Every Saturday in the fall, UT alumni and fans see Phillip Fulmer on the sidelines coaching the Vols, but most never see the other side of Fulmer. For 8 years, the Tennessee coach has dedicated time and effort to curbing teen suicide, working with the Jason Foundation of Hendersonville, Tennessee.
“As a parent, coach, and educator, my life has been spent as a father, mentor, and advisor to young people,” Fulmer (Knoxville ’72) says. “The Jason Foundation has given many of us who work with youth from many different backgrounds a real source of support and guidance when needed.”
The Jason Foundation Inc. (JFI) was founded in 1997 out of a family’s grief and deep commitment to saving young lives. Clark Flatt, president and CEO of JFI, lost his 16-year-old son, Jason, to the silent epidemic of youth suicide. Flatt turned his energies toward reducing youth suicides by starting JFI. The foundation’s mission is to educate young people, parents, teachers, and -others who work with young people. “Youth suicide statistics are alarming, and most don’t realize the magnitude of the problem,” Flatt said.
Each week approximately 100 young people commit suicide in the U.S. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined.
When the Jason Foundation’s teen board decided they needed a national spokesperson in 1998, they wanted Fulmer to be their man. “I did not know nor had I ever met Coach Fulmer, but I agreed to let the teen board write and ask him to be the national spokesperson. I expected a letter saying ‘Keep up the good work,'” Flatt said. “What I got was a phone call and invitation to bring some of our teen board members to Knoxville and meet with Coach Fulmer.”
Fulmer told Flatt that if he was looking for a “name,” he wasn’t interested, but if he could help save a young person, he would do all he could. “Their goals for education and prevention of teenage suicide were clear and well presented. I was honored to be their national spokesperson,” Fulmer said.
He was so passionate about fighting youth suicide that he shared what JFI was doing with other coaches. Soon after Fulmer became the national spokesperson, almost all SEC coaches were working with JFI. Fulmer then introduced JFI to Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA), and that group became a national affiliate of JFI 3 years ago.
“My proudest accomplishment was to get the AFCA to take on JFI as one of its national charities,” Fulmer said. “This simple event and the efforts of many college and high-school coaches have helped us aid endless young people to fight their social issues, depression, et cetera.”
JFI has more than 70 coaches working as ambassadors because of their affiliation with the AFCA. “Through JFI, Coach Fulmer has written letters and even made phone calls to help young people. His ability to open doors to get people not only talking about the problem of youth suicide but also taking action is incredible,” Flatt said. “He goes to any length to help young people who try to help themselves, and even if they are not trying too hard, he doesn’t easily give up on them.”
Fulmer has also helped get more public officials involved. Several years ago Flatt says he was trying without success to gather a dozen key public officials in Tennessee to discuss teen suicide. Fulmer sent them an invitation to meet and talk with him about the issues, and all but one attended. “The progress made from that meeting is still shaping youth suicide prevention efforts in Tennessee,” Flatt said.
“It obviously makes me feel good personally to make an impact on the tragedy of teenage suicide,” the Vol coach says. “More important, I think we have raised the awareness nationally of this silent epidemic that touches so many families, schools, and young people across the country.”
Most new nonprofit organizations don’t survive more than 2 years because of lack of funding and name recognition. “Coach Fulmer was instrumental not only in our success, but in our existence,” Flatt said. “With Coach Fulmer, we began the -Phillip Fulmer Golf Classic benefiting JFI.” The eighth classic was held last June, and the past five tournaments have been sellouts. The tournament has raised more than $1 million.
“JFI does not charge for any of our programs or services in Tennessee, and the Phillip Fulmer Golf Classic is a major reason why,” Flatt said.
“I thank all the wonderful people involved, especially Clark Flatt, our director, all of the volunteers, and Joey Jacobs of PSI [Psychiatric Solutions Inc.] Hospitals that make our efforts possible,” Fulmer said.
Flatt says Fulmer sincerely cares about young people. “Coach Fulmer is one of the most passionate and caring individuals I have ever known. He really cares about kids. I am sorry that many fans and non-fans don’t get to know Phillip as I have gotten to know him. I am honored to be able to call Phillip a friend.”