CONTENT WARNING: The details in this article and discussed in the video are graphic and describe a suicide attempt. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
BLACKSBURG, Va. (WFXR) — It was nearly five years ago when Austin Cannon was in his dorm room at Virginia Tech and attempted suicide. He was a freshman at the time and a walk-on trying to prove himself on the football team as an offensive lineman when it felt like the world around him came crashing down.
His dog had passed away and his high school girlfriend broke up with him right as fall camp began in Blacksburg, and that was just the start.
“The social aspect was lacking. I had my great grandmother pass away, loved one gone. Dog gone. Relationship gone,” Cannon said. And then shortly thereafter I found out that my dad, whose my right hand man, he had kidney cancer.”
Amid everything happening in Cannon’s life in 2016, it was an incident at practice on Aug. 9 of that year that had him questioning whether life was worth living.
“A teammate comes behind me and is just chasing the ball and his foot just kicks me right in the head and just knocks me completely silly,” Cannon said. “It was to the point where I was hearing music and there was no music being played.”
Cannon was sent to his dorm room and feared his football career was over because of a concussion.
“This totally just ruined my chances and it’s all over,” Cannon said. “I had a pocket knife and it was partially serrated and I took it to my right thigh trying to hit that artery in the thigh and thank goodness I missed.”
Luckily for Cannon, the Hokies coaching staff was checking in on him. The Atlee High School product returned their phone call and asked for help.
In a way, then-first-year head coach Justin Fuente saved Cannon’s life.
“Paramedics are checking me out looking at the wound and all that stuff and I said, ‘hey can I please see Coach Fuente?’ And so they brought him over to me and he crouched down. He was holding my hand and I never really cried in front of a coach like I did with coach Fuente and I said, ‘I’m sorry,'” Cannon said. “He’s like, ‘there’s no need to apologize, I’m right here with you, we’re going to get you help and we’re going to get through this together.'”
From that dark day, Cannon got help and now encourages other student athletes who are struggling to do the same. He started an initiative on social media called “Speak Up!”.
“Yes everybody goes through something. If you think you’re the only one that is suffering in this world. You are absolutely wrong,” Cannon said. “There is a way out and you might be in a dark place. I have a light. Grab my hand and I will help you get out because I’ve been there.”
After redshirting the 2016 season, Cannon played four seasons with the Hokies, earning a scholarship before his junior season in 2019. He played in 10 games during the pandemic in the fall of 2020, and despite the NCAA’s waiver allowing an extra year of eligibility, the Mechanicsville native decided not to return for another season. Cannon graduated with a degree in history.
He still remembers how his journey at Virginia Tech began.
“I still have the scar from that day and it’s a reminder of where I once was and knowing that was the darkest time of my life,” Cannon said. “I’m very blessed, very fortunate to have come out of that dark place and be able to share my story and shine the light on mental health.”
You can watch more of Austin Cannon’s conversation with WFXR’s David DeGuzman in the video below. The former Hokies OL discusses how he started the “Speak Up!” initiative and how the pandemic brought the topic of mental health to the forefront.