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Witnessing horrific school shooting moves Kyler Erickson to advocate for mental health

Turning tragedy into testimony.

That’s the message Omaha senior guard Kyler Erickson has shared for the past three years since his life was forever changed Jan. 5, 2011.

As a senior at Omaha’s Millard South High, he witnessed a fatal shooting in the school’s administration office. The sights and sounds he was exposed to led to his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression over a year later while playing basketball at Northwest Missouri State.

After undergoing successful treatment, Erickson transferred to his hometown university and joined the Mavericks as a walk-on. Since 2014 he’s served as a motivational speaker and vocal advocate of mental health issues and shared his story via a website, KylerErickson.com, that’s received more than 120,000 views from 114 countries.

Erickson has also volunteered for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and spoken to groups at more than 50 schools, churches and mental health organizations in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and California, where his father lives. For his dedication to community service, he was named to the 2016 Allstate NABC Good Works Team and is among 10 finalists for the 2017 “Most Courageous Award” in NCAA Division I basketball presented annually by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.

“Unfortunately, there’s a stigma that keeps so many people living with depression from getting the help they need,” Erickson said. “That’s what’s so sad about it. I want to kick the crap out of that stigma and help people get help.”

The night before the shooting at Millard South High, Erickson had hurt his ankle in a basketball game. He was icing his ankle in the nurse’s office when a student who had been suspended that morning returned to school and began shooting in the administrative office area.

Separated by only a wall, Erickson huddled with another student and two administrators in the bathroom in the nurse’s office until the gunman left the building. The shooter, who fatally wounded an assistant principal and seriously injured the principal, was later found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot.

The events of that horrific day hit Erickson in the year to come while he was redshirting as a freshman at Northwest Missouri State. He had hallucinations, flashbacks and crying jags. It was difficult for him to concentrate. He struggled academically.

For six months Erickson kept his emotions to himself before opening up to an athletic trainer in February 2012.

“It just goes to show how little we know about mental illness,” Erickson said. “Our school’s athletic director who was next to me during the shooting needed help about a week later; other people in the office never got help. Everybody’s brain is different. For me, it was six months later when I was on my own away from home. My brain just couldn’t handle it anymore.”

Erickson spent the summer of 2012 back in Omaha as he began counseling and therapy. He focused on getting his body and mind right, and the results were tremendous for the former all-state guard.

The following season Erickson didn’t play much at Northwest Missouri State. Wanting to be closer to his family and friends, he took a chance and transferred to Omaha in hopes of playing basketball there.

Erickson earned a spot on the scout team for the Mavs in 2013-14, then played in 22 games the next season. Last season he served as a team captain and Omaha’s sixth man before starting the final seven games. The gritty, emotional and inspirational leader averaged 3.5 points in nearly 20 minutes per game to help the Mavs finish third in the Summit League and advance to the CBI.

The NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility last spring, and he averaged 3.3 points in seven games this season before undergoing surgery for a partially torn patella tendon. Erickson, now on scholarship, had to watch from the bench when Omaha beat Iowa on Dec. 3 for the program’s first modern-era win over a Power 5 school. He hopes to be back on the court by the end of February.

“No matter what happens I’ll always see the glass half full and be grateful to be on the team and represent Omaha,” Erickson said. “Nothing brings me more pride than wearing Omaha on my chest. Right now, I’m just focusing on being a leader, staying positive and helping my team win.”

Erickson, who graduated with bachelor’s degrees in business administration and entrepreneurship last May with a 3.35 GPA, also made the 2015-16 NABC Honors Court. He was honored for making the Allstate NABC Good Works Team at last year’s Final Four in Houston. The 2017 “Most Courageous Award” winner will be recognized during the USBWA’s annual awards ceremony at the Final Four in Phoenix.

“I’ve never been around someone who has handled things so well and handled so much like Kyler has,” said Omaha coach Derrin Hansen. “He’s the heart and soul of our team.”

Erickson plans to sign with an agent at the conclusion of this season and become a motivational speaker and mental health advocate on a full-time basis.

“I was speaking at a conference this past summer and a girl came up to me balling her eyes out and thanked me for sharing my story and helping her get help,” Erickson said. “I can still do that not playing basketball; that’s where my legacy lies.”

Joshua Parrott is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Texas. Follow him on Twitter at @joshuaparrott.

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