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September 24, 2010
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Brian Hamilton: Good kids, fatal mistake

Throughout the Midwest, small burgs along state highways are often called "one-light" towns, referring to a single stoplight being the only reason to pause as cars pass through.

Growing up in a "no-light town" in rural northern Indiana, my brothers and nearby neighbor kids were free to roam as we pleased without much to do or trouble to find.

So we filled our days with Wiffle ball games, one-on-one basketball and backyard football battles. And when we set our sports aside, we did manage to find a few other things to do, sometimes teetering toward the more mischievous, but all-in-all pretty harmless, stuff.

Or so I thought, until this past Monday morning.

Looking back, it was one of those summer days when boredom was born out of our endless routine of riding bikes, or playing sports. I'm guessing I was around 12 years old, mainly because it was after my parents had reconciled their divorce and our mom had moved us back to "town" to be with dad.

At some point, whether on a whim or something he'd seen somewhere - though well before the World Wide Web, we did have TV back then - my good buddy, Andy, showed me how we could make each other pass out and feel this "tingly" sensation.

I can still remember, after it was my turn, coming to and being in a state of total confusion. Through my blurred vision, I could see he was laughing hysterically and pointing at me. I wondered what had happened. How long had I been out? What had he done to me?

In short, it scared the hell out of me.

And for the past 25 years, I had never thought of it or heard of anyone else doing it, let alone do it myself again.

That was the case until Tuesday morning, when I spoke with Eric Butler about his 16-year-old son Justin, who died after apparently doing essentially the same thing we had done, except on his own.

Throughout this week, Eric, his wife, Kendall, his son, Bryan, and other family members spoke out about Justin's death and what's become known as the "choking game," among other names. After they shared their story with our community, I had the opportunity to speak with more families who also lost their children in such a devastatingly tragic fashion.

As a parent, I've learned to deal with my own darkest fears for my children, whether feeling sick to the stomach as they sit - safely behind a guard rail, mind you - high above a Big Sur cliffside, or whether fearing their week-long flu to be something more serious.

"Welcome to parenthood," my mom likes to say, before reminding me over the phone from Indiana to not let my girls jump off rocks at the river.

So we do our best to protect, by front-loading information to them, having "the talk" over a whole host of dangerous things "out there."

Kirsten Pabst, a district attorney in Missoula, Mont., told me she had discussed all the dangers she could think of with her children - at age-appropriate levels - from drugs and alcohol to premarital sex and AIDS. And, still, in 2005, she lost her 12-year-old boy, Sam, to this asphyxiation act. And after learning how he died, she was "horrified and surprised" to see through Internet videos how prevalent it had become.

"I'm one of those parents who tell their kids everything about everything," she said. "But with this choking game stuff, I had never brought it up. It wasn't until after his death that it occurred to me that it was happening."

Ken Tork actually did bring it up with his boy, 15-year-old Kevin, about six months before his 11-year-old daughter discovered her brother's body choked to death by his own bathrobe in March of last year.

Ken, a Bellevue, Wash., general contractor, had spoken to Kevin when he had seen a TV news story on what was first deemed to be a teen suicide, but later became apparent as accident with self-asphyxiation.

"I called him in there and told him 'If you're ever in a situation, where it feels like life isn't worth living, please talk to me," Ken said by phone Thursday. "There is nothing that cannot be fixed. And he said, 'Dad, I'd never do that. I love life."

Ken believes a zest for life is actually one of the most common threads among young people who have died playing the choking game. They are good kids, who get good grades and have bright futures ahead of them. And, as most of us remember from our own youth, they also think they're somewhat invincible. Throw in the nonchalance manner that death is often dealt with in our information-overloaded, media-dominated society, and there's not as much fear to trigger a "fight or flight" reaction to high-risk behavior, he said.

"Look how numb they are to death," said Ken, who also works as an outreach coordinator for a program raising awareness of such dangerous behavior as the choking game. "From seeing war constantly on TV to playing violent video games, it's like they think they can just hit the 'reset' button. They don't seem to fully understand that death is a permanent part of life."

You can clearly see the cavalier attitude on the faces of the young people "playing" the choking game in YouTube videos. In a clip shared by NBC during Tork's "Today Show" appearance, one scene, in particular, was especially striking. After a teenage boy presses his hands against a friend's neck - the exact same thing my friend, Andy, and I did to each other a quarter century ago - the boy falls into the arms of his friend.

Clearly visible in the background, after the boy is lowered to the floor, a group of teens can be seen through a sliding glass door, just hanging out at the kitchen table, talking among themselves, seemingly oblivious to the deadly game friends are playing just 10 to 15 feet away.

That apparent familiarity with the choking game, a confidence level likely established through repetition, is often what leads children to perform the act alone by using things such as a knotted necktie, a cord from a window blind, or a belt from a bathrobe, Ken said.

Sarah Pacatte, the mother of Gabriel Mordecai, a 14-year-old boy from Paradise, Calif., who died in a similar way in 2005, said she doubts that Justin Butler, like other victims, actually ever intended to hurt himself.

"Justin's story is so tragic," Pacatte wrote in an e-mail message, after reading of his death this week. "And he, like so many before him, was well-liked, popular, goal-oriented, good kids that made a fatal mistake.

"I would bet all that I have that Justin had no idea he could or would die this way."

That's what brought Justin Butler's family forward this week, less than two full days removed from his death, to speak out with hopes of helping other parents save their own children from injury, or even death.

"Knowledge is power," Kendall Butler said.

"There seems to be a perception kids have that this is a game that they all can survive," Eric Butler said. "And they play this game that has a very, very thin threshold between survivability and death. And here's an example right in their backyard, you know, of where it got away from somebody."

And because of the courage his family showed in sharing their devastating story, Justin Butler's death offers a powerful message that will no doubt help keep other families in our community - and well beyond - from facing such a similar and sad tragedy.

Contact Sports Editor Brian Hamilton via e-mail at or by phone at 477-4240.

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The Union Updated Sep 24, 2010 06:37PM Published Sep 24, 2010 06:36PM Copyright 2010 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.