Damon Parker is a championship wrestling coach and a happily married father of two. He's battling for his mental health.
When Damon Parker resigned as head boys wrestling coach at Washburn Rural in late March, it took nearly everyone by surprise.
Less than a month before making his stunning announcement at the Junior Blues’ postseason team banquet, Parker was at the peak of his profession. His Rural teams had just swept state championships with the girls winning their second straight title and the boys adding the first team championship in Topeka history with a runaway win in Class 6A.
The championships capped dominant seasons in which the two teams combined to go 34-1 in duals and sweep Centennial League, regional, sub-state and state championships.
The rewards had rolled in for Parker as well, named the overall state wrestling coach of the year by the Kansas Wrestling Coaches Association.
The world was at his feet.
“You can’t really do any better than that,” Parker said.
Unbeknownst to everyone, Parker had already made up his mind that the 2020-21 season would be his last as Rural’s head boys coach. No matter how the season played out, Parker knew now was the time to take on the challenge of his life.
A lifelong battle
Damon Parker can’t pinpoint when he first realized he was battling mental health problems.
At the same time, he can’t tell you a point in his life when it wasn’t something he dealt with.
The product of what he called a great upbringing by his parents, Craig and Susanna Parker, Damon still recalls at an early age beginning to build defense mechanisms into his personality.
At 6-foot-0, 270 pounds now, Damon is a mountain of a man. And he always has been, remembering a commemorative card from his T-ball team in the summer following kindergarten. On the back of the card, it listed Parker as 4-7, 90 pounds.
“I was chubby, but I wasn’t grotesque obese,” Damon said. “I was just a freak for a lack of better terms. Other kids gave it to me pretty good.”
Bullying wasn’t the hot-button topic in the 1980s and 1990s it is today. Little to no attention or prevention was given to such acts in or out of school.
So Damon adapted.
“I basically had two options,” he said. “Accept being the fat kid and let people push me around or bully me forever. Or figure out a way to use it to my advantage.”
He chose the latter. Damon poured himself into sports, becoming a standout football player and even better wrestler at Manhattan High School, capturing Class 6A state championships at 215 pounds as both a junior and senior in 1997 and 1998.
“It played a significant role in the amount of success I had,” Damon said of channeling himself. “Pressure will either make you crack or form a diamond."
Damon was a jewel away from sports as well, honing an outgoing, jovial personality, able to poke fun and laugh at himself before others could take their shots.
The defense mechanisms were in place and the inner battle was in full motion.
“When I was in middle school and high school in the '90s, I don’t know if depression was a word — nobody talked about it,” Damon said. “But I can remember late middle school, early high school, I knew something wasn’t quite right.”
'Another season, another weight'
The first time Lindsay Tolin met Damon Parker in 2002 while the two were attending college together at Kansas State, she was immediately drawn to him.
“He was the most outgoing, hilarious person I’d ever been around,” Lindsay recalled. “He was just always doing things to make people laugh and make people happy. Most people that meet Damon just fall in love with him and that happened to me, too.”
Though she fell for him immediately, Lindsay wasn’t ready for a long-term commitment just yet. So they dated for a bit, remained good friends when they took a break and then reconnected during their senior years. When they graduated (Damon in 2003, Lindsay in 2004), they moved to Kansas City together, married in 2006 and had twins — Doak and Corinne — in 2012.
In their 14-plus years since, the Parkers described their marriage as strong, experiencing the normal ups and downs that any marriage goes through.
There were times Lindsay would notice Damon’s demeanor would be different. He’d hit “funks,” often times at the end of grueling season in which she knew how much of himself Damon had poured into ensuring his team was as successful as it could possibly be.
“I thought it was a physical crash because he’d been going so hard for so long that his body just needed to recharge and recuperate,” she said. “And his mind, too. What I saw was weights being packed on him throughout the season. Another season, there’s another weight and another weight being packed on him.
"And he pushes through because he’s a warrior and that’s what he does. But when it’s done, that’s when he crashes and the weight all comes off.”
'Life’s a beach'
A self-proclaimed taskmaster, Damon had nearly fulfilled one of the biggest tasks he set out to accomplish when he took over the Washburn Rural wrestling program. In 2018, the Junior Blues posted their highest state finish ever, taking second to Olathe North.
A high-water mark for the program, it still came at an agonizing price. A mere 1.5 points separated Rural from its first state title, leaving so many “what ifs” on the table.
Damon was spent, physically and emotionally.
“I just basically stayed at home and couldn’t get out of bed,” he said.
Part of it was sheer exhaustion from the season, something he said he deals with every season. But a big part of it was the mental battle he’d been fighting.
“It kind of feels like you’re on a beach and there are tides,” he said. “I know it’s different for everybody, so I can only speak to my experience. But you’ll have some times, months at a time, where the tide’s out and you’ll feel great. And then out of nowhere, a wave crashes in, and you have to deal with it. Sometimes it lasts for an afternoon, sometimes it lasts for a month.
“Every year, I’ve taken that Monday after the state tournament off and slept all day. For whatever reason, that’s when it hits the hardest, and every year, it seems like it hits a little harder than the year before. The waves were becoming a little more frequent and a little bit more difficult to navigate.”
Resolved to complete the task of bringing home a state championship for Washburn Rural, Damon put his thoughts of resigning aside. He maintained his warrior mindset and pushed through.
It’s always been that way. Set a task. Accomplish it. Set another one. Keep going.
“It’s been that way my entire life,” he said. “But there’s a point where there’s diminishing returns when you’re always saying what’s next. Well this year, there’s no way to top what we just did. You can’t beat 19-0 and a state championship, that’s as good as you can possibly do.”
'It was like looking in a mirror'
Damon Parker didn't know the man whose funeral he was attending. His reason for being there to support his wife, Lindsay, who had been the man’s co-worker at Advisors Excel.
Didn’t know his successes. Didn’t know his personality. Didn’t know his inner demons that ultimately led to him taking his own life.
Yet sitting in the balcony staring down at the casket, Damon said, “It was like looking in a mirror.”
“I had a million thoughts going through my head the entire time,” he said. “All I saw was myself. I’ve never considered suicide, but then I’m guessing 10 years ago neither did he.”
If the visual image didn’t hit home hard enough for Damon, the words of the eulogy given by the pastor and written by Advisors Excel owner and founder Cody Foster did. They spoke a message that Parker not only needed to hear but also in some ways felt were unintentionally directed to him.
“It was something to the effect of: ‘We need to make this a not-taboo subject, and the only way that’s going to change is if people are open about it and willing to have tough conversations,’” Damon said. “That was my moment where I was like: ‘He’s right. I need to talk about this.’”
On the way home, he opened up to Lindsay about everything he had been going through. They’d been married for 14-plus years, and it was the first time he’d ever shared the battles he was fighting with her.
It was like a bombshell.
“I had no clue,” Lindsay said.
Most people might never know it, but Damon Parker is somewhat of an introvert.
As publicly outgoing and energetic as he comes across, privately he’s very much reserved, particularly when it comes to his emotions.
“Everybody has different masks that they wear,” Damon said. “You have a different mask if you’re at Christmas dinner with your parents or sitting in a corner for a wrestling match or standing on a stage talking to people. Everybody has their own image they cultivate that they want to project. I essentially have become a master of that.
“You spend so long doing that, you don’t want to show any cracks in the personality you spent so many years crafting.”
But sitting in the balcony at the funeral service, staring down at what could possibly lie ahead if he didn’t seek help, Damon cracked. It was time to share the burden he’d carried for so long.”
And that started with Lindsay.
“It was awful,” Lindsay said when Damon broke down and told her. “We were both bawling. This was real, and it was scary and it was time to make some changes and not have that be his outcome. I can’t function without him.
“He’s my rock. He’s always been my rock and I think there was a part of him that couldn’t let me see that.”
“I didn’t want to feel like I was adding anything else to her plate,” he said. “I’ve done a relatively good job of keeping it to myself and managing it on my own. But I got to thinking at the funeral that I’m sure 10 years ago, he wasn’t thinking about himself being in the position he was in and reaching that point. The way I was feeling with it getting progressively worse, I knew I couldn’t do it by myself any more.
"Nobody gives me better support than Lindsay does, so that’s why I thought it was important that she should know and we could address it.”
It wasn’t easy news for Lindsay to swallow on any level.
“At the funeral, he said, ‘I’m struggling with this.’ And I’m like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner?’” Lindsay said. “ And he said, ‘I didn’t want to be a burden to you.’ And of course the tears just started. ‘How in the world did you ever think you could be a burden to me? You’re my husband, the father of our children, my best friend, my everything to me.’
"We’ve always had a strong marriage; don’t fight, just really good together. The fact that having such a good marriage and he still didn’t feel like he could come to me, I think about people whose marriages aren’t in an amazing place or their home life isn’t as strong. I can’t even imagine that situation.
“That’s been the hardest thing for me. ‘How did you not see this? How did you not ask the question that would have told you this?’ Part of it, I think is I didn’t want that to be the case. Deep down, I didn’t want to ask the questions because I was terrified of the answers.
“And that was the point where I figured out that I needed to start learning everything I can about depression and figure out what’s going on.”
'Hitting close to home'
Damon Parker didn’t know Hayleigh Wempe, other than she was a standout wrestler for Baldwin High School.
As a freshman for the Bulldog varsity last year, Wempe was a key figure for the program, finishing the season with a 33-6 mark and fifth-place finish at the Girls Division II state championships. Her efforts helped Baldwin capture its first team championship as well.
“What stood out to me was not only was she a great wrestler but a great kid,” Baldwin coach Kit Harris said. “Just a lot of fun to coach. Real big personality. Had comments for everything, was humorous and was a central part of the team.
“She was so supportive of all of her teammates. She cared a lot about herself winning; she cared even more about her teammates winning. She was mat side every match screaming for them. After a match, if someone ever won, she was the first person there to give them a hug, and if a team member lost, she was the first person there to give her a hug as well.”
Wempe’s boisterous, outgoing personality — which earned her the nickname “The Hammer” — hid the internal turmoil she was dealing with. On April 4, she took her own life.
“It was an extreme shock; nobody saw it coming,” Harris said. “We were sad, confused, really shook and our first thoughts were: ‘Why?’ We just couldn’t put a finger on it.”
The shock waves not only hit hard in Baldwin City but also throughout the wrestling community as a whole. Including Damon Parker, coming almost a month after the funeral that had spoken to him.
“That one hit close to home even though I didn’t know Hayleigh,” he said. “I know a lot of people involved with wrestling pretty dang well. The coincidence with the timing just drove it home.”
Now the message was clear in Damon’s mind. In addition to healing himself, he could be a role model for those in similar situations.
And he knew them well.
In deciding to resign as Rural’s boys’ wrestling coach, Damon stayed on as head coach of the girls’ program.
In part, it was because he didn’t want to abandon a sport he had pushed so hard to help become a reality. Girls wrestling is in its second year as a sanctioned sport by the Kansas State High School Activities Association.
But more importantly, Damon didn’t want to abandon the girls in the wrestling room.
Damon had done the research. Girls statistically are more at risk for mental health than their male counterparts. Those numbers increase for adolescents from single-parent households.
In his own wrestling room, Damon knew first-hand of girls struggling with the same problems he had. In his own school, he knew of even more.
And he wanted to be there for them.
“I know we have a lot of wrestlers — and not just wrestlers, but students — who struggle with the same stuff,” he said. “To have someone in their building and immediate circle they can identify with will be beneficial to them.
“Keeping the program afloat and going in the right direction is secondary or maybe even tertiary. The main thing is I know for a fact that I have several girls that have been very forthcoming about their issues with depression. I think I can still be a benefit to them.”
In being forthcoming about Wempe’s suicide, her parents, Carl Springer and Amy Douglass, hope their voices can be heard and beneficial to others who might be in their daughter’s situation.
“They have said if telling her story saves one kid from making the same decision, that’s a success,” Harris said. “It is hard being a teenager, always has been. Maybe it’s worse now with more stress and different pressures. I honestly feel that if Hayleigh would have let 20 minutes go by from whatever had her feeling so bad, she would have been back to her normal and goofy self. That’s how she was.
"She’d get really mad or down about something and then be back to being the Hayleigh we knew. But you never know, but if an intervention could have occurred maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”
'A man with a message'
For the past three years, Damon has toyed with the idea of seeking professional help. He pursued it briefly through the resources at Washburn Rural but didn’t find the right avenue to continue that path.
After conversations, including with Lindsay and Foster, Damon made a connection with a therapist through Advisors Excel’s employee assistance program.
After seeing his therapist for only a month, Damon said, “It’s been like I’ve set down a ton of bricks.
“The best medicine doesn’t come from a pharmacy. It comes from the love of people that are close to you and an ear that will listen to you.”
The process has come with Lindsay there every step of the way. She coaches side-by-side with him during the girls’ wrestling season and now they are side by side, wrestling a new opponent.
“It’s me making sure that he knows that no matter what we go through and what happens to him, I’m there and we’re fighting this side by side and together and not alone,” she said.
For both of them, the hope is Damon’s voice can be heard and help destigmatize depression and what it means.
“Not everybody believes that all people that say they’re depressed are depressed,” Lindsay said. “I saw a quote right after he told me, and it was from Robin Williams. ‘People don’t fake depression; people fake being OK.’ That was the moment where it clicked for me. Why would anybody fake that? Nobody wants to be sad. Everybody wants to be happy.
"And we started figuring out how do we eliminate the sad days and make more of the happy days.”
Damon’s return to the wrestling room next fall will be a beacon for the girls in his program and students in his school who need a figure they can relate to. In the meantime, he’s planning to expand his public speaking topics to include dialogue on mental health, relaying his battles and his message to a broader audience.
Speaking engagements at other high schools is something the Parkers know could be very impactful.
“For us, it was let’s explore telling people what’s going on and opening that door,” Lindsay said. “We thought maybe someone like him, who’s a big, tough guy who is struggling with this, maybe it will make an impact if he’s willing to come out and talk about it.”
Which isn’t exactly in Damon’s true comfort zone. He’s never been one to seek the spotlight.
But when it shines upon him, he makes the most of it.
“We knew we wanted to be forthcoming about this, and it just solidified the idea that kids need to hear about this kind of stuff and we need to have this kind of discussion,” Damon said. “This is going to be uncomfortable for me. But I know it’s necessary.”