Last fall, the sudden death of Wake Forest University sophomore Andrew Pillow shattered the daily routine of campus life.
It overcast the faces of students, and all was palpably somber, even for those who didn’t know him. Ryan Horgan, a junior, says, “I didn’t know him as well as other people did, but you’ll hear the exact same story about him from anyone else—that he was a really selfless person.”
Horgan lived next door to Pillow in the fall of 2013, and was playing video games with fellow track teammates Kent Garrett and Jimmy McAlister, when he suddenly heard a ruckus coming from outside his suite at around 1 a.m. When Garrett went to investigate, both Horgan and McAlister could sense that something wasn’t right. Garrett, Horgan, and McAlister then tried to help Pillow’s fraternity brothers resuscitate Pillow and called 911.
McAlister describes everything as a blur until the following day. “At first [his death] hadn’t really registered, but the next day it really hit home,” says McAlister. “It was just insane how someone who seemed so happy all the time just all of a sudden takes their life like that.”
Horgan adds that everyone was initially numb and unsure of what to expect in the coming days. He then describes a moment of reflection, standing at the top of the staircase adjacent to Pillow’s suite with those who were by Pillow’s side during his final moments. “We just talked about Pillow, what happened, and how it wasn’t fair but that we had to be strong in the moment,” says Horgan.
However, the following weeks proved to be difficult. Horgan recalls taking an alternate route to his room to avoid the staircase by Pillow’s suite. Garrett adds that over the following weekend, “Jimmy and I both ended up going out of town because we just didn’t feel that great being around on campus.”
McAlister says, however, that “just knowing that, at the end of the day, I had done everything in my power to help the situation as best as I could” brought him peace.
Additionally, campus-wide support was very strong. Garrett says, “Two of my coaches offered to help me move all of my stuff to a different dorm if I decided I didn’t feel comfortable living there.” He adds that while they couldn’t directly help with his emotional distress, “they knew how to help me get rid of anything else that was an added hassle at the time.”
Horgan also notes that this supportive camaraderie mirrored Pillow’s interactions with others in their times of stress. He says, “It seemed like everyone, from his fraternity brothers to faculty members, banded together to support each other. It was reassuring to see Pillow’s legacy of selflessness being celebrated.”
Though they were able to come to terms with the situation, the memory still remains prevalent and sometimes, has not been easy to fathom. Both Garrett and McAlister note that one of the harder moments was returning from Christmas break and seeing people moving into Pillow’s suite.
“It caught me off guard that [facilities] didn’t leave it fallow for another semester, but I guess they had to do what they had to do,” says McAlister.
Revisiting the events of that mournful November night, these three athletes agree that while the road to solace was tough, it gave them great insight as well as a heightened appreciation for friends, acquaintances, and life in general.
“It showed me how you have to look out for your friends,” says McAlister. “For example, I don’t think ‘fine’ is an appropriate response if you ask someone how they’re doing.”
Garrett says that it inspired thought about changing prevalent negative stigmas of seeing a therapist: “There need to be signs posted around campus showing positive statistics on how many people seek help from a psychiatrist rather than pinwheels laid out on the Quad representing the number of deaths from suicide.” The campus counseling center provides great, free resources for students that Garrett strongly encourages everyone to utilize.
Horgan also attests to openness in conversations and exploring feelings, reflecting on a similar experience of his senior year of high school. He says that after witnessing his classmates pour their hearts out, everyone, albeit vulnerable, felt infinitely more connected. “Bottling things up for the sake of others may be altruistic, but you matter, too,” said Horgan.
Gazing through the shutters of his room, he adds, “I think it’s important to know that people aren’t all what they see on Yik Yak.”
In respectful memory of Andrew Pillow.