After losing his brother to suicide and seeing a close friend struggle with the aftermath of combat, David Lionheart was determined to do his part to break the cycle of suicide before anyone else suffered its devastation.
So David took matters into his own hands and now he has his own army of supporters, volunteers, and grateful military families invested in Play For Your Freedom.
Listen in to today’s episode to hear how David is helping veterans and their families across the country in an innovative and impactful way.
His name was John and he was 19 years old when he ended his own life. He left behind a devastated family and a legacy that could have consisted of nothing but pain, had his brother not ensured otherwise.
David Lionheart is one of the millions of people who will forever mourn the loss of a loved one to suicide. He works hard to remain composed when he speaks about his loss, but a catch in his voice belies the rawness of his pain.
Years after his brother’s death, David learned a close friend was battling serious injuries incurred in combat. The injuries were some of the most lethal kind – invisible to the eye but deadly to the mental, emotional, and physical health of his friend.
At that moment David Lionheart found his purpose.
Drawing upon his memories of a brother tormented by similar invisible wounds, and awakened to the reality that so many others –like his friend- incur those wounds in selfless service to our country, David knew he could not be at peace within himself if he did not do his part to step up and serve in his own way.
He’s not a doctor or a licensed counselor. He’s someone who learned about depression, anger, and the deadly spiral into suicide in a much more impactful and profound manner, and he attacked the threat to veterans by interrupting this cycle before it could gain enough momentum to drag them down. His method of choice was simple but strong- he got people moving.
He got people together, out of their own environment where their wounds were free to fester. He got them out into the fresh air, among their peers and alongside himself and others whose mere presence and camaraderie shook them out of their shells.
At first, it was a quick football game. But after seeing how the players came alive when given the freedom to simply have fun, David Lionheart knew he was on to something. He remembers that he didn’t fully grasp the full impact of the event, just that regardless of their demeanor when they arrived, everyone left with a smile.
That night he went home and tackled all the red tape required to launch a non-profit organization and Play For Your Freedom was born.
In January of 2016, David Lionheart held his first workshop for veterans to come on out and play football.
He had no idea what to expect. Unsure how exactly to proceed or how the veterans would respond, David simply followed his heart and his instinct, and it fell into place.
He remembers the event with a laugh; “Twenty-five veterans storm in like a hurricane, play football, eat a bunch of food, and leave.” He didn’t grasp the full impact of the event, but he did realize that he was on to something.
Since then he has conducted over forty workshops in a handful of states. Whether it’s wiffleball, football, basketball, or track and field, each workshop is designed for all levels of fitness and physical capabilities.
“Everybody has a place and a purpose within our workshop,” David states, and he makes good on his word.
For veterans who are limited to the confines of a VA hospital, Play For Your Freedom comes to them. Workshops can be conducted inside on specific wards and adjusted to accommodate the abilities of those within that ward. “I tell them we can stand in a cardboard box with a wiffleball and we will have a good time,” David says.
For participants who are more mobile but still confined to the grounds of a VA hospital, outdoor workshops coax them out into the light of day. They get off their ward, outside of the walls, and interact with people they may pass in the hall every day but otherwise not know.
Finally, for the veterans out in the community, Play for Your Freedom offers regular events at a local armory. Veterans and their families are free to attend. Anyone who is willing to come out and participate is welcome. A clear message is imparted that whether they play the entire game, or make just one play, or simply watch – everything is acceptable. “I always lay just coming outside to be the first victory,” David says.
Some watch from the bench, teasing their friends or goading them into good-natured arguments. Some stand by at first, hesitant about jumping in. They are all quickly spotted by David or a volunteer, and warmly welcomed. All are offered cool drinks and the opportunity to spend a few hours simply living in the moment.
Sometimes they arrive in good moods, and sometimes in not so good moods. David is undaunted by shyness or hostility. He commits to each veteran having a positive experience. “Often, they can arrive in a really bad mood so our job is to get their minds focused where their feet are planted and try to create that moment that could be their first step toward positive momentum.”
Occasionally, special guests show up at the workshops, like former NFL players Gary Brown, Odessa Turner, and Damien Gregory.
The inclusion of these guests is not about their celebrity status. Rather, it is about the players using the platform their careers have provided to give back in a meaningful manner. But the veterans are not the only ones who gain from the NFL alumni involvement.
Because the star athletes have also struggled to find a new purpose as their lives changed, they too benefit from the camaraderie and spirit attached to these events. They share and swap stories with the veterans, each offering the other a beacon of inspiration and sparking the smoldering fire within.
No matter the venue or the sport of choice, several elements are consistent in each workshop. They all begin with the national anthem and a thank you to the veterans. Whether in a wheelchair, or perched on a bench, or standing together, all eyes lock on the flag they gave so much in defense of. All voices join in singing the words that represent American pride and gratitude. Sometimes the most vocal voices are the most out of tune, yet somehow the anthem almost never seems as beautiful as when sung exactly like that, by those voices, in those moments.
The numbers grow with each return visit. Wary at first, only a few of the more adventurous souls wander in to the workshops. “But the magic happens when we make a direct connection,” David says.
Veterans often come in with a handshake and leave with a hug. They return to their wards or their communities and talk together about the games. They relive the glory moments and bicker about the fairness of the calls. Their invisible wounds left unfed, lose some of their might. Other veterans overhear the talks or are approached by the workshop participants who encourage them to check it out.
The next time Play For Your freedom rolls in, the numbers are bigger.
And as the anthem is sung and calls are made and plays are celebrated or argued, veterans trickle in. Seeing the veterans return and recruit new participants, “…is the highest honor we could receive,” says David.
The realization that he has the ability to help so many people take important steps in their path to reclaiming their lives is humbling to David. It is also all the reason he needs to give 100% of himself to this work. He counts his blessings for the love and support shown to him by his wife and family while he struggled to recover from the loss of his brother. Now, he is driven to be a part of supporting others in their own inner battles. And he is kicking it up a notch.
Rather than be content to reach those within his own grasp or limit the opportunity to gain from his program, David is determined to equip veterans with a still bigger weapon –themselves.
By creating the Veterans Players Association, he will set veterans up to carry Play For Your Freedom out into communities across the country.
Those who come up through the workshops can become figureheads to others, running workshops and empowering others to follow in their footsteps. He’s doing this because the veterans are asking for this chance, and what better motivation could he have to do so, than that?
Asked what advice he has to offer anyone struggling with their own pain, David offered this; “Say yes to yourself. You deserve that…surround yourself with people you know care about you.”
David Lionheart offers his Website or his Facebook page as a means for anyone to reach out to him to find out more about how his program can help or to become involved in with donations or volunteering to make a bigger impact in the lives of our vets.
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