Baseball: Georgakas steps out of the shadowsDarkness can surround the bright, the happy, and the talented as easily as the lonely and downtrodden. It can seep in and fracture its victims. During a late-October night last year, the light was fading from James Georgakas as he lay on his bathroom floor filled with sadness and pills.
By: Chris Harrell, The Republican Eagle
Darkness can surround the bright, the happy, and the talented as easily as the lonely and downtrodden. It can seep in and fracture its victims.
During a late-October night last year, the light was fading from James Georgakas as he lay on his bathroom floor filled with sadness and pills.
Georgakas, now a senior at Ellsworth High School, was struggling, but only one person truly knew the depth: his girlfriend. The two had just ended their nearly yearlong relationship.
“After we broke up, I just felt like there wasn’t anybody I could talk to about anything and if I couldn’t be with her, I just didn’t want to be with anybody,” he said. “I cracked, I broke down and went to the medicine cabinet and grabbed everything I could with tears running down my face.”
Academic pressure, perceived parental pressure and especially bullying at school had driven Georgakas to the brink and to the bathroom medicine cabinet where he took 32 cold-medication pills in an attempted overdose.
James remembered thinking, “I just didn’t want to be here anymore.”
But Georgakas got a second chance. Steve and Karen Georgakas, James’ parents, received a call from the girl’s mother telling them that James was attempting to end his life.
Steve went to the door, broke the lock and rushed his son to the hospital.
“I was shocked,” Steve said. “I wanted to get him out of there and check on him to make sure it was true.
“With hindsight, maybe I should have seen something. He’d talked about bullying at Ellsworth and he talked about not wanting to go back. You try to address it as best as you can. If we’d had any ideas, we would have done things differently. He did give us some warning signs and it makes you feel sick that you didn’t pick up on it.”
James, a star left-handed pitcher for Ellsworth’s baseball team who is being recruited by more than a dozen college baseball programs, had deep psychological wounds. Successful on the baseball field as a sophomore, he was named second team All-Middle Border Conference in 2011 and Red Wing Republican Eagle first team All-Area and, in the classroom, he has a 3.7 GPA and scored a 25 on the ACT. But it wasn’t enough.
James was drowning in depression. His story is one of mental and physical recovery and how the game of baseball, along with the Ellsworth community, helped him heal.
James’ first stay in the hospital lasted around a week and it took a toll on both James and his family.
“I was numb,” Steve said. “Talking to counselors, the things he would say would just break your heart. You don’t know how a person could get where they’re at. The world was completely different through his eyes than how I saw it.”
After James was released, his ex-girlfriend sent a text and asked to get back together. The couple dated again for about a month before breaking up for the final time. That breakup brought on more depression, but James’ parents were prepared this time and James asked to go back into treatment.
“They got to me early enough before I could do anything terrible,” James said.
While at treatment, a beam of light shone through as friends Dennis Schutz and Brady Schroeder showed their support.
Schutz and Schroeder, James’ teammates on the baseball team, both visited James in the hospital and it helped him turn a corner. Schutz, an avid hunter, skipped the opening day of hunting season to visit James, no small task, according to the Georgakas family.
And it gave James a sliver of hope.
“It showed me that even with getting picked on every day and going through what I did, I still had friends that were there for me,” James said.
Schutz said his decision to visit James in the hospital brought the two closer, strengthening what he called a “brother-brother relationship.”
“Going to see him was more important than going out and hunting,” Schutz said. “I realized how serious it was. Right away, it didn’t really hit me. Right after we got to the hospital I realized how bad it could have been and what I could have lost.”
That visit was a first step. Schutz and Schroeder also helped James face bullies at school, standing up to a group of students that consistently picked on James – he was called “fag,” “fatty” and “whore” on a daily basis, he said, and a couple physical altercations occurred. Schutz let his classmates know the impact of their insults.
“We got the word out that it was a really bad problem with him and his depression was serious,” he said, “and it could have been worse than what happened.”
Ellsworth Principal Mark Stoesz approached the students responsible for the bullying and made changes at the high school, Steve Georgakas said.
“God sent us a bit of an angel there,” Steve said of Stoesz.
Opening up about depression was difficult for James after returning from his second stay in the hospital. He didn’t want to be stigmatized for attempting to commit suicide and he didn’t want to be targeted by more bullying.
“I didn’t want people to find out,” he said. “I didn’t want people to talk about me or think differently.”
Despite the walls he put up, Steve and Karen Georgakas maintained constant contact with James, maybe even to a fault.
“It’s hard because you want to be able to fix everything,” Steve said. “It makes me so hyper-sensitive to everything that’s going on, but it’s gotten better, especially in the past couple months. Teenagers should be able to be moody; have good and bad days like everybody else.”
The increased contact helped bring the family of five together.
“They’re always trying to talk to me now and see what’s going on and just always asking questions,” James said. “We’ve all gotten a lot closer.”
Panthers’ head baseball coach Steve Block and assistant baseball coach Ryan Christenson made sure James knew they were always open to talk.
“I remember telling him initially, ‘You got to trust some people,’” Block, a baseball coach for more than 30 years, said. “‘You’ve got to be honest and let me know where you’re at. I’ll help you out as well as I can. It’s way bigger than any baseball thing.’”
The team had a huge impact on James, but the Georgakas family found a hero in teacher and coach Rich Powers.
Powers, a teacher at Ellsworth for over 10 years, is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and was one of the first people James approached to talk about his problems. Powers coached James on the Panthers’ junior varsity basketball team two years ago and he provided a listening ear when James’ depression hit.
“I’m a veteran from Afghanistan and came back with some anxiety and I think when I told him that, he realized that there’s other people that deal with these issues too,” Powers said. “I think we were able to relate with that aspect.”
Powers opened up about returning from war. He said he returned with anxiety in response to being shot at during a war-time situation and being away from his pregnant wife.
He landed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in December 2001 as one of the first deployments following the World Trade Center attacks.
The two met for lunch at least once a week and Powers gave insight into the bullying issue, as well as the long-distance relationship. James’ ex-girlfriend lived on the West Coast while they were dating.
“A lot of kids (bully) because they’re jealous or threatened,” Powers said. “As he understood the issues more, you could kind of see some relief on him; for him to just open up on those issues and not have to hide anymore, especially on the bullying.”
Steve Georgakas said he gets emotional thinking about all that Powers did for his son. For someone with a wife and four kids, while also coaching three sports, Powers went above and beyond his duty as a teacher and mentor.
“God bless him for stepping up,” Steve said. “You couldn’t ask somebody to do what he did. James is never going to forget that; quite an impact to have on somebody’s life.”
James decided he wanted rejoin the basketball team this winter, with Powers taking over as the Panthers’ varsity head coach this season.
Turning the corner
Baseball season was a perfect escape for the junior left-handed pitcher. When James was pitching, everything else drifted away.
“I soon figured out that baseball was the only thing that got my mind off of everything and let me be who I really was,” James said.
James was put on two different kinds of depression medications and saw a counselor for a few months after being released from the hospital. The medication caused James to gain weight and he struggled with balance at the beginning of the season.
But the coaches helped James regain his pitching delivery and an incredible season followed.
The 2012 season was a revelation for James as the Panthers went 20-6, making the Division II Wisconsin state baseball championship in Appleton, Wis., before falling to Portage. James finished the season with a 9-1 record. He struck out 92 hitters for Ellsworth and went 3-0 during the playoffs. During the Panthers’ first ever trip to state, James tallied their first state victory with a complete-game 5-1 win over top-ranked Racine St. Catherine’s in the semifinals.
“For a person going through the type of things he was and to have that mental makeup, to be in the moment without any self-doubt,” Block said, “that’s what made him special.”
Witnessing James’ success was an outward example of the healing happening inside.
“Obviously, it made you feel good because I do know that sports has a bigger role in the shaping of a young person than just playing the game,” Block said. “It was nice to see that, boy; there was something there that was really worth living for.”
For his efforts, James was named first team All Middle-Border Conference, All-District and was honorable mention All-State.
“To see him go from where he was; a shell of himself when he got out of the hospital, to just unbelievable heights as far as high school baseball goes; it was surreal,” Steve Georgakas said. “It was pretty therapeutic for us as well to watch him have the success. You can celebrate something and take your mind off all that pain.”
James was also selected to play for the Wisconsin All-Stars in the fall and went 3-0 during a trip to New York.
When he returned, he said he finally started to feel normal.
“I was starting to smile again,” James said. “I was beginning to act like myself again.”
James is getting better and he will tell you that. So will those around him. He laughs, he jokes and he enjoys life.
He is also planning for the future.
After his impressive junior season, James is getting recruited by a number of baseball programs in Division II and Division III.
“It’s really nice knowing I can play baseball for an extended period of time,” James said.
The prospect of James moving away frightens Steve and Karen, but they said it’s refreshing to see him looking ahead.
“First of all: terrified that we won’t be there,” Steve Georgakas said. “I hope he’ll begin to see in himself what we’ve seen in him. I think he’s going to do fine but it’ll be scary.”
The parents said they were blessed to get a second chance and to be a positive example of fighting against an invisible enemy. James’ strength can help others see the devastating effect of bullying and depression.
The vulnerability to open up about a sensitive issue like suicide is beyond what most adults can handle, let alone a high-school student. But James decided it was time to let his story out.
“So kids who go through the same thing know that it gets better,” James said.
“I wish I had the strength to do what he’s done,” Steve Georgakas said. “To put yourself out there, I wouldn’t have had the guts to do that. I’m pretty proud of him for many reasons but it’s a pretty big one to be doing what he’s doing; to face this. I couldn’t feel more proud.”
Light can fill in the cracks and outshine the darkness. The Georgakas family can see a bright future. James can too.