Nobody would have guessed Bill Wampler was struggling internally while leading Eau Claire Regis High School in Wisconsin to the state title game. How could he be? He was a high-scoring basketball star with college-scholarship offers and looked as if he had it all together.
But he was going through the dark tunnel of depression and, except for his mother and maybe a few others, he hid what he was feeling because of the stigma over mental illness. He became good at wearing a mask.
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“Throughout high school, I was obviously a highly touted recruit. Everyone thought I had everything, but I felt like I had nothing. All these schools were talking to me, but I didn’t have a purpose in life,” he said.
“It was hard for me to do other things besides basketball. I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school. It was just day by day, getting through.”
Wampler took the emotional pain with him to Drake and then to Wright State when he transferred after his sophomore year.
But something changed after joining the Raiders and sitting out last season because of transfer rules.
The 6-foot-6 sharpshooter found relief in the family atmosphere around coach Scott Nagy’s program, and he rekindled his Christian faith while on an Athletes-in-Action trip to Brazil in July.
The fear of talking about a taboo subject like depression has faded for him, and he finally has what he was always searching for back in high school: a purpose.
“When I got here, my life turned around. (Depression) was with me through college a little bit, but it improved with coach Nagy. He was a great influence,” Wampler said.
“My trip this summer to Brazil was awesome. I got my relationship back with God, and that was one of the big things that helped me out a lot. This summer was the time where I kind of said, ‘I’m going to help other people because life is about more than just me.’”
According to an American College Health Association survey, nearly 40 percent of college students in 2017 said they felt so depressed in the prior year that it was difficult for them to function. And 61 percent said they dealt with “overwhelming anxiety.”
Prominent athletes are beginning to speak out. NBA stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love have admitted to suffering from depression and anxiety, which often go hand in hand. And Ohio State and former Wayne football standout Robert Landers also has gone public about those same issues.
They all want to be part of the solution to the epidemic — like Wampler.
After scoring a game-high 18 points in Wright State’s exhibition win over Notre Dame College on Wednesday, he opened up with the media for the first time when asked about some new tattoos adorning his left arm.
Inscribed on the outside of his wrist is the mental-health slogan, “The sun will rise and we will try again.”
On the inside is a two-word exhortation: “Stay Alive.” That one addresses the suicidal thoughts that often accompany depression. As Wampler explained, “I’ll stay alive for you, if you stay alive for me.”
His fellow students are reaching out to him because of the tattoos.
“The first week I got these, I had 20 or 30 conversations with different people about it. When I tell them, everyone is like, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’” he said.
“It’s a hard topic to talk about, but this is a good conversation-starter for me because, obviously, I went through it. So, I just want to help other people. If I can just help one other person, I’ll feel accomplished in life. That’s my whole goal.”
Asked what he’d tell others who feel as if they can’t escape that pit, he said: “I would just recommend talking to your friends or your family. That’s the first thing — talk about it. And that was the hardest part for me because talking about it makes you vulnerable and you don’t want to show your vulnerability. But you’ll know people are there for you and love you. And the world is better with you IN the world.”
Wampler, who has two years of eligibility, is expected to be a huge addition for the Raiders because of his shooting prowess. He once scored 48 points in high school and went 8-for-11 on 3-pointers in a game for Drake.
Nagy is happy to have a player who can stretch defenses, but he’s even more pleased about having someone in his program so willing to stretch himself.
“You look at Bill, and your first impression probably is a gruff, tough kind of guy, but I think underneath that definitely is a sensitive soul. He’s had to work through a lot of things, but he’s in a really good spot now,” Nagy said.
“Even to recognize it was good because sometimes at that age they haven’t recognized some of those things in their personality. But Bill’s a pretty mature guy. He’s overcome a lot, and we’re really proud of him.”
Wampler’s most prominent tattoo actually is one that starts near his left shoulder and reaches almost to his elbow. It’s an artist’s rendering of an idyllic setting in Upper Michigan with a lake, waterfall and evergreen trees.
His grandmother had a cabin in that locale, and that’s where he and his family — his parents, Jim and Michelle, and five siblings — spent time regularly.
“This is in dedication to my grandma, because we just sold her house up there,” he said. “We had a lot of our ‘firsts’ there, and all our family reunions were there. It’s a tribute to that.
“I’m going to finish it with lighthouses on the inside (of the arm) because that’s what you see at Lake Michigan, and my grandma loved lighthouses.”
Wampler broke out into a smile as he recalled the warm feelings from those times growing up — something he couldn’t do when he was in survival mode while dealing with depression.
He’s no longer burdened by trying to hide his internal struggles. Removing that mask has lightened his load.
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Western Carolina at Wright State, 7 p.m., 106.5