Your Prep Sports
NORTH LIBERTY – The obituary’s first sentence hits with both honesty and heartbreak.
Owen Eugene Skelley, 15, loving son and brother, ended his life on Thursday, March 3, 2022.
No one can blame relatives who avoid announcing the cause of death. Grieving is personal and loved ones should do whatever it takes managing unthinkable pain.
Jennifer and Joe Skelley approached their misery wanting to help others. Owen’s parents bravely revealed up front what took their son from them, bringing awareness to an epidemic.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), 130 people in the U.S. commit suicide every day. It’s the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-24 in Iowa, a state ranking 17th nationally in suicides with a rate more than 4 percent above the national average.
The country took a step forward in addressing mental illness on Saturday. It launched the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, where anyone struggling emotionally can call 9-8-8 anytime for help.
While an emptiness will remain forever without Owen, the Skelleys are receiving incredible support from people who loved Owen and others who never met him. It includes the high school baseball community, which is helping highlight the tragedy by utilizing #OS14 on social media channels.
Owen would have worn No. 14 as a sophomore on this year’s Liberty High squad. The Lightning have played the season in his memory and made him proud.
The Bolts upset defending Class 4A State Champion Pleasant Valley, 5-4, on the road Wednesday night to clinch the first state tournament berth in the school’s young history. Senior Boyd Skelley, Owen’s older brother, served as a the game’s starting pitcher, allowing one run on three hits in 4 2/3 innings.
Boyd will be back on the bump Tuesday morning when underdog Liberty (21-19) faces top-seeded Johnston (33-4) in a state tournament quarterfinal at the University of Iowa’s Banks Field. He and his teammates will be bringing awareness to his bother’s passing and its cause. Jennifer and Joe will be cheering from the stands. Everyone in purple will be thinking of Owen.
CONCEALING THE PAIN
Owen’s suicide stunned people who knew him. He earned straight A’s in school, was popular with classmates and stood out athletically, particularly in baseball. His life appeared perfect to others.
While friends and family saw happiness, the pain inside Owen mounted. He began writing his suicide letter on January 22, more than a month before taking his life. It ended up being a very detailed 10 pages explaining the feelings he couldn’t and wouldn’t talk about.
“He never showed us any signs,” Jennifer said. “He was always happy, laughing, joking.”
“He wrote in his letter that his goal was to not let anyone know what he was going through,” Boyd said.
“He didn’t want to burden us,” Jennifer said. “He wrote that several times in his letter.”
In 2020, males in this country died by suicide 3.88 times more often than females. For years, society has told men to be tough, and they’re less likely than women to talk about their emotions.
“It’s in the movies, on the news, on social media, that the man is supposed to be the rock,” Joe said. “From a father’s standpoint, that really hurts hard. I didn’t see it coming.
“There wasn’t anything that was a major road block in his life. He had the whole future in front of him.”
Owen wrote in his letter that he began his downward emotional spiral during the height of the COVID pandemic, when schools moved to on-line-only learning for much of 2020. Being isolated from personal interaction with friends sunk him into depression. Even after the doors to Liberty swung back open, the mental funk remained.
“He loved going to school to see his friends, and he wrote in his letter that COVID messed all of that up,” Jennifer said.
Owen rode an emotional rollercoaster throughout ’21. The depression decreased whenever he was around his classmates and teammates. But it returned when he was alone with his thoughts.
“The feelings would resurface,” Jennifer said. “It’s a never-ending cycle. I had no idea.”
With baseball season, his 16th birthday and a family trip to Mexico approaching at the time of his death, Owen ending his life when he did magnified to his loved ones how much pain he was feeling.
“He had so much to look forward to but whatever was going on inside was more powerful,” Joe said.
“His pain was so great that he couldn’t see any of that,” Jennifer added.
Through overwhelming grief, the family pushed on. Boyd had an upcoming graduation and a baseball season to play. His younger sister, 12-year-old Stella, was deeply involved with dance classes. They needed support from Jennifer and Joe.
“I always thought there would be no way I could keep going if I ever lost a child,” Joe said. “You have to.”
“You don’t really have a choice,” Boyd added.
PICKING UP THE PIECES
Liberty baseball coach Tom Cronk sits back on a purple bench just beyond the right field fence here at the Bolts’ home park. It was designed with Owen’s initials and No. 14 displayed along with one of his favorite quotes – “Setbacks are comebacks for people who want to be great.”
Owen played right field. When perched on this bench, you see the view into home plate he would have experienced from his position.
“Everywhere he went, he touched somebody,” Cronk said. “He had an infectious personality and was outgoing and fun and happy. People flocked to him. He’s just an incredible person.
“That’s part of what makes it so hard. You never would have thought that this was an issue. That speaks to mental health. You can’t see it like a scar on your arm.”
Cronk and his staff focused on pulling the team together, players and coaches checking each other’s wellbeing regularly. It didn’t need to be said that the season would be played for Owen.
As one would expect with such adversity, the Lightning experienced up and downs. It swept a doubleheader from rival City High, the second-ranked team in the state, one night, and became the only conference team to lose to Waterloo West on another.
“But the key was we were together through it all and grew closer,” Cronk said.
The coach naturally kept a close eye on Boyd. What he saw was a fierce determination from the Winona State baseball recruit to make his brother proud.
“I think Boyd doesn’t want to let Owen down,” Cronk said. “He has absolutely lived up to that. That pressure on him is so difficult, and I can’t imagine what that’s like. And it’s not coming from anybody else. That’s Boyd. And that’s why he’s going to get the ball on Tuesday, and he’s going to come out and give everything he’s got.”
While the baseball team served as Boyd’s therapy the last five months, Jennifer, Joe and Stella received support from the community. That included Stacy and Craig Schroeder, who started the Fight with Flash Foundation in 2015 after their son, Austin Schroeder, passed away from cancer at 15. Kevin and Micki Salge, who’s son, Dylan Salge, a swimmer at West High, took his life in March of ’21 also were there for the Skelleys. They created the I’m Glad You Stayed Project.
“The support has been overwhelming,” Joe said. “We knew we had friends, but we didn’t realize how much people would care. People would take off work to come see us. People we didn’t know were dropping off meals. We’ll never be able to thank them enough.”
Owen played club baseball with multiple teams, creating connections with people throughout the state. His vigil brought to North Liberty high school athletes from around Iowa. Pleasant Hill (IA) Southeast Polk High five-star offensive lineman, Kadyn Proctor, an Iowa commitment, payed his respects in person.
Since losing Owen, Jennifer and Joe have researched suicide statistics. They realized they were far from alone. They’ve poured energy into raising awareness.
“It’s the worst pain a brother, a sister, a parent can go through, the worst pain,” Joe said. “We know it’s a matter of time before someone else does it, but if we can prevent some others from doing it, that’s important.”
“We don’t want other parents to go through this,” Jennifer said. “It’s unbearable pain.”
In addition to being open and honest with Owen’s cause of death, the Skelleys are creating The Big O Foundation in his honor. The non-profit organization is close to launching its website after forming its foundation on social media.
“We’re starting the foundation to raise awareness for mental health and provide support in the community with resources that would make Owen proud,” Jennifer said. “We’ve heard from so many others saying that if it could happen to us, it can happen to anyone.”
Some of those resources will hopefully better help identify a sickness that often can’t be seen.
“Owen said in his letter that we should never underestimate what someone is going through,” Jennifer said. “He’s right because he was going through something terrible and not one person knew about it, even those closest to him.”
Speaking out publicly also aids acceptance of the problem and maybe makes people in trouble more likely to seek help.
“The fact is there’s a massive stigma behind (suicide and mental health),” Boyd said. “That’s unfortunately what got to my brother. He didn’t really think he deserved help. He kept it very quiet because he was a male athlete who was in a stable environment so how could he be hurting.
“And that’s what needs to end. It’s a disease like others in the fact that if you let it grow over time and don’t get any help, eventually it’s just going to overcome you.”
Boyd had worn No. 2 his whole baseball career. He switched to Owen’s 14 before the season.
He’ll be donning those numerals when he steps on the mound against top-ranked Johnston Tuesday at Banks.
“I think about him whenever I’m alone, but even when I’m competing, he’s always in the back of my mind,” Boyd said. “A lot of the time, I try to use that as fuel.”
It looked like Liberty’s improbable postseason run might end Wednesday in the Quad Cities. The Bolts led 4-1 before Pleasant Valley tied it with three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning.
Some underdogs would have folded under the pressure. The Lightning would not be denied, scoring a run in the top of the seventh and finishing off the defending state champions.
Cronk saw an extra level of determination in his players’ eyes. They were playing for a lot.
“You wonder if there wasn’t something a little special going on there,” he said.
Like the Skelleys, the Liberty coach eagerly talks about mental health concerns. He knows being on the state tournament stage this coming week can continue helping spread the word.
“I think we are normalizing mental health problems. It’s everywhere. Sports are no different. We need to let people know that it’s OK and then we need to make sure we’re finding help when we need it. If we can help that some through our baseball platform, great. I don’t care how it gets out. It just needs to get out,” Cronk said.