Life and Death


On the day my family and I almost died, Brandon Bourbon was the first person who texted me.

It was March 27, 2016, Easter Sunday, about a week before Brandon went missing. My wife Taylor and I were running late for church. Our six-month-old son, Tate, was in the backseat, and for some reason — to this day I couldn’t tell you why — Taylor decided to sit back there with him. So Tate was in the middle in his car seat, and Taylor was sitting directly behind me as I drove our SUV down a four-lane Kansas highway.

It had snowed the night before, and there was slush on the roads. The exit snuck up on me because we were in Taylor’s hometown, so I wasn’t familiar with the roads. Just as we were approaching a small bridge, I changed lanes to make a dash for our exit so I didn’t miss it.


They’re right.

As soon as my tires hit the bridge they slid on a patch of ice and we spun out. We bounced off the concrete wall on the right side of the bridge like a pinball and kept spinning. When the car came to a stop, it had turned a full 180 degrees. We were still on the same side of the road, but facing the wrong way with oncoming traffic barreling toward us.

For some reason, the oncoming cars didn’t slow down. They just went whipping past us in the open lane next to us. From the line of cars, I saw one slide out of line and into our lane. It was going about 60 mph, and the driver didn’t see us … until the very last second, when he swerved to try and avoid hitting us.

But he couldn’t avoid it. He plowed into the front passenger side of our car — right where Taylor would normally be sitting. The impact tore the front wheel clean off.

Ben Heeney

Somehow, nobody was seriously injured.

As we waited for the police to arrive, I sent out a quick Snapchat with a photo from the accident. Within seconds, I got a text from Brandon. He had seen my snap, and he asked if everything and everybody was O.K.

I told him everything was fine and that I would call him later.

He said I didn’t have to … he just wanted to make sure we were O.K.

That’s a difficult moment for me to look back on now, because I would later learn that as I was standing there on that highway, just feeling grateful and happy to be alive … somewhere in the back of his mind, my best friend on the other end of the phone was wishing he was dead.

To fully understand the story I’m about to tell you about Brandon Bourbon, there are some things you need to know about him. First off, he was my best friend. He was my college roommate and my teammate at Kansas. You probably knew a guy like him in college. He was the guy everybody knew. The guy everybody liked. The guy who you’d get into arguments with because he always played with LeBron in NBA 2K — and that was back when LeBron was with the Heat and he was the best player in the game, so it wasn’t fair.

But you’d never really get mad at him for it. That was just Brandon being Brandon.

He thought he was the best at everything … but he wasn’t cocky. He was just confident. And his confidence was infectious. He was really just a great guy to be around.

He also had no shame.

Brandon was a six-foot-two, 225-pound jock who drove a silver minivan — I think it was a Town & Country — with way too many miles on it. The front passenger-side window had a strip of duct tape across the top because it would get stuck if you rolled it down. There was also a square of duct tape over the button on the inside door panel, just to make sure nobody tried. Anything that needed to be fixed on that car — a cracked cup holder, a tear in the seat cushion — he put duct tape on it. That stuff was everywhere.

Oh, and the heater didn’t work, either. I remember riding with him to football workouts in mid-December. We’d get up at 5 a.m., and it would be like negative degrees outside, and we’d jump into the Shag Wagon — that’s what we called it — each bundled up in two jackets, two beanies and three scarves because we knew we were gonna freeze. On some mornings, the windows would get so fogged up that we couldn’t even see, so we had to ride with the windows rolled down — all except the broken one, of course — in the freezing Kansas cold.

But we never complained.

It was just … college, you know?

We were having the time of our lives.

Football was everything to Brandon. He lived for it. He was a local legend back home in Potosi, Missouri. He was the leading rusher in his high school’s history, and colleges from all over the country came to recruit him. He was a pretty big deal in a small town. He would sign autographs and pose for pictures with kids at local football camps. He was a celebrity.

His dream was to play in the NFL. That was my dream, too. As roommates, we talked a lot about what it was gonna be like when we both made it. We were each other’s biggest supporters.

Brandon had the size, speed, talent — all the tools to make it.

But it’s hard to make it to the NFL when you can’t stay on the field in college.

In 2010, as a freshman, he broke his leg and missed the whole season. In 2014, as a senior, he tore his ACL. Another full season, gone. In between, even when he was on the field, he was always battling injuries — a sprained ankle, a pulled hammy … it was always something. He was just unlucky in that respect. There were times when I’d come home from practice or workouts and I’d have to make him something to eat and bring it to him because he was in bed with his leg stabilized or elevated.

I didn’t feel bad for him. I just felt … guilty, I guess … because I was never really injured.

Brandon was just unlucky.

He deserved better.

It was Saturday, May 2, 2015 — Day 3 of the 2015 NFL draft, and Brandon was the first to show up at my house.

By that point, each of our careers at Kansas had come to an end. I was moving on to the NFL. Brandon was headed to Topeka, to Division II Washburn, where he had transferred a couple of months earlier. He had been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA because he had missed two years with injuries.

The Raiders drafted me in the fifth round, and Brandon was right there with me and my family to share the moment. Over the course of the day, maybe a hundred or so people stopped by my house to congratulate me. But we were still in college, and it was Saturday night. Nobody stayed very long. They left to go out and party. Taylor was pregnant with Tate at the time, and I didn’t want to go anywhere without her. So I stayed in.

Brandon stayed with us the whole night. He had breakfast with us the next morning, and the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight was that night, so we watched that together, too.

We just chilled all weekend.

I tell this story a lot because I think it’s a true testament to Brandon’s character.

I was heading to the NFL to live my dream — the dream he and I had shared for so long. I was going to Oakland to be a Raider, while he was going to … Topeka, to play for the D-II Washburn Ichabods.

When it came to football, we were going in opposite directions.

But he had always been my biggest supporter, so he wanted to be there to enjoy draft day with me and my family, because he knew how much it meant to me.

I wonder sometimes if it ever bothered him at all … being there with me … hearing my name called in the NFL draft … seeing my dream come true … because I know he would have given anything to have had his name called.

Ben Heeney

If it did bother him, he didn’t show it.

He was there.

For me.

Because that’s what best friends do.

It was March 30, 2016, a couple of days after my car accident, when Brandon showed up at my door.

He and I had kept in really close contact while I was out in Oakland. We FaceTimed almost every other day, and I had kept him updated on how my rookie year was going and what life was like in the NFL.

His football career had officially ended. He’d used up his final year of college eligibility at Washburn. He was living back in Potosi, but things weren’t like they had been when he left for KU. He wasn’t signing autographs or posing for pictures. He wasn’t a celebrity anymore. He was unemployed, living with his parents, trying to figure out what he was going to do next, because his NFL dream — the only dream he’d ever had — was dead.

When he showed up at my door, he hugged me and asked me again about the car accident. It had been a couple of days, so I wasn’t really thinking about it anymore.

I was just happy to see my friend.

I told him again that everybody was O.K. and that it was a miracle that Taylor hadn’t been sitting in the front seat — that God had had his hand on us that day.

We spent the whole day together — me, Brandon, and a friend of his who had made the five-hour drive with him from Potosi. For the most part, it was like old times with my best friend. We just kind of hung out around town and chilled. We went out to a tattoo shop and Brandon got a tat on the left side of his chest — a giant B with a crown on top and three spades across the crown.

Then, when we got back to my house and met up with some of our old college buddies, things got a little … weird.

When I met Brandon back in 2011, he wasn’t very religious. But toward the end of his time at KU — I think it was his senior year, I’m not sure — he became more interested in God. He got baptized, and as a devout Christian, I was really happy for him. Brandon and I had shared our love for football and many other things, and now we could share our love for God, as well. I was excited for him.

But that day at my house, he took it to the extreme.

Every little thing that happened he deemed a sign from God. Even the smallest thing — a leaf falling from a tree and landing in front of us, a water bottle blowing over in the wind — was considered proof of the presence of God or God’s will. It freaked a lot of us out. It was clear that Brandon was struggling with something. We didn’t know what, but the way he was talking was just … he seemed lost. Like he was searching so hard for meaning in every little thing that happened around us.

At least two or three times, out of nowhere, Brandon broke down, sobbing in front of everybody. We looked around at each other, not knowing what to do. We had known Brandon since college, but none of us had ever seen him cry before. This wasn’t the jock who drove the beat-up minivan in college. The dude who had no shame. The confident guy with an infectious personality.

This was a much different Brandon.

The next day, Brandon was about to leave my house and make the five-hour drive back to Potosi. As he walked out the door, I stopped him on my front porch.

This is the hardest part of being a friend. When you’re asked to be there for somebody, if you’re a good friend, it’s easy to be there. But when you’re not asked — when you’re not invited into a problem, but you know in your heart that you need to be there, even if your friend doesn’t realize it — that’s a difficult conversation to have.

I had it that day with Brandon.

“I don’t think you should go,” I said. I told him that I could tell he was struggling with something, but I didn’t know what. And I wanted him to stay. I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to be there for him. I wanted to help him.

But he said he didn’t need it.

“I’m fine,” he said, kind of blowing me off.

Ben Heeney

But I didn’t want to let him off that easy. I stepped closer to him to let him know I was serious.

“I’m worried about you, Brandon.”

“I’m fine, really,” he said. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll come see you in Oakland soon. I’ll be there with you.”

And then he left.

I called his parents, Janet and Roger, and told them Brandon was acting strange — but I only called them after a long internal debate. I thought, Can I just call up a guy’s parents and tell them I think there’s something wrong with their son?

Who am I to butt into Brandon’s life?

Isn’t that an invasion of privacy?

Should I just let it go?

Brandon’s a grown man. He doesn’t need my help to solve his problems….

And it’s funny, because after all that struggle, I actually decided to call his parents not because I thought it would help Brandon — although I hoped it might — but because I thought it would help me. I thought it would make me feel better to know I was acknowledging what I thought was a problem. So I called his parents and told them about the stuff that had happened at my house and that I thought there was something wrong — that Brandon just wasn’t himself.

They said they had noticed it, too, and that when he came home, they would sit him down and talk to him about it. So that made me feel a little better.

That was on March 31.

It was April 3 and I was at a petting zoo in Kansas City. Tate and I were feeding some goats when I saw that I had a missed call from Brandon’s sister, Britney. I called her back.

“Have you talked to Brandon today?” she said.

“No … why?”

“Last night after dinner he told our parents he was going to church, and he never came home. And his phone is off. We can’t get ahold of him.”

She sounded panicked.

I immediately hung up the phone and put Tate in the car. I was too upset to drive, so Taylor drove us home. I texted Brandon.

Like everybody else, I got no response. A couple of hours later, I texted him again, trying to let him know how everything he was doing was impacting the people who loved him.

Still no response.

I figured that his phone was dead, and that when he charged it back up, he would see my texts and call me or his parents and go home and we’d all sit down and talk about whatever he was going through. Because we loved him and we wanted to help him.

Then I called our friend Victor, who played football with Brandon and me at Kansas and who was there at my house when Brandon had been acting strange earlier that week. He met me and another mutual friend Brad at my house, and we put our heads together to try to figure out….

Where the hell could Brandon be?

After we exhausted all the logical places — friends’ houses, girls’ houses, places we used to hang out — we decided we had to think bigger. Brandon was starting to get super into religion. Almost a little too much. And out in Missouri … well, there are a lot of cults out there. Religious cults. It’s a weird, hidden scene. So we thought, What if he joined one of those cults out in the woods, and his phone died? Or they took his phone away?

We literally thought of every single possibility.

The only thing we didn’t think about was the fact that Brandon might be dead.

Because that wasn’t a possibility.

It just wasn’t.

It was April 5, three days after Brandon had gone missing, and we still had no leads. I had to get on a plane back to Oakland. Off-season workouts were starting up soon, and I had to get back.

But I didn’t want to go.

Not until we found Brandon.

I was ready to cancel my flight and stay in Kansas City. But then I talked to Taylor. I talked to my parents. I talked to Brandon’s parents. And everybody said the same thing.

“Go back to Oakland and get yourself ready for football. We’ll find Brandon.”

So I went. I flew back to Oakland and got ready for camp.

But I didn’t give up on the search.

It was April 6, four days after Brandon had gone missing, and I was thinking about him. Half-knowing I wouldn’t get a response, I texted him. Just in case he looked at his phone.

Because I just wanted him to know.

It was April 8, six days after Brandon had gone missing. I was in Oakland, and I was on the phone with Victor trying to figure out where the hell Brandon Bourbon was.

Another call beeped in.

It was Roger, Brandon’s dad.

“Victor,” I said, “hang on … it’s Roger. I think he has an update on Brandon! I think they found him!”

I clicked over to the other line, and I didn’t hear anything. It was just dead air.

Then Roger cleared his throat.

“Um, Ben … umm … they … they found Brandon.”

“What do you mean they ‘found’ him ”

Roger’s voice was soft. Almost a whisper.

“He’s, umm….”

I could hear his voice cracking through the phone. But then he said, clear as can be:

“He’s dead, Ben.”

I don’t know what hit the floor first: the phone or my knees.

I fucking lost it.

Taylor was in the next room, and she knew exactly what I had just heard. I could hear her saying, “No way … no way … this isn’t … no way!”

And then she starting crying.

Local Missouri police had found Brandon’s van deep, deep in the woods, parked near a river. Brandon was inside. They determined that he had died from a gunshot wound to the head. Self-inflicted. The gun was in his right hand.

I thought, No. Not Brandon. He would never….

But he did.

It was April 13. Brandon’s funeral. It was held on the high school football field where Brandon had set his rushing records. The place where he had felt most alive.

We were there to say goodbye.

And that’s when we all realized … that that’s what Brandon had been doing, too.

Saying goodbye.

Lyndsey Paige Photography

From talking to everybody at the funeral, we realized that Brandon had visited each of us one last time before he drove into the woods and did what he did. He had been to see some other friends before he came to visit me Kansas City. After he left my house, he went to have dinner with his best friend Dylan from high school in Potosi. Then he went to visit his aunt at her winery. And so on.

He was making the rounds.

He knew what he was going to do.

He was saying goodbye.

Everybody agreed that he had been acting strange. His parents told me they had sat him down the night after I had called them, and that he had broken down and cried again. We shared and compared stories. And though none of us said it out loud, I know every single one of us was thinking the same thing.

I should have done more.

Clearly there was something bothering Brandon. For me, just telling Brandon I was worried and calling his parents wasn’t enough. His parents probably feel that sitting him down and talking to him wasn’t enough. I think everybody who had an encounter with Brandon in his final days probably feels like they had an opportunity to step in and save his life.

And none of us did.

On the day my family and I almost died, Brandon Bourbon was the first one who texted me. I would have never guessed in a million years that as I was standing in the middle of that highway in Kansas — thanking God that Taylor hadn’t been sitting in the front seat that day and happy to be alive — that somewhere in the back of his mind, my best friend on the other end of the phone was wishing he was dead.

Football was Brandon’s life. And as best as those who knew him and loved him can guess, when football ended — as far as Brandon was concerned — so did his life.

I look back now on that day on my front porch — the last time I saw him — when he said, “I’ll come see you in Oakland soon. I’ll be there with you.” I think that in that moment, he knew what he was going to do, and that he did intend to be there in Oakland with me.

Only what he meant was that he would be there in spirit.

Lyndsey Paige Photography

I think that if Brandon were still here today, I would simply tell him that I love him, and that his story isn’t over. Football might be over for him, but that was just one chapter of his life. I would tell him that he has so much more to offer this world. And who cares if he doesn’t know what that is? The challenge of figuring out what it is and how to share it is what life is all about. It’s what his life could have been all about.

It didn’t have to end. He didn’t have to do what he did.

He did, though. So he’s gone.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t live on.

Victor, Brad, and some of our other college friends and I all got the same tattoo after Brandon’s death: a giant B with a crown on top and three spades across the crown. We did it to remember Brandon and what he stood for — not to remember him for how he died, but for how he lived.

That’s how we remember Brandon.

We could debate forever about why Brandon took his own life. But I think we can all agree that regardless of whatever was plaguing him, somewhere along the line, he had decided that his life didn’t have any meaning.

So I’m going to make sure that his life does have meaning.

I want to help educate people. I want to talk to people who are having thoughts like Brandon had, and to let them know that there’s another chapter for them, and that they need to be here to write it. That their story isn’t over. I want to have the conversation with them that I wish I’d had with Brandon.

But I also want to talk to people who are close to those who might be suffering, to let them know that there are signs to look out for, and to tell them the proper way to acknowledge them and address them.

I don’t want anybody to ever feel the way I felt after we lost Brandon. And if I can help save one life by sharing Brandon’s story, then I guess I will have proven that Brandon was wrong. His life did have meaning. It still does, even if he’s not here to see it. And if Brandon’s story can help save lives, and if those who are helped by having heard his story can turn around and help even more people, then that will be his legacy. That will be the mark he leaves on this world. And that’s how Brandon Bourbon — my college roommate, my former teammate and my best friend — will live forever.

We can all help prevent suicides. If you or your someone you know are experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.