Ishpeming quarterback Daniel Olson. Courtesy of Do It For Daniel
Do It For Daniel explores issues of mental health and suicide. Courtesy of Do It For Daniel
Gwinn Modeltowners football players and Coach Dion Brown at the recent Do It For Daniel screening. Courtesy of Do It For Daniel
It's two days after Thanksgiving in 2012, and Jeff Olson stalks the sideline of Ford Field in Detroit. The head coach of the Ishpeming High School football team glances up, and the scoreboard tells him what he already knows: His Hematites lead Detroit Loyola 20-14 with six seconds to go.
Loyola is 59 yards from a game-tying touchdown--not an easy task, but stranger things have happened. Olson needs his defense to hold one more time.
The Loyola quarterback takes the snap and lofts a pass downfield. As the ball lands harmlessly beyond the receiver's reach, the final horn sounds, the Hematites storm the field, and Olson falls to his knees. Ishpeming has captured its first state championship since 1979 by knocking out the heavily favored and top-ranked Bulldogs.
As the coach gets back on his feet, his assistants and players find him for a hug and a private word, and four months' worth of emotion pours out. An outsider might see tears of joy, maybe even tears of relief. But the Hematite family can see--and feel--the sorrow behind the tears.
One outsider who watched Ishpeming's celebration that day was Michael Berens, a freelance camera operator and part of Fox Sports Detroit's television crew. The Ishpeming-Loyola matchup was the first of four games he worked that day, so he didn't have much time to reflect on the Hematites' improbable and emotional run to a state championship.
Only later did the Ishpeming story grab his attention and set into motion the biggest project of his professional life.
In mid-December, a few weeks after the title game,
Sports Illustrated published a 4,500-word article titled "Tragedy to triumph: The amazing story of the Ishpeming Hematites."
The piece went back to the 2010 season, when the Hematites, led by all-state quarterback Daniel Olson, reached Ford Field only to lose by two points. Daniel, the coach's son, had suffered from depression and anxiety for years, and he beat himself up over the loss.
Daniel played basketball that winter, ran track in the spring, graduated from IHS in June, and enrolled at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, in the fall--all while privately fighting his illness. Only his family and a few close friends knew of the battle taking place behind his smile.
So when the news came on July 19, 2012, that Daniel had committed suicide at age 19, the Ishpeming community was shocked. "We tried everything, but there was no hope," Jeff told SI. "I think that he would have died years before if he wasn't that tough and competitive."
Now Jeff Olson had a decision to make. Football season was just a few weeks away. Would he coach? Could he coach? He realized his players needed him--and he needed them--so he got back to work. He encouraged them to talk about Daniel, to talk about mental illness, and they responded by dedicating their season to him. "Do It for Daniel" became their rallying cry, and they committed themselves to fulfilling Daniel's wish of winning a state championship for Jeff.
As Michael Berens read the
Sports Illustrated article, he thought, "This story needs to be told. We need to help people." He shared the story with his wife, Kammi, and they saw the connection to their own daughter, who'd been diagnosed with depression a year earlier at age 15.
Michael and Kammi, a sound technician, decided to approach Jeff and his wife, Sally, about producing a documentary on Daniel, Hematite football, mental illness, and suicide.
"It took me months before we contacted them back," Olson says. "Right from the get-go, we knew we wanted to do something to help, but did we want to put our family through this? That's what took a while. Do we subject our whole family to all of this, because now it's going to be out there in the open. . . . Once we got our whole family's approval, we decided to go ahead with it."
One key moment in Jeff and Sally's decision to work with the Berenses was a meeting at a McDonald's in Marquette. Michael and Kammi drove up from their home in downstate Otisville, and Jeff anticipated a 30-minute conversation. They ended up talking for almost three hours.
"If you want to put your life out there, your story out there, your family out there with somebody you don't know, with filmmakers you don't know, what if it's not a good film?" Jeff says. "What if it portrays Daniel in a negative way? What if it glorifies suicide? So there were so many things we had to take into account, and there's trust that needs to be built."
The Berenses got right to work on the documentary, titled "Do It for Daniel," with a budget around $70,000. About two years into the process, the 80-minute film premiered in August before 900 people at the W.C. Peterson Auditorium in Ishpeming.
Since winning the state title in 2012, the Hematites added championships in 2013 and 2015, and Olson was inducted into the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame this spring. He wants to leverage his platform to help get the film into every high school in the country, in addition to film festivals that could open it to much broader audiences.
"We want to get rid of the stigma of mental illness so people understand that it's common and it's a medical illness," he says. "We want to show people who have depression and anxiety that they can step forward with confidence and get it treated.
"And we want people to understand suicide. Ninety percent of people who take their lives suffer from some sort of treated or untreated mental illness. We want to decrease suicide, which is so devastating, and to do that we have to address the source, which is mental illness."
"Do It for Daniel" made its school debut Tuesday morning in Gwinn. Health teacher Angela Micheau, who covers depression and signs of suicide in her class, arranged for Gwinn High School's 285 students to watch the documentary together and then gather for small-group discussions. She also presented Olson with a check for more than $1,300 raised by the students to go toward the film's budget.
"I'd heard about [the documentary] in the news, and I went online to check the status," she says. "I watched the trailer, and I thought, 'We have to get this here. We have to do something with this.' It would be awesome if all schools could see this. It's important to talk about depression, to talk about mental illness, so people realize they're not alone and that there is help out there."
Olson says several other schools in Michigan plan to show the documentary beginning this winter, and his ultimate goal will be to get it shown in every high school across the state.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer based in Marquette, Michigan.