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Former Virginia Tech football standout Tommy Edwards, who earned the name “Touchdown Tommy” and received seven All American awards, lost it all when he began abusing drugs and alcohol as a teen.
He has turned his life around by understanding mental illness and using art as an outlet.
Edwards, whose grandparents are from Galax, will be presenting a musical performance at the Rex Theater tomorrow, Tuesday, at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
He will also be sharing his story at Galax Middle and Galax High schools on Tuesday.
“I’ll be talking about the power of choices, substance abuse, bullying, well-being and mental health awareness,” said Edwards, noting that one in four are diagnosed with mental illness.
At Radford High School, he made 57 touchdowns and over 200 tackles and was recruited by several colleges. Suffering from anxiety, he began substance abuse in high school and the problem elevated when he went to college.
Following in his family’s footsteps, he attended Virginia Tech on a scholarship. His dad attended VT and became a professional football player, and his sister was a track athlete there.
Unhappy at VT, he transferred to Boise State University. Misdiagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, he had suicidal thoughts and continued to struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. Edwards said the series of anti-depressants and sleeping pills further complicated his illness.
He quit school and ended up homeless in several cities — Myrtle Beach, Radford and Los Angeles. One day, he would crash in a millionaire’s mansion after a night of partying and the next day he would sleep on the streets or in his car — anywhere he could lay his head down.
“I decided I didn’t want to play football, so I moved home and lived with the ridicule of not going on to the NFL,” he said. “It was hard going from everyone’s hero to everyone’s zero, and I tried to escape the football reputation because it wasn’t who I was.
“Certain nights were pretty scary, and I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
However, he found comfort as an artist. He would sit for hours painting and playing music. “Music and art saved my life,” he said. “I started using art to cope and to find myself.”
Edwards also become a professional skateboarder and opened a skateboarding business in LA. However, he had another setback when he suffered a brain injury from skateboarding.
He lost everything — his home and his business. He was homeless again for 8 months until a good friend helped him get off the streets.
It wasn’t until he was in his 30s that he was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.
During this time, Edwards continued to develop his music and art, which helped him keep it all together. He began to rebuild his life and manage his mental illness.
As a result of tragic shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, Edwards founded the non-profit Heart of Virginia Foundation. He is also working to develop Music 4 Mental Health. Through the program, the Hokie superstar shares his stories on high school and college campuses to raise awareness about mental health.
“After being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, I started to get my life together,” he said. “And after April 16, 2007, I felt compelled to do something and bring awareness to mental illness.” The day of the shootings, he wrote a song about the tragedy and set up the non-profit to reach the most at-risk, which are between the ages of 17-24.
Edwards has worked with Mount Rogers Mental Health, and last year Edwards came to Galax Skate Park to discuss skateboarding as a healthy alternative to improving mental health.
“I want to educate the community about the stigma that lies with mental illness,” said Edwards. “There are creative solutions.”
Edwards is now a professional singer-songwriter in Nashville, Tenn., and is creating a documentary about creatively dealing with mental illness.