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A runner's tale of battling depression helped his teammate step in to help a stranger
Of all his sleepless nights in the previous six months, the final Sunday in March might have been the darkest. Andrew Onimus was exhausted -- from an agonizing insomnia, from a self-sought solitude, from a depression he couldn’t shake.
The next day, the Muhlenberg senior felt it was finally time he shared his story with his track and field teammates. He wanted them to know why he had been skipping practice all season, why he was missing his last opportunities to break 50 seconds in the 400-meter run while wearing a Muhlenberg jersey.
Before practice on the Allentown, Pennsylvania, campus, Onimus stood in front of his peers. You couldn’t see his illness, he told them through tears, but it was real. It had gripped him during football season, causing the 6-foot-2 cornerback to drop nearly 30 pounds. Only that month had he started benefiting from therapy and other resources.
Then Onimus challenged his teammates: “Go around and say ‘hi’ to people,” the track team captain urged. Ask them how they’re doing. Find out their story. “You don’t know how much it could mean to someone.”
The talk stirred memories for junior distance runner Jason Leitmeyer.
Leitmeyer fought depression in middle school. He remembered feeling “sad for no reason” and yearning for a sense of control in his life. Therapy helped, later motivating him to pursue a psychology degree at Muhlenberg.
Like many of his teammates after the meeting, Leitmeyer hugged Onimus, then set out on a run alone. Thirty minutes in, as he ran under an overpass, Leitmeyer heard a distant sound that made him stop. Was it crying?
His eyes scanned the area, eventually spotting a girl, maybe 11 or 12 years old, crouched at the edge of the overpass. Cars whizzed by behind her. Her sweatshirt hood covered most of her thin, black hair. Leitmeyer could see through her glasses that, yes, she was sobbing.
Leitmeyer thought she might jump.
Confused and concerned, Leitmeyer’s mind raced. Would talking to the girl push her closer to the edge? Was he overreacting? Should he keep running, pretending he hadn’t seen her? He was only a mile and a half from campus and was tired and chilled in the 45-degree air. But his mind jumped to Onimus’ fresh words. “I thought the least I could do was let her know someone was there for her,” Leitmeyer said later.
The runner recruited the help of two women walking in a nearby park, and they approached the girl together. She struggled to answer their questions through sobs, revealing strife with her parents.
“Nobody would want to talk to me,” the girl said at one point.
“I want to talk to you,” Leitmeyer responded. “I’d sit here and listen all day.”
Twenty minutes passed as Leitmeyer and the others attempted to calm the girl. Yet she would not stop crying, nor budge from the ledge.
When a police officer arrived, he grabbed the girl from behind, pulling her away as she cried out and flailed her arms.
Leitmeyer exhaled. She was safe.
Onimus awoke the next morning to an email from his track coach, Brad Hackett.
“Please read the column below…” the email read, referring to a daily campus news email that highlighted Leitmeyer’s actions. “Jason told me he thought to do this based on your conversation with the team yesterday.”
Reading about Leitmeyer’s encounter brought Onimus to tears. “I knew I had done the best thing in my life, just talking to them,” Onimus said. “I might’ve been a big part in saving a girl’s life.”
Inspired, Onimus plans to continue to share his story of depression with others. He has developed an interest in motivational speaking and hopes to one day write a book. In the meantime, he looks forward to starting his new job with an accounting firm in Philadelphia.
Leitmeyer’s experience validated his plans for a career in counseling. “I’m really grateful I was able to be a part of this, to be able to help someone and in turn help Andrew,” he said.
Leitmeyer might never know whether his words helped the young girl. He may never see or hear of her again.
Yet he wonders. Said Leitmeyer: “I hope she’s doing well.”