SANDY — Jacob Dirkson never made a conscious decision to give up.
Every day he woke up and went to school expecting that this would be the day that he would finally regain the joy and drive he felt before the night of March 6, 2011. Instead, within a few hours of waking, he found himself adrift in the kind of agony that is difficult to describe and even more grueling and discouraging to navigate.
As the days dragged into months, the now 18-year-old allowed his grief to chip away at everything — especially his goals and dreams. He even walked away from the one thing he’d loved since he was a toddler — baseball.
“It was just happening to me,” he said of his life in the wake of his younger brother’s suicide. “I was just mad. I had no idea what was happening. I couldn’t remember anything. I couldn’t deal with it, so I just blanked out. I even quit going to school.”
The night that shattered Dirkson’s life began with a phone call. He was spending the evening at a friend’s house when his mother called and simply asked him to come home. As he approached their Sandy home, he knew something was wrong.
“I saw a bunch of ambulances and stuff,” he said. “It scared me way bad. My sister ran up to me and told me that my brother took his own life, and I just took off. I ran, and I didn’t stop running until someone caught me.”
One of his neighbors chased him down and forced him to sit on the curb.
“He talked me down,” Dirkson said. “I just blacked out. It all felt like a dream. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and I was just out of it. I was out of it for a few weeks. I had no idea what was going on most of the time.”
To this day, Dirkson can’t remember the chronology of what happened. Part of the fog is caused by the searing pain of losing his younger brother, Chase Larson, to suicide. Part of the fog is a choice he made not to delve into the details of that night.
Chase Larson was in seventh grade, two years younger than Dirkson, when he took his own life the night of March 6, 2011. He was the fourth of Randy and Nicole Larson’s five children. Twins Rachelle and Rebecca are 22; Dirkson, is 18; and Bridger Larson is a freshman at Jordan High.
Nicole Larson said she tried repeatedly to talk to her oldest son after Chase’s death.
“I think he took a lot of it on himself,” she said. “He blamed himself for not always being there for his little brother. He didn’t talk; he didn’t say much.”
When the family discussed Chase, he’d listen but kept his feelings to himself.
He wouldn't even visit his brother's grave. He was more aware of the love and affection he had for his family, but he also tried to keep them away from the raw pain he felt when he thought about Chase.
In the wake of his brother’s death, Dirkson, who’d made the Jordan High varsity baseball team as a freshman, struggled in school for the first time.
“I basically failed the last half of ninth grade,” he said.
He refused to go to counseling and the grief made it impossible for him to focus. His parents dropped him off at school where he either skipped, wandered the halls, or just sat in class without engaging in the work.
“They tried, but I told them I didn’t want to go to counseling,” he said of his parents. “They tried hard, but I wasn’t budging. I just didn’t care about anything.”
He said he broke down in a high school counselor’s office just a few weeks after Chase’s death, but that was the only time he reached out for help. Initially, he felt relieved, but when the pain returned, he likened it to a scab that he just wanted to leave alone.
“I had friends who encouraged me, but I just kept putting everything off every day,” he said. “I just felt like I was going to be shut down, not talk to anyone, for the rest of my life.” Finally, a counselor suggested he transfer from Jordan to Valley High, the alternative school in the Canyons School District.
“I didn’t want to go,” he said, acknowledging that the stigma associated with an alternative school just made him spiral deeper into despair.
“I thought I was just going to be a failure after that,” he said. “People label it as not a good school, but it’s such a great school. It’s got me to where I can graduate.”
He said the school’s philosophy and small class size changed everything.
“They treat you like adults,” he said.
Even before he began to achieve academic success, he missed baseball. He didn’t play as a sophomore and wasn’t planning to do so after transferring to Valley.
“I thought I was done after my sophomore year,” he said.
But his father, Randy Larson, had not given up on his son or his promising baseball career. He called Ron Anderson, then Jordan's coach, and asked if Dirkson could try out even though a family trip would mean missing the first day of tryouts. The coach didn’t just agree to the plan, he called Dirkson and told him he expected him to show up for the last day of tryouts.
Dirkson said he was shocked and thrilled.
“I didn’t think they would accept me back,” he said.
Not only did they welcome him back, the left-handed junior pitcher made the varsity team. Returning to the mound, he said, gave him peace that he hadn’t felt for years.
“When I’m playing a game I love, I’m not thinking about anything,” he said.
Dirkson is an integral part of Jordan’s 2014 region title and current bid for a 5A state title. The top-ranked Beetdiggers have utilized Dirkson’s pitching talents, and he now appreciates even the daily grind of a sport that will help him earn a free education.
“We just figured we’d never see him again,” said Jordan head coach Chad Fife, who took over the program this season after nine years as an assistant. “He had an adjustment, but he came right back and was throwing hard. It was a really pleasant surprise.”
Now a few weeks from graduating from Valley, Dirkson has a half-dozen scholarship offers to continue his baseball career while pursing his education. Fife said it’s a “great story, but not a huge surprise.”
Dirkson is, after all, a 6-foot-4 left-handed pitcher.
“The sky is the limit,” Fife said. “He’s got so much more potential. He really hasn't been been (immersed) in competitive baseball for a long time like most kids. I think there’s a ton of room for growth.”
Dirkson said seeing life’s possibilities unfold in front of him makes him miss his brother, but it also motivates him to honor Chase with his choices. He wears a bracelet with his brother’s name on it unless he’s pitching.
“Then I put it in my back pocket,” he said.
Randy said his son wears Spider-Man Under Armour under his uniform to honor his brother.
“This is a dream come true for Jacob,” he said of Jordan’s state championship bid and his son’s scholarship offers. “It’s a dream come true for us as parents. We didn’t think he was going to graduate high school. Now he has six or seven scholarship offers.”
Adds his mom: “We’re so proud. We’re really just excited for him.”
Jacob beams when discussing both his college options, as well as his team’s playoff push. Like most athletes, he’s dreamed of a state title during all those long, grueling workouts and practices. Although, for Dirkson, those days have become blessings he savors — even the mundane conditioning he used to dread.
He said winning a title would be a validation for the entire team. But for him, he admits, it would mean something different.
“I think it would affect me more because I wouldn’t be playing if I didn’t get forced into coming back,” he said. “Now I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
As tumultuous as the last three years have been, Dirkson said he’s learned a lot about himself, about compassion and about why it’s important to reach out to those who might be struggling. He blames his brother’s death on bullying.
“I know he was picked on,” he said. “I just felt it when he was around. We’d talk sometimes, but I thought he was just shaking it off.”
He describes his brother as intelligent, thoughtful and friendly.
“He was one of those kids who would sit in the corner and read a book, one of those outsider kids who kept to himself,” he said. “He was way smart and I think people picked on him for it.”
Dirkson said participating in a 5K walk for suicide prevention a few months after his brother’s death revealed to him that the problem is massive. He knows if those who were suffering understood the devastation that always follows a suicide, they would reconsider.
“You have no idea how often it happens,” he said. “It’s happens way more than it should.”
He is no longer swimming through anger and guilt. Now when he struggles, he goes to the place he once avoided — his brother’s grave.
“Now if I’m having a bad day, I’ll just go up there and sit there,” he said. “It clears my mind.”
He said what he feels now isn’t quite peace, but it’s close.
“I know he’s somewhere good,” he said. “There is a reason for everything, I feel. He did it for a reason. It’s just something that I came to, something I believe. It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for a reason.”
What he misses most is just his brother’s personality.
“He was a happy kid,” he said. “You’d never expect this. He was always just smiling, and I miss it. If I was down, he’d come hang out with me and we’d just talk, hang out with each other.”
Jacob doesn’t want to venture a guess as to what Chase would be like today. The senior pitcher simply wants to honor the brother and friend Chase always was to him. The last three years have made him more aware, more compassionate, than he ever imagined possible, and he’s just trying to embrace the joy that he’s lucky enough to experience.
“I couldn’t tell you what he’d be doing today, but he always told me that he wanted to be my manager if I ever went pro,” he said. “He always said, ‘I’m going to invest your money.’ ... So now if I make it, there will always be a place for my brother.”
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