A Deep Dark Secret
It is important to know about Andrews’s hockey life to better
understand his mental illness. Some of his success in hockey can be
directly correlated to his uncommon brain. At the age of fourteen,
Andrew played varsity hockey on a team that was very deep with talent in
a city and state where high school hockey is a big deal. Grand Rapids,
Minnesota, has developed some of the world’s finest hockey talent,
both players and coaches. The head coach asked him to play defense for
the varsity team because he said that he already had too many talented
forwards. Andrew was a forward his whole career until his varsity coach
watched him play defense at a summer camp when Andrew was just messing
around. It was then that the coach asked him if he would be willing to
try out for the varsity team as a defenseman.
Andrew stepped right into the action during tryouts and proved his worth
as a defenseman almost immediately. Andrew spent his whole life at the
rink growing up and had started to gain a reputation state wide as one
of the premier hockey players in his age group. The varsity assistant
coach never said hello or any other greeting to Andrew at varsity
tryouts until it was apparent that Andrew was the real deal. One day
the assistant coach finally came over during tryouts and said, “Hey
Kid.” He continued to address Andrew by this name the rest of
Andrew’s playing career at Grand Rapids and beyond. He never used
Andrew’s real name. The nickname “Kid” stuck and many of
Andrew’s friends call him that even today. Back then, Andrew really
was a kid amongst men. He was a true fourteen year old. He played a
full season of varsity hockey as a defensemen weighing only 140 pounds
standing 5’11’’. He had no shoulders or any serious upper body
strength. He also had a baby face and tooth picks for legs. Even
though he was well undersized for varsity hockey, it didn’t matter,
because nobody could hit him very often.
Halfway into his first year as a varsity hockey player at Grand Rapids,
every major division one school had sent him a letter of their intent to
sign him to their team. Andrew thrived in the spotlight. The bigger
the crowd the better he played. Andrew remembers having no fear when he
was playing his best. Many times, he remembers feeling euphoric on the
ice especially during his high school hockey days. He often entered a
zone that made everything slow down and make sense. Andrew’s greatest
talent was his vision of the ice.
He was a great passer and playmaker. His mind could predict the outcome
of a certain play before it happened, and he often could read three or
four plays at the same time and choose the fourth play as the best
option. When he was mentally healthy, he could do this at top speed and
leave the defense helpless. A famous high school coach told his team
that there was nothing you could do to defend Andrew. He would either
skate the puck around you or pass it by you. The mission for the other
team playing against Andrew became to hit him every chance you could.
Many teams went about that the illegal way helping to bring his career
to an early end.
At the age of fifteen, agents were calling and visiting the house on a
regular basis. At age sixteen, after putting on an impressive display
at the Team USA National Tournament, the NHL Central Scouting ranked
Andrew number one in North America for his age group. If everything
would have continued for Andrew, he could have been the first pick in
the 2000 NHL entry draft. As more and more attention came Andrew’s
way, his mental illness continued to grow. Also during this time,
Andrew became very dependent on drugs and alcohol and felt an incredible
sense of immortality. It’s common knowledge that children, teenagers
and young adults have less awareness of death but looking back on
Andrews life, there were warning signs that he lived in a grandiose
reality that was unique. Andrew was a thrill seeker. He thrived in the
speed and passion of hockey. On and off the ice, he looked for every
opportunity to live life in the fast lane. Morals never really crossed
his mind. Andrew remembers thinking that everyone lived as he did. It
was not until he got older that he realized how many people were guided
by morals or at least the idea of them.
Andrew decided to leave the Presbyterian Church that he attended as a
youth at age thirteen thinking it was all a big joke or some kind of
weird play act. During this time, Andrew turned his complete focus to
hockey. Andrew became so dedicated to hockey that his academics fell
apart. By the time he was sixteen, his sense of reality was
increasingly dangerous. His lack of morals and ever-increasing desire
to push the limits of acceptable behavior began to take a toll on his
body and mind.
From age 16 to 19, Andrew displayed many forms of artwork and they all
had some theme involving spirituality. These delusions and realities
often depicted Christ or the Devil. They also showed his obsession with
suicide and alternate dimensions. Andrew remembers being shocked to
learn that Jesus actually lived and died the way the Bible describes.
His dad and brother pointed this out to him when Andrew was saying
delusional things after returning home from what would be his last year
of hockey. Andrew actually thought that Jesus never lived, because so
many people did not believe in the story of His life.
Andrew’s lack of a moral compass contributed greatly to his mental
health problems and weakened his hockey senses. Hockey is a fast moving
game and physically demanding; the use of drugs and alcohol weakened his
ability to read and react quickly on the ice. As soon as he jumped into
junior hockey, there was no forgiveness for lazy decisions. There was
less time to heal from drunken nights, and some practices and games he
recalls feeling slightly stoned or drunk.
Andrew left home at age sixteen to play with the Team USA Development
program. The program was a very prestigious achievement and Andrew was
very excited to play for his country. Unfortunately, the wheels began
to fall off the wagon at this point. His family recalls Andrew claiming
that he was going to quit hockey and write movies just months after
learning that he was one of the top five players in the world for his
age group and playing for Team USA. From here, Andrew began a long
steady decline that finally ended with a trip to the psyche ward at age
nineteen. It was here that he was diagnosed with grandiose
schizophrenia. No one in the hospital believed Andrew when he claimed
that he used to be a good hockey player. Several nurses were shocked to
learn that Andrew was indeed a world-class hockey player for a brief
period. One male nurse was near speechless when Andrew’s dad
confirmed that Andrew had played in the Western Hockey League.
The movies that Andrew was writing made little sense and the plots were
very peculiar to say the least. Andrew has since tried to burn or bury
any of his delusional writings. Apparently, Andrews’s father has
saved a few. I have too. They are just too telling to let go. You can
clearly see that Andrew was out of his mind when writing most of his
stories or poems. Sometimes Andrew was on drugs or alcohol while
writing these movies, but for the most part he was not, as he had a hard
time getting access to drugs and alcohol while being with Team USA.
Just a year before being put in a psyche ward for the first time with no
real knowledge if he would ever enter society again, Andrew had gone out
to dinner with several NHL team representatives and traveled all over
the world playing the game he loved. Even with two torn labrums,
several concussions, severe whiplash injuries to his neck, delusional
behavior and serious drug problems, Andrew was projected to go in the
top two rounds of the draft after his last year in hockey. Delusional
and banged up, Andrew missed the first four months of his last season
but still managed to tally 19 points in 32 games as a rookie defensemen
in the world’s top junior league, the WHL.
The Western Hockey League showcases some of Canada’s finest young
hockey players while giving a few spots per teams to US born players and
two spots to European players. The league is known for producing
hardnosed, fast skating forwards, tenacious defensemen and devastating
tough guys. Andrew watched Derek Boogard, who would soon be the
league’s most notorious fighter, have his jaw shattered after being
knocked flat on his back with a devastating uppercut. Derek went on to
fight in the NHL and died a tragic death with head injuries being a
prime suspect in his death. Andrew received a devastating blow as well.
In the WHL there was no more getting out of the way of most hits. After
Andrews head shot, his veteran teammates smiled and quietly stated,
“Welcome to the league.”
The Western Hockey League stretches from Southern Washington to Northern
British Columbia and all the way east to Brandon, Manitoba. Andrew
remembers playing a 7:30pm game in Southern Washington and then running
home to get supplies and food before returning to the rink to leave that
same night traveling fourteen hours by bus north to Prince George
British Columbia to play back to back games. They would then travel all
across Canada playing games as they went all the way to Brandon,
Manitoba. They then drove 26 hours west back home to make it back in
time for the school age players to attend high school. The physicality
of the league and the extensive traveling prepares players for the NHL,
and this is why the league usually has the highest number of players go
onto professional careers. The travel and violence wore Andrew’s body
beyond its limit, and Andrew will have to live with neck and shoulder
trouble the rest of his life.
Andrew was seriously thinking about quitting hockey after his junior
year and decided to give it one last go, so he took the offer to fulfill
his dream to play in the Canadian Hockey League. He packed his bags and
left for Tri City Washington with one torn labrum and the other
surgically repaired. Upon arrival, the team Doctor suggested that he go
home. He thought Andrew’s shoulder should have nine months rest at
least. Andrew thought otherwise. The team doctor’s plan of nine
months recovery for each shoulder would have Andrew miss at least
eighteen months of hockey. Most likely two consecutive hockey seasons.
To Andrew that meant an end to his career. He began playing after four
months and just before Christmas break, it was obvious to Andrew’s
agent that hockey was no longer his sole passion and focus.
Andrews’s mental illness began showing in the way he played the game.
In a game versus the Calgary Hitmen before Christmas break, Andrew was
given the assignment to shadow the WHL’s leading scorer in front of
thousands of fans at the Pengrowth Saddledome, home of NHL team the
Calgary Flames. Andrew felt disconnected before and after the game.
The pressure of being responsible for the league’s top goal scorer
sent his mind into confusion. At one point in the game, Andrew was
roaming around the neutral zone far from the play. Everyone on his
team, including his coach began screaming at him to get in the play.
His coach screamed, “What are you doing?” After the game,
Andrews’ agent confronted him and said if he wanted to play at the
next level, he would have to do a lot better than that. Andrew replied,
“Relax, it’s Christmas break.”
Andrew is a very competitive person and hates to lose, even today.
Andrew was living in a pre-fall state of happy euphoria. This is common
amongst people with grandiose schizophrenia. Andrew lost touch with the
reality of his situation. He had no concern about the details of the
game anymore. Nor did he care that he was still thought to be a fit for
the NHL. Andrew could care less that he was dining with NHL executives
and playing before thousands of diehard CHL fans.
In Andrew’s final game of his career, his emotions got the best of
him. While carrying the puck up the ice he nearly fell over while
making a routine move around a defender. After his shift, he totally
lost his composure on the bench. His coach had to encourage Andrew to
settle down. Throughout the rest of the game, the rink was a mystery
and he had a hard time performing the most routine skills. Before the
third period, he began hallucinating in the locker room. He saw color
circles everywhere. Bright rainbow like circles began dancing around
the room. In the period before he got hit hard, but it was a routine
body check, not hard enough to cause any serious damage. At the time,
Andrew thought he had received another head injury but looking back, he
knows that his schizophrenic delusions had set in under the immense
So how does a player so gifted and talented, end up losing it all?
Andrew had many dark secrets. People all across the hockey world were
so shocked to learn that he was not all about hockey. His wild stories
have baffled so many people. Andrew had everybody fooled during his
hockey playing days, maybe even himself. What’s funny is the fact
that Andrew is no longer that reckless thrill seeking kid.
As you can see, Andrew has a very special brain. It can work in great
ways but it can also completely misfire, sending him reeling, near to
death. In hockey, it gave him unnatural confidence, a unique vision of
the ice and fearlessness. He played extremely hurt for two years. He
played through two torn labrums for ninety games at a very high level.
He was addicted to hockey and the natural high it gave him. Injury
wasn’t enough to hold him down completely.
At the end of his final year, many of his teammates figured he was done.
They knew how banged up he was and how difficult it would be to bounce
back from two surgeries, serious neck problems, and several concussions
all in the span of two years. As Andrew’s fellow teammates continued
to get stronger or began to make plans other than hockey, Andrew
continued to get weaker both physically and mentally. Andrew found it
strange that only his teammates saw his body and mind failing. No one
else seemed to care about his injuries too much. Most just saw dollar
signs I suppose.
“Follow your heart kid.” Bobby Orr spoke these words to Andrew on
the telephone during the summer before Andrew’s last year in hockey.
Andrew looked up to Bobby Orr, as Bobby was a great defenseman and
possibly the most talented player to ever play the game. He was also a
great person for the sport of hockey on and off the ice. Mr. Orr has a
warm spirit and a humble attitude. In many ways, Andrew did follow his
heart, but his heart led him away from hockey and into the world of
music and art. His transition from hockey to the artist’s life was a
huge shock to everyone around. He became more and more dependent on
drugs and alcohol and his personal life fell apart completely. Many
people lost respect for Andrew and couldn’t believe he would just
throw away such talent. Things may have turned out differently for
Andrew if he could have stayed away from the wild life off the ice, but
even with the proper lifestyle choices, Andrew would have ended up with
schizophrenia. The schizophrenia may have come later with fewer
complications, but the problems were there early in his life and have
never left. Beyond drug-induced behavior, Andrew began to have signs of
serious mental illness.
Even to this day many people still don’t understand the signs and
signals of serious mental illness, but Andrew had them all. His family
and friends were greatly concerned by his behavior, and no one really
knew what to do. His parents brought him to the hospital out of
desperation. You couldn’t reason with Andrew at that point because he
had lost all sense of reality. Everything he talked about and did was
delusional. Every word anyone said to him had an alternate meaning, and
he was nearing death by having no concern for his physical wellbeing.
Andrew got in trouble a great deal his first year away from home while
playing for Team USA. He violated many team rules. He was busted for
drinking, chewing and drug abuse several times. He failed a drug test
weeks before returning home after a terrible year. He only lasted six
months out of the nine-month season. No longer did Andrew have a deep
dark secret. The cat was out of the bag. Something was very wrong with
him, but no one could figure out what it was exactly.
Team USA’s team psychologist stood up for Andrew when Andrew was
confronted on the subject of his bizarre movies. The psychologist said,
“If Andrew is crazy, what about Stephen King?” The fact that Team
USA was consulting with a psychologist was a telling sign that something
was off. Team USA did their best to conceal Andrews’s problems, but
scouts and agents quickly learned about Andrews’s dark side just by
hanging around the rink and talking to players. Andrew became a bad
infection to his team. The following year Andrew went out to dinner
with the Atlanta Thrashers scout, and he confronted Andrew on having a
drinking problem. Andrew denied it and told the scout that he liked to
drink beer just like everybody else on the team. However, he didn’t
know that Andrew wanted to quit hockey to play music, paint, and write
No one in his or her right mind would ever willingly throw away such a
promising career. It is very common for mental illness to reveal itself
when a person is put in a high-pressure situation. This is exactly what
happened to Andrew. He left for Team USA on top of the world and
returned home injured both physically and mentally. The pressure of
junior hockey was too much for Andrew. Andrew was bipolar during his
year at Team USA and schizophrenic his last year in Tri City,
Washington. Being grandiose was far better than being bipolar for
hockey performance. Andrew went through deep depression at Team USA.
It was his first year away from home, and all of a sudden he had a lot
more responsibilities. These demands broke his mental wellbeing beyond
Many people within the hockey world knew Andrew to be an addict. Andrew
was an addict no doubt, but there was more going on that Andrew and his
family didn’t see or choose to see. When you are focused on achieving
a goal as lofty as the NHL, there is little else to think about. Every
day was about how Andrew could get bigger, stronger, and faster. Andrew
happened to meet enough demands to silence many critics. As long as he
worked hard on the ice, his personal life mattered less. He managed to
do this his senior year in the WHL. Even after quitting and ending up
in a psyche ward, the owner of the team called his family and tried to
get Andrew back playing. By this point, there were no more critics to
silence because it was unsure if Andrew could reenter society let alone
put on skates.
Unfortunately, mental illness is often associated with drug addiction,
and many people don’t see the difference or the role that mental
illness plays in developing drug addiction. When a person has an
overactive brain on a large scale such as Andrew, any drug can be the
answer to weeks spent in overdrive. Every drug that Andrew tried became
a part of his plan to find peace.
Andrew had countless sleepless nights when he was a teenager, especially
toward the end of his hockey career. He was experiencing mental
disturbances that were swept under the rug by his addiction problems.
People were trying to free him from addictions when they should have
been treating him for mental illness. This, of course, is all easy to
say when looking back at these things, but at the time nobody wanted to
admit that Andrew was no longer emotionally fit to handle the pressures
of high stakes hockey. Here is a phone conversation that shows how the
general public still lacks a basic understanding of serious mental
illness. Andrew received the phone call a few years ago from an old
hockey coach whose name we will not use.
“Hi this is John Doe. Is this Andrew Downing?”
“Yeah, this is Andrew. Yeah, I remember you. How can I help you?”
“Well, we are doing a special on players who left high school hockey
early and didn’t succeed. We know this won’t be an easy subject,
and I’m sure you don’t look back at your decisions as being all bad.
We just think Minnesota could learn a lot by realizing that leaving high
school hockey early is not always a good idea.”
The conversation carried on about several different topics, and finally
Andrew needed to lay it all out for his old coach.
“Did you know that I tore both my rotator cuffs before leaving high
school hockey? Did you know that I was diagnosed with schizophrenia
when I was nineteen? Did you know any of that?”
“No. I didn’t know any of that. Even so, don’t you think your
parents could have taken care of that if you would have stayed home?”
Andrew was heart broken at the lack of understanding and compassion.
This man had no clue about schizophrenia, and here he was suggesting
that it could have been avoided by simply staying home for two more
years. Eventually Andrew told him that his senior year in the WHL was a
childhood dream come true. Of course, the man was upset that Andrew
felt that way, but Andrew was far more devastated at the realization
that the modern world was living in the dark ages of mental illness
still. As if Andrew’s mom and dad could make demons disappear from
his room or stop the voices telling him to kill himself or convince him
that there was no secret code to the universe or save him from the
thoughts that he was in fact the antichrist or Jesus.
Andrew’s parents have been blamed for many of Andrew’s problems, and
the basis of these arguments are delusional themselves built on
idealistic philosophies. Andrew’s parents aren’t perfect, and
Andrew may have gotten in more trouble at home where he had more
connections to get drugs and alcohol. Even some of his best friends
figured it was best for him to get out of town before he ran into the
law. The question of how great could Andrew have been, given a healthy
body and mind still looms with many hockey people in our town and
“I miss the game so badly, honey, but I don’t envy NHL players. I
can’t imagine facing the violence that they endure night after night.
Professional hockey players are gladiators. As a kid, I never watched
much of the professional game. I was a true Minnesota rink rat. I
lived and breathed at the outdoor hockey rink. I grew up naive to the
brutality of the game. If I had known what the Canadian game was all
about, I don’t think I would have sought professional hockey in the
first place. The first time I saw a real bare knuckle fight in a game
from ice level, I knew I had entered a new world. The power game and
intimidation through violence is no longer just Canada’s game either,
it is a wide spread success model in the game of hockey.”
“In my short little career, I remember tough guys crying before and
after games from the stress of their new- found roles. Blood was
spilled often, and injury became the norm. Any sort of pain pill was a
commodity, though beer was the preferred choice. I guess I am faint of
heart or too philosophical, but brutality never had a place in the game
I grew up playing. I thought of the game more as a circus act, players
dancing on skates and performing amazing skills at high speeds. That
model drove me to train and pursue the game of hockey.”
“I didn’t know the roots of professional hockey and how street
violence has always been an important part of the game. I never wanted
to knock someone unconscious or lose my teeth by being sucker punched in
the face. I had to change my defensive style of hockey to avoid being
forced to fight. I didn’t want to be a part of a game that encouraged
street violence. Street violence changed the vibe of the entire game.
Instead of preparing for the great game of hockey, we all prepared for
war. The feelings I had in my stomach as I watched my friends get
brutalized was awful. Street violence has always caused conflict in my
soul even when I was most corrupt. Cheering over Derek Boogards
shattered jaw never sat well with me. The day I watched it happen, I
was glad my friend got the better of him, but later in life it haunted
me. As soon as street violence entered the game, I wanted out. I could
understand physical play and passion, but the intent to injure made no
sense, and it happened all the time in the junior leagues I played
Excerpted from "Marriage and Schizophrenia" by Andrew Downing. Copyright © 2016 by Andrew Downing. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.