. That type of person.”

Bryce had the smarts to take part in an international baccalaureate program from the time he was in middle school, continuing it at the high-school level. The IB program offers classes on par with advanced-placement courses. In fact, AP classes are part of the curriculum. The workload is challenging.

“Overall, the classes sort of stifle your social life, but it makes sure you’re ready to go into college and get a good jump on all of your work, develop good time-management practices and all that,” said a classmate of Gowdy’s, Madison Sardine.

Gowdy ended up having to withdraw from the program to achieve his goal of graduating halfway through his senior year so he could enroll early in college, but he was an honors student, Deerfield Beach principal Jon Marlow said.

“He was very academic,” Marlow said. “He was a great student.”

He was a leader for the Bucks football team, a role he had earned not only by being a standout athlete. He advised younger teammates frustrated with their playing time or having girlfriend problems.

“He’s teaching them how to go through that,” said Glenn, the Deerfield Beach coach. “He was a real big brother to a lot of guys around here.”

Even his barber couldn’t help but notice his maturity. Andre Lewis, who said he had become something of a mentor to Gowdy as he maintained his dreadlocks, said that Gowdy was conscientious in calling ahead to confirm whether he was or wasn’t going to make his appointment. Not all of his customers are like that, he said.

“He’s a good kid,” Lewis said. “He’s solid.”

On the football field, he had a long frame, soft hands and an effortless stride. He was the rare wide receiver prospect whose online video highlights included one compilation composed solely of blocks he threw for teammates, indicative of his team-first attitude.

When he was a sophomore, he beat out a senior for the starting tight end spot, according to Glenn. It’s impressive enough on its own, but the teammate (Daniel Barker) was committed to Illinois and now starts there.

“He had tenacity, both in the classroom, on the field,” Glenn said. “But then you’d get him (away from the field) and he’d play with your kids and he’d be rolling around on the floor in here (in the players lounge) with some of the coaches’ kids.”

The drive, athletic ability and grades made him a fit for Tech. Glenn urges his players to be sober-minded on their recruiting visits, not to be swayed by flashy facilities or the pull of emotion.

“Don’t come back and tell me, ‘I felt the love’ or ‘I felt the moment,’ ” Glenn said.

When Gowdy came back from his official visit to Tech in May, he told Glenn about a factoid that Yellow Jackets coaches like to tout to recruits — that two of every five Tech grads is a millionaire.

“And when he saw that, he came back and he said, ‘Coach, there’s no way I’m not going to be (one of the two),’ ” Glenn said. “ ‘This is the school for me.’ ”

Gowdy committed to Tech in July. He was excited. Marlow said that Gowdy liked to refer to his future school by its full name — the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“He was very proud of Georgia Tech, and his style fit Georgia Tech as a very academic institute,” Marlow said.

The football ability and grades aside, Tech coach Geoff Collins was drawn to his personality.

“He walked into the room and just was instantly likeable,” he said. “Obviously, a tremendous athlete and then looking at his transcript, (he) was a great student, and then you just get to be around him — he had a drive to do better and want to accomplish things.”

‘Frightened’ for his family

At the same time, as his enrollment at Tech approached, he began to have strong feelings about leaving his mother, Shibbon Winelle, and brothers.

“Something that really frightened him was the truth that he was going to be going off to Georgia Tech on Saturday, and he was going to be taken care of,” Glenn said. “He was going to have an apartment, food, no worries, and his mom and brothers were still going to be in uncertainty.”

In the fall of 2019, Gowdy’s family had become financially unstable, Glenn said.

“I think it had been off and on,” Glenn said. “They’d get a situation where they’d get a hotel for a while. Get somebody to provide housing for a while, so it was off and on. Just the last part of it got really, really tough for Mom.”

Coaches, family members and others provided support. One of Gowdy’s younger brothers, while not biologically related to Gowdy’s father’s family, stayed with Frankie Gowdy Sr. part of last summer.

“She was staying different places, but we’ve always supported them,” Gowdy Sr. said.

Glenn said that Winelle was having difficulty finding work and housing, and that he and his staff were trying to use different resources available to them. Glenn said that he has had team members who were homeless and were offered assistance with basic needs.

“We make conscious decisions to do what we had to do in some situations, and we’ll live with the consequences later, but we have to provide the support for our babies,” Glenn said.

Glenn said that Gowdy “was almost embarrassed” that he would be at college on a full scholarship while his mother was struggling and that that reality began to heavily weigh on him. Glenn said that it “just ate away at his heart.”

Glenn repeatedly tried to assure him that his going to Tech to chase his dreams was a blessing and that succeeding academically and athletically would ultimately be the best way to support her.

In other moments, Gowdy showed excitement for what lay ahead. The last time he spoke with Glenn, Gowdy made sure that he was going to attend his trunk party, where guests give gifts to the college-bound student. When Lewis, his barber, asked him when he was to leave, he told him Jan. 4.

“And he said it as if it couldn’t get here soon enough,” Lewis said.

On the night of Dec. 29, hours before his death, he was on a group text with Collins and another freshman, Miles Brooks, as they shared their excitement about the future that awaited them.

“It was heartbreaking,” Collins said recently of Gowdy’s death. “Because the future that he had earned by working hard and being such a great young man, it hurts.”

The final day

The end came about 4 a.m. Dec. 30, a Monday. Authorities determined that he put himself in the path of a freight train. He died later that morning at a nearby hospital.

According to a video that Winelle made and posted to Facebook, she said that while her son expressed excitement about his future, he also felt concern about her and her brothers. She said she and Bryce were dealing with their own personal demons.

She said her family was homeless the day before he took his life, sitting in their car “because we didn’t have anywhere to go.” She said she was stressed about a job that was not paying her “on time or in full,” and the impact that that was having on her sons. They got a hotel room, and she stayed in the car as her sons went to the room. Bryce came back out, she said on the video, and tried to hold her hand.

“I wouldn’t let him hold my hand because his energy was so intense,” she said. “I could feel the pain in his soul, and it was breaking my heart.”

They went to the hotel room, and Winelle asked Gowdy to retrieve her favorite blanket. After 20 minutes, when he hadn’t returned, Winelle went to the car herself. The blanket was gone from the car, but her eldest son was nowhere to be found. She sent another son to look for him. When he returned without his brother, he tried to assure his mother that he was OK, “but I knew, I knew in my heart he wasn’t,” Winelle said as she sobbed.

Gowdy is said to have taken his life at a well-traveled intersection in Deerfield Beach, Dixie Highway and 10th Street. The train tracks run north and south along Dixie Highway. On the east side of the tracks are a luxury auto dealership, an industrial park, a vacant lot and an auto repair shop. A church stands one block north of the intersection on the west side.

Glenn, his high school coach, said the site wasn’t far from the hotel where the family stayed that night.

It was a location that must have been familiar to him. The two streets are major thoroughfares in Deerfield Beach. His family’s church and the Boys and Girls Club he attended were both within a mile north on Dixie Highway. His grandfather’s home was less than a mile to the northwest. His high school was about a mile and a half to the southwest.

“That’s just where he happened to be,” Glenn said.

Days after his death, two apparent memorials had been created near the tracks. One, a “7” — Gowdy’s jersey number — made out of chunks of stone. The other, a bouquet of multi-colored daisies alongside four candles.

“It’s a heartbreaking thing,” Collins said. “You think you know what people are really going through, but …”

Carrying on a legacy

In the days after Gowdy’s death, his family and school were determined to prevent more tragedies.

Suicide rates in the U.S. are on the rise. Between 1999 and 2017, the age-adjusted suicide rate rose 33 percent, from 10.5 deaths per 100,000 members of the population to 14, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Among males 15-24 — Gowdy’s age group – it rose from 16.8 deaths per 100,000 to 22.7.

“This is about helping people,” Frankie Gowdy Sr. said. “That’s what Bryce was all about.”

At the high school and in the Broward County school system, Glenn was helping to organize programs to help educate students and raise awareness about mental-health issues and to point those in need to resources. He planned to have an expert speak to his team on mental health and hoped that it will spread across the school and county.

Those are helpful steps, according to Reidenberg, the executive director of SAVE. Another is to be genuine and intentional in checking after the welfare of others, especially at a time of transition or high stress. Reidenberg also advocated “breaking down that idea that guys have feelings, too, and it’s OK for them to talk about it,” he said. He stressed the reality that high achievers such as Gowdy are not immune from mental-health issues.

“If somebody has a broken arm, you know they have a broken arm,” Reidenberg said. “But somebody that, their emotions are broken, you don’t necessarily see that. You can mask that with a happy face, you can mask that by overly investing yourself in school so you look like you’re doing well, or even athletics. But that doesn’t mean that you’re not struggling internally.”

Gowdy’s legacy also will continue through a scholarship fund that has been established in his name that annually will go to two Broward County students who excel in athletics and academics. Professional athletes from the county have donated, Glenn said.

On Wednesday, Tech likely will complete the signing class that Gowdy joined Dec. 18. Some recruits had gotten to know Gowdy well. They, and all who knew and loved him, will endeavor to continue on. It won’t be easy. At his great-grandfather’s house, the two bags still remain in the front room.

“It hit me so hard,” Gowdy Sr. said recently. “We’re still trying to recover.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution limits reporting on suicides because of concerns that attention can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. We typically limit details even when the incident occurs in a public place or involves a high-profile individual.

If you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, call or text the 24-hour hotline at 800-273-8255. For more information, go to www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.