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THE DEEPEST GRIEF: Blake Anderson Seeks to Help Others in Need Following Another Tragic Loss

USU head football coach Blake Anderson stands on the sidelines with his headset around his neck during a game at Maverik Stadium.
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Editor’s note: This article discusses suicide and may be distressing for some readers. If you or someone you know is impacted by these issues or is considering suicide, a list of resources is available by contacting the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988 or visiting www.988lifeline.org.

Jeff Hunter ’96

It’s a bluebird day in Cache Valley. One of those winter days beloved by skiers and snowboarders when the skies are blue and clear, and the sun is shining brightly the morning after a snowstorm.

And inside of Blake Anderson’s office on the east side of the Jim and Carol Laub Athletics Complex, Utah State’s head football coach realizes that on this day the glare coming through the large window behind his desk might be a little too much to handle due to the pristine blanket of snow covering Merlin Olsen Field at Maverik Stadium.

“Sometimes when the sun’s out, and it’s glaring off the snow, it gets too bright in here,” Anderson notes as he pulls the blinds partially closed.

“But I love looking out at the field when it’s just untouched snow that no one has walked on yet.”

And like that unblemished field of white outside his window, Anderson also viewed coming to Cache Valley as a blank canvas when he was hired in December 2020. He was hoping for a fresh start personally and professionally following a painful period when he lost his wife, Wendy, to breast cancer in August 2019, and his father, Scotty Anderson, nine months later.

Previously the head coach at Arkansas State, Anderson guided the Red Wolves to one of their biggest wins ever, a 35–31 victory at Kansas State in September 2020. But soon after, COVID-19 hit the team hard, forcing the program to cancel its ensuing two games. Anderson also caught the virus, losing nearly 20 pounds before finally fighting it off as Arkansas State wrapped up a disappointing 4–7 season.

Despite those struggles, former USU athletic director John Hartwell liked what he saw in Anderson, who won 51 games in seven seasons in Jonesboro, and hired the Texas native as the Aggies’ next head coach. And somehow, during recruiting and getting ready for spring practices, Anderson also found the time to marry Brittany King, a woman he met at his church in Arkansas. At the time of their meeting, Brittany was mourning the loss of her mother, Mary DeClerk, who, at the age of 62, had died just 12 days after Wendy.

USU head football coach Blake Anderson poses with his first wife, Wendy, and their three children.
Anderson with Wendy and their three children, Cason (left), Callie (middle), and Colton (right). Photo courtesy of the Anderson family.

Anderson, who has three children — Coleton, Callie, and Cason — from his 27-year marriage to Wendy, also ended up adopting Brittany’s young daughters, Collins and Ellison, after the couple was married in Brittany’s hometown of Pocahontas, Arkansas.

“I think it’s been really good for me,” Anderson said during an interview in June 2021. “It’s been great, personally. The change of pace that I was hoping it would be. I still have bad days like anybody, but it’s about starting to create new memories, and just starting to create good, positive thoughts and relationships. That’s really what I was looking for.”

Anderson’s new beginning in Logan also paid off professionally during the 2021 season, when the Aggies won at Washington State in their season opener and kept on rolling. Picked to finish fifth in the Mountain Division, Utah State won its side of the Mountain West, defeated No. 19 San Diego State in the conference championship, and upended Oregon State, 24–13, in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl on its way to an 11–3 season.

“I remember telling somebody I kind of felt like I’d gotten to a point where I could kind of take a deep breath,” Anderson says. “We had been through a lot in the cancer journey with Wendy and losing my dad the way I did, and then Brittany dealing with the grief of losing her mom. And just the fact that we met at all and ended up falling in love and the fresh start here was real, man.

“I felt different here. It was a fresh start and a breath of fresh air for me, and I think for her and the girls, too. And you can’t write a script any better than to go win a championship the first year.”

Anderson then adds quietly: “But all that came crashing down.”

Just as it appeared Anderson’s “fresh start” was even better in reality than he could have envisioned, that untouched snow was trod upon one late February day. The sun disappeared once again, its warmth and light cruelly replaced by the return of an agonizing darkness.

Shock Beyond Words

Cason Anderson poses for a portrait in a flannel shirt in front of a blurry lake and trees in the background.

By all accounts, 2021 was a pretty good year for the Anderson family. And to celebrate, Blake went back to Texas to spend New Year’s Eve with his mother, Donna, his brother, Bryan — who died on April 20, 2024, after a battle with Stage 4 colon cancer — and the rest of his family at a river house near Austin. Cason, who was working as a welder for Bryan’s business in Texas, was unable to make the trip to Los Angeles for the bowl game, so Anderson was excited to spend time with his youngest son, as well as the rest of his family.

“We had a few great days and hung out and laughed and cut up. We fished and floated and everything else,” Anderson recalls. “And Cason was Cason. He was laughing and smiling.

“… Life was normal. He was normal.”

During the first couple months of 2022, Anderson was busy reshaping his team and getting the Aggies ready for spring ball, while he and Brittany also geared up to move their family to a newly built home in Cache Valley.

“The 2021 season felt like maybe a little bit of hope for us after grieving so heavily for my mom and Wendy and Blake’s dad,” Brittany says. “Things seemed to be going in a better direction for us since we had left Arkansas, and we felt like we could maybe embrace that and be happy about it.”

After going away to Park City for a celebratory weekend in late February with the rest of the USU coaching staff, the Andersons returned home to find out they had an offer to attend the Academy of Country Music Awards if they could make it. And on the morning of Monday, Feb. 28, the couple had been on the phone with each other trying to decide if they could logistically make the trip to Las Vegas work or not.

“I said I would call a babysitter, but then he called me back a few minutes later,” Brittany says. “I was expecting him to call me about if we were going to go or not, but then he didn’t say anything … and I knew it was bad.

“It was like whiplash. We went from one of the best weekends of celebrating to the deepest grief that we’d ever experienced and just shock beyond words, all within 24 hours.”

“It still doesn’t feel real, to be honest,” Brittany adds softly.

What Anderson was unable to say over the phone was that Cason had been found dead in his apartment.

Bryan Anderson became concerned when his always reliable nephew didn’t show up for work and wouldn’t respond to texts or phone calls, prompting him to request a welfare check by the local sheriff’s office. Deputies discovered Cason’s truck out front, but when he didn’t answer the door, they requested permission to break into the apartment.

Twenty minutes later, Bryan called Anderson with the devastating news that Cason had taken his own life at the age of 21.

“I talked to him on that Thursday, and Cason was laughing and cutting up and being his typical, smartass, sarcastic self,” Anderson says quietly. “And I texted with him on Friday.

“Then we lost him that weekend sometime after late Friday night.”

Mental Health Matters

Losing Wendy at the age of 49 came incrementally. It was two years from the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer until her passing became following a valiant fight.

Losing Cason was very different. It was terrifyingly abrupt and unimaginable.

“Cancer is a really, really tough battle to watch, and so just the thought of losing a child or a sibling to suicide in your mind is really not fair,” Anderson says.

Anderson says neither he nor his children saw any signs of Cason’s mental struggles, but that his son had “demons I could not see.” Somewhere beneath his quick wit and happy demeanor around his family and friends was something that Cason tragically viewed as too much to overcome.

“Blake came home that day, and I didn’t say much because I didn’t even know what to say other than, ‘Have you ever known a family that has endured this much this quick?’” Brittany remembers. “We kind of just sat there and cried until it was time to have to get up and do something.

“It felt almost like a movie because only in movies do you see ridiculous storylines like that. Some good things and some bad things, all within three years.”

Following Cason’s funeral in Anderson’s hometown of Hubbard, Texas, Blake and Brittany drove Cason’s truck back to Utah. Brittany says that difficult trip ended up being somewhat therapeutic as they had time to discuss how to navigate the impact of another tragedy. It was also spring break at USU when they returned to Cache Valley, which meant things were a little quieter when Anderson got back on campus and the couple turned much of their focus towards moving into their new home in Hyde Park.

Over the next few months, Anderson didn’t talk much about Cason’s death publicly. But that changed in late September 2022 when he released a video through USU Athletics telling Cason’s story as a part of Suicide Awareness Prevention Month.

“Coming back from Texas, we talked about trying to do something good, something that could help other people,” Brittany explains. “But we weren’t sure of the outlet, and he felt he needed to be in the right mindset and have clarity to speak out in a way that would honor Cason and be impactful. It was so hard for him to find the words, but I think the timing was good.”

In Anderson’s video, he stated that Cason “never let on” what he was dealing with and implored others with suicidal thoughts to seek help.

“If you are hurting, if you are dealing with dark thoughts, if you are depressed, if you are dealing with grief so heavy that you don’t know what to do with it, please reach out,” Anderson stated. “There are people around you that want to help you. There are people that God has put in your life that want to carry your burden. They would much rather carry your burden than carry your coffin.

“Mental health matters,” he continued. “I encourage you, if you or someone you know is hurting, step up, speak out and do everything you can to help them find the resources they need. Staying silent is too costly. I pray that those that are listening — if you’re hurting — that you won’t wait.”

The video was incredibly powerful, and its impact was felt right away, including inside the Aggie football program. Thanks to Anderson being open about an extremely painful subject, some of his own players ended up reaching out to him and others for help with their own mental health challenges.

Blake Anderson posing for a selfie with his son Cason.

“People that are hurting need to know they’re not alone,” Anderson says. “And it’s OK to reach out and ask for help because there are so many good resources here in the valley. … We all just need to be willing to speak up, and the rest of us, if we’re having a good day, we can’t just assume everyone else is. We need to be willing to keep our eyes open and be available.”

A year following the release of the Utah State-produced video, a short segment featuring Anderson was shown on ESPN’s College GameDay program during the 2023 football season. Titled “Finding Purpose in the Pain,” the seven-minute segment revealed Anderson’s heartbreaking story to an even larger audience. Now six months later, Anderson says he still has people reach out to him through letters, emails, or social media.

“Since that came out, players have probably been more open with me than ever before about what’s going on with them,” Anderson says. “And it’s not uncommon for me to get an email or have a letter on my desk from someone telling me about something they’re struggling with, or they’re thanking me for sharing because it came at a good time to make a difference in their lives.”

The very moving ESPN piece by reporter Jen Lada ends with Anderson sharing how he’ll often stand on the porch of his new home and visit with his late son while looking out over Cache Valley.

“I can sit up there and just talk to Cason. Tell him I love him. I tell him I miss him. And I tell him I’m sorry.

“I needed to find purpose in the pain. And show people also that if you’re struggling, it is OK to be broken. It is OK to ask for help. And it’s avoidable. It’s possible to stop it before it gets to that point, and we’ve got to do everything we can to keep it from happening.”

Joy Comes with the Morning

The Utah State Athletic Department announced in September 2022 the establishment of a special fund in memory of Cason. The Robert Cason Anderson Mental Health and Wellness Fund was created to, “provide enhancements to the USU Athletic Department’s mental health and wellness resources,” the fund’s website states.

“Through these enhancements, Utah State will provide increased mental health and wellness counseling services, educational opportunities, training and programming for student-athletes, coaches, and support staff. Continuing to develop USU’s mental health and wellness program through the Robert Cason Anderson Fund will help increase awareness and tackle the stigma surrounding mental health challenges, while offering greater support to Aggie student-athletes.”

As Brittany points out in the ESPN segment, with Anderson’s position as head coach of the Aggies, he interacts with more than 100 student-athletes on a daily basis who are similar in age to his late son — “they’re walking, talking Casons” — and who are also statistically one of the most vulnerable demographics for suicide.

That means Anderson is looking at his players just a bit differently as he prepares for his fourth season at the helm of the USU football program.

“I just keep reminding myself and my staff that we have to be available, we’ve got to be open,” Anderson says. “And we’ve got to be willing to stop football and do life, and let these guys know that if they need us, man, we’re here.

“I didn’t do a good job with that before, I really didn’t. I was like a lot of guys who just want to focus on the job, dust yourself off and keep moving forward, even when I was struggling myself. Through the grief of losing Wendy and my dad, I probably did a poor job of self-care.”

But now Anderson, who turned 55 in March, has something else to look forward to just before the start of fall camp in late summer. He says when he and Brittany first became a couple, they talked about the possibility of adding to their blended family, but that he felt he was “done” after helping her raise Collins and Ellison, who are both still in elementary school.

However, after losing Cason, Anderson says his heart was “softened a little more,” and he prayed about it and “asked God what was really right for us.”

Ultimately, the decision was a painful one for Anderson — mostly because it required a vasectomy reversal.

“I wouldn’t advise to anybody,” he says with a smile while shaking his head. “It’s not much fun.”

“The doctors thought we were crazy,” Brittany adds. “They basically told us not to even waste the time or the money or going through the healing process because there was such a slim chance. But we felt strongly that if we didn’t try now, we’d have regrets in not trying.”

Despite having a mere 2% chance of Brittany getting pregnant, Anderson underwent the reversal surgery late last summer, which made fall camp rather uncomfortable for the veteran coach. But in late December, Anderson shared the news that Brittany was pregnant and due in July 2024.

A month later, the Andersons revealed their baby would be a boy.

“We could not be more excited,” Brittany says. “I think it’s actually been, in some ways, healing. And, of course, being a baby boy has been emotional, as well. The reaction we’ve had — from his side of the family especially — has been, you know, just one of overwhelming emotion.”

At the time of their gender reveal on social media, the Andersons shared a Bible scripture from Psalms 30:5 — “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

And Anderson anticipates more joy in July after many nights of weeping.

“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t miss Cason like crazy,” he says, his voice cracking with emotion. “But I’m super excited about the possibility of raising another little one.”

Review overview
  • Brian Morgan April 30, 2024

    Excellent article, thanks for sharing.

  • Sue (Riley) Cross April 29, 2024

    Beautiful story of healing for Blake and Brittany and family. I liked the advice of telling those who are struggling that ‘we’d rather carry your burden than carry your coffin.’