Sac State president and wife, Iowa couple share grief over suicide of sons

Strength coach Jeff Law’s funeral was held last month in Iowa City. Among items on display were a weight bench, nutritional supplements and a Sac State football helmet signed by players.
Strength coach Jeff Law’s funeral was held last month in Iowa City. Among items on display were a weight bench, nutritional supplements and a Sac State football helmet signed by players. Kayde Sberal

Julie and Ed Law arrived in Sacramento last month in a state of numbness and disbelief, crushed by the suicide of their handsome, stubborn, accomplished son Jeff.

The Iowa couple, who were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary in Alaska when they learned their son had fatally shot himself, had a death certificate to sign, an apartment to clean out, a memorial service to plan. But first, they had agreed to meet with new Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen, on whose campus Jeff had worked as a strength and conditioning coach.

Nelsen and his wife, Jody, wanted to offer their condolences and to share the story of their only child, Seth, who like Jeff had taken his own life at the age of 25.

Inside Nelsen’s office on the second floor of Sacramento Hall, the couples embraced one another. They cried. They shared memories of their sons. They discussed the daunting task of staying together amid the confusion, grief and guilt that inevitably follow the suicide of a child.

“You don’t really move on,” Jody Nelsen said later in an interview with The Bee, describing the interaction with the Laws. “Your life has changed forever. There is a new normal.”

Nearly 15 years after losing Seth, the Nelsens have found their peace, they said. They want to help other survivors of suicide find it as well, even though making those connections can intensify the terrible memories around their son’s death.

“It can be difficult,” Robert Nelsen said, dressed in a suit and cowboy boots, vestiges of his Montana roots, on a recent afternoon on campus. “But you never really forget. It’s there with you every day.”

Still, the Nelsens assured the Laws, the pain eventually becomes less severe.

Seth, they told the Laws, seemed to have everything going for him. He had friends, a loving family, a passion for rock climbing and karate, and a good job as a computer scientist. Yet, inexplicably, he hanged himself on April 8, 2001, in his Dallas apartment. At the time, Robert Nelsen was a professor at the University of Texas in Dallas.

“We thought he was doing so well,” Jody Nelsen recalled. His death “had to be an impulse thing,” she said. “Not something that was planned.” The same seemed to be true for Jeff.

Research has shown that suicides are commonly impulsive. While some involve careful planning, many seem to occur during a crisis, such as a romantic breakup or job loss. Substance abuse and depression often play a role, studies suggest, but the “acute period” of risk for suicide often is only minutes or hours long, according to a 2007 study in Houston of survivors of nearly lethal suicide attempts.

Researchers asked participants in the study, 153 people ages 13 to 34 who survived serious suicide attempts, how much time passed between the moment they decided to commit suicide and when they actually attempted to kill themselves. One in four deliberated for less than five minutes, and nine of 10 deliberated for less than a day. Other studies have shown that most survivors of suicide said their attempts were a result of “interpersonal conflict” with a family member or partner, and were not linked to major depression or psychosis.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death, behind “unintentional injuries,” for people between the ages of 25 and 34, according to statistics kept by the National Institutes of Health. Men commit suicide four times more often than women, and firearms are the most commonly used method.

Similar tragedies

For families like the Nelsens and the Laws, the question of “Why?” typically goes unanswered. Neither Seth nor Jeff had been diagnosed with a serious psychiatric disorder. Neither wrote a suicide note, leaving their families to speculate what kind of mental torture they were experiencing in the minutes before they killed themselves.

Like Seth, Jeff seemed to be on a path to success, although his life was not without some personal and professional challenges.

He was born on Valentine’s Day 1990 and raised in the college town of Iowa City, playing sports with his three brothers and idolizing Batman and other superheroes. His father practiced orthopedic surgery, and his mother stayed home with the children. “Jeff was determined, stubborn and smart, even as a kid,” Julie Law said. He was a big reader, and as he grew older was particularly drawn to books about positive thinking and self-improvement. He was fit and muscular from lifting weights, and had an easy, dimpled smile.

At the University of Northern Iowa, he earned a degree in integrative physiology and worked with the school’s strength and conditioning staff. There, he found his calling: working with athletes to make them bigger, faster, stronger. “He knew he wanted to be the perfect strength and conditioning coach,” his mom said.

Jeff received his master’s degree in exercise and sports sciences at Texas Tech in Lubbock, where he also interned with the strength and conditioning department and taught undergraduate classes. Following graduation, he interned under the University of Mississippi’s chief strength and conditioning coach.

In 2014, he joined Sacramento State as an assistant coach, designing and overseeing training programs for golfers and soccer and football players. Jeff put long hours into the entry-level position, which paid him around $25,000 a year, according to Sacramento State Athletics Director Bill Macriss. Friends said that although he was financially stressed, he was pleased about realizing a dream of getting paid to help athletes improve their form and performance, and he hoped he would soon get a substantial raise.

“He was so energetic all the time, 100 percent committed to everything he did, always working to improve,” said Dave Redman, a friend who worked with Jeff at Sacramento State and now is an athletic trainer for the Republic FC soccer team.

Jeff bounded into the training room before 6 each morning, brimming with enthusiasm, and 12-hour days were not uncommon for him, Redman said. He loudly urged athletes to “smash the weights!” and “attack each set like a savage!” He pushed them to give maximum effort, congratulating them when they did so and chiding them as “soft” when they failed.

“The athletes loved him,” said Tom DiStasio, an assistant strength and conditioning coach at Sacramento State. “His coaching style was very intense, ‘rah rah’ enthusiasm every single day. He was hardly ever in the office. He was out on the floor, working with the kids early morning to late at night when school was in session.”

Jeff exuded confidence and spoke his mind, to the point that some considered him cocky, friends said. “He challenged people’s ideas,” said his close friend Abe Munayer, a strength coach at UC Berkeley. “You always knew who Jeff was and where he stood.”

But outside the training room, he could be very sensitive about his image and his credibility with athletes, and he agonized over romantic relationships, said Munayer and others. “He never really asked us for advice,” Julie Law said. “He was a strong male. He was paving his own path and becoming his own person. But I do know that he wanted to love and be loved.”

During his last days, according to friends and text messages on his phone, Jeff was sad about a romantic breakup, worried about living on a shoestring budget in California and disappointed about being passed over for a promotion.

Redman, 24, last talked to his friend in late July. Jeff had grown serious about a woman he had been dating for a few months. He seemed happy. Work was exhausting, but satisfying.

“You were meant to move with grace, fluidity and strength,” Jeff tweeted on July 21. “You were meant to conquer life, not be its victim.”

On the last weekend of the month, Munayer drove up from Berkeley to visit with Jeff. A few other buddies came by Jeff’s midtown apartment, and the group headed out to Goldfield’s and the Republic Bar & Grill for a night of partying. The next morning, they met for breakfast. Munayer was slightly taken aback, he said, because Jeff had been smoking marijuana. “It wasn’t the Jeff I knew,” he said. But the two texted during the week, and all seemed fine.

A shared sadness

On Friday, Aug. 7, Jeff went to a grocery store, where according to a receipt he bought a gallon of milk and a carton of orange juice, among other provisions. Later that night he seemed to be in crisis, and began reaching out to friends via text message, Julie Law said.

“Guess who just got dumped? Boooooo,” read a message he sent at 1:21 Saturday morning.

At 1:46 a.m.: “She dumped me. Oh well. Live and learn.”

Moments later: “Hey buddy you doing stuff all night? Could use some life advice.”

At 2:48 a.m.: “Nah man I’m great no worries.”

One of his football players did visit sometime after 2 a.m. and stayed about three hours, Jeff’s mother learned. The player told her that Jeff was troubled about money and romance, but seemed much better by the time they parted.

Jeff’s last text, to two friends, was sent at 7:45 a.m. “Love you buddy,” it said.

Early Sunday, according to his calendar, Jeff was supposed to meet the women’s soccer team for a whitewater rafting adventure. He never showed up. “Where are you?” players repeatedly messaged him.

When he failed to report for work on Monday, DiStasio sensed something was wrong. “It was so uncharacteristic of Jeff,” he said. “I was really concerned.”

He contacted Redman, who agreed to head over to Jeff’s apartment to check on him.

“We found him. That’s all I really want to say about that,” Redman said.

Jeff, who had purchased a small-caliber handgun while living in Texas, died from a gunshot wound, Julie Law said. Two empty beer cans sat on the kitchen counter. Jeff’s apartment appeared in order, with his toothbrush and other toiletries lined up in the bathroom. His wallet and keys were in his pocket.

President Nelsen said he learned of Jeff’s suicide from Athletics Director Macriss. Memories of his own son’s death raced through his mind. Fearful of the news leaking out via social media, Nelsen immediately arranged to meet with Jeff’s athletes.

He waited for practices to end, then stood in front of the women’s soccer team. “We have had a tragedy,” he said. “We have lost part of our family.” Nelsen cried along with the players, some of whom collapsed onto the grass, weeping. The scene was similar when he broke the news to the football team.

Then Nelsen reached out to Jeff’s parents.

When the couple arrived in Sacramento later that week, Nelsen told the Laws that Seth’s death, though devastating, changed him in ways both positive and profound.

“The perfect sentence used to mean everything to me,” said Nelsen, a former creative writing professor and published author. “But now certain things are less important. I’m more focused on the young people, the students. I have thousands of sons and daughters now.”

At the University of Texas Pan American, where he served as president before taking the helm at Sacramento State on July 1, Nelsen pushed for the establishment of a food bank for needy students, and he and his wife created an emergency fund in their son’s name. They hope to do something similar at Sacramento State.

Back in Iowa, the Laws are just beginning to come to term with Jeff’s suicide, and pondering life without him. Ed and Julie Law packed up their son’s Jeep last month and drove it from Sacramento to Iowa City, traveling the same roads and staying in the same hotels their son did on his way to California last year.

“I wanted to stay there and hide,” Julie said. “But I realized I can’t crawl into a hole and stay there. I need to be there for my other kids.”

Their surviving sons – Tom, Jacob and John – are resuming the lives they had prior to Jeff’s death. Ed has returned to work. Grief comes in waves. Some days, Ed breaks down and Julie comforts him. On other days, he is the strong one.

The Laws were surprised and uplifted by the presence of Jeff’s friends and colleagues from the Sacramento area who traveled to Iowa for his memorial service, where a weight bench and nutritional supplements decorated the altar and everyone exited the church to the theme from “Star Wars.” They have treasured every note of love and comfort that friends and acquaintances have written. They have been awestruck by the support of Sacramento State and in particular the Nelsens.

The phone calls and letters and messages come less frequently now. Soon, “I’m sure our friends will get a little tired of us talking about this,” Julie Law said. “But that’s OK. I have learned that I can either go down with Jeff, or move forward. Eventually, we all have to move on.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert

if you go

The annual “Out of the Darkness Community Walk,” a fundraiser to promote suicide awareness and prevention, is scheduled for 10 a.m. Oct. 3. The walk will begin at the west steps of the state Capitol. To register, go to https://afsp.donordrive.com