SEATTLE, Wash. — When Leo DeBruhl made a great play in the flow of a game during his senior high school basketball season this past spring, his head would swivel, looking past his teammates, coaches and his parents in the crowd.
His eyes would dart toward the iPad at the top of Seattle Academy’s bleachers. Instinctively, he’d look for Stella Jennings, a classmate and close friend, expecting her head to poke out from behind the team’s camera, flashing a wide smile.
Jennings and DeBruhl built a tight-knit friendship that started the first day of high school as freshmen. She was Seattle Academy’s team manager on the girls side — under coach Joel DeBruhl, Leo’s father — and she quickly became Leo’s biggest fan as he ascended into a program-changing point guard at Seattle Academy and a Division I prospect.
Jennings died in January after a 10-month battle with an aggressive form of B-Cell Lymphoma. Like Leo, she was a senior at Seattle Academy.
For the last four years, DeBruhl has minted himself as a cool-headed playmaker, mature beyond his years. He grew up in a Portland, Ore. suburb, from a young age training alongside now-Boston Celtics guard Payton Pritchard, before moving to Seattle and helping orchestrate Seattle Academy’s rise to statewide 1A basketball prominence.
That all came to a screeching halt in March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic upended his life as he knew it.
In a more than year-long stretch, DeBruhl’s personal battles have been harrowing.
He dealt with the loss of a close friend. He overcame a severe battle with COVID-19. And, like many others, he saw his dream of playing high-level college basketball fall apart.
As the world has thrown him one haymaker after another, DeBruhl has endured. As he prepares for the future, he wants his story to show anyone his age who is struggling with mental health that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
“A lot of my friends have dealt with depression,” DeBruhl said. “You never get to feel what they’re feeling until you’re at your lowest. With how much uncertainty there was, and I had no idea what my future entails, I was having a really hard time. I didn’t think things were going to change … And I didn’t know if it was going to go away.”
A poll conducted by the University of Michigan’s Mott Children’s Hospital found 46 percent of parents of teenagers say they’ve noticed new or worsening mental health conditions in their child since the onset of the pandemic. A University of Wisconsin study conducted in May 2020, at the height of statewide lockdowns, found reports of moderate to severe depression among high school athletes in Wisconsin were up by more than 20 percent.
DeBruhl wants to help other high school athletes who are struggling, in the same way professional athletes like NBA player Kevin Love have brought more awareness to mental health.
“It’s really about advocating about how this (is super) real, athletes’ mental health,” DeBruhl said. “A lot of times what was bringing me the most joy was also bringing me the most stress.”
DeBruhl stepped foot into the front door of his parents’ house after a long day of travel and knew something was wrong.
He felt horrible.
It was November 2020, and he’d just finished a six-hour car ride from Blue River, Oregon, the final stop on his return from a weekend competing in the Grind Session, a nationally competitive grassroots AAU basketball tournament series in Arizona — a place he flocked to amid an ongoing high school sports shutdown in his home state.
“I didn’t know if I was going to have a high school season,” he said.
One by one, his AAU teammates were testing positive for COVID, and DeBruhl’s aches, chills and spiking fever led him to believe he was among them. One teammate who lost his sense of taste and smell sent DeBruhl a video of him eating a raw onion.
DeBruhl’s bout with the virus was much more serious.
“I couldn’t stand up because I would be too fatigued to even walk,” DeBruhl said.
For a month, he brought a bucket to sit on in the shower because he couldn’t stand up. His parents couldn’t go to work, due to close contact to Leo, yet he had to completely quarantine from the rest of his family in hopes of not spreading the virus to them. He’d clean the house’s one bathroom each time he used it.
His bout with the novel coronavirus was yet another twist on a year he had a hard time grasping.
It was also another setback in his basketball journey.
In the early days of COVID, Seattle, the home of one of the first and most well-documented outbreaks nationally, experienced long-lasting lockdowns. Gyms were closed. Even the basketball rims at his neighborhood public school had been covered or taken down. He had even been chased away from public parks by security guards.
“Parents worry about their kids getting in trouble, but you never think it’d be for sneaking onto a public school court just to get shots up,” Joel DeBruhl said.
In what was arguably the most crucial stretch of his college recruitment, Leo was locked out. More than that, he couldn’t do the one thing that had always brought him joy.
DeBruhl loves to hoop. He craves it. Without it, he felt like a big part of him, and the way he both challenges and expresses himself, was missing.
So he took matters into his own hands. He wrote a letter to his elderly next door neighbor, whom him and his family had never met, explaining his circumstance and asking if he could shoot on the old hoop covered in ivy outside his house.
“This was a time when you didn’t want to be knocking on peoples’ doors,” DeBruhl said, “especially when they’re older.”
He put the letter on his neighbor’s porch. The man obliged.
With the help of a friend – University Prep senior Jackson Hewes – he also built a bench press out of wood.
But Leo’s recruitment slowed. He held an offer from Seattle U, which elapsed when he didn’t commit. Constant conversations with Division I coaches bore out seemingly promising leads at schools like Pepperdine, Vermont and Montana State. But once players took advantage of the NCAA offering an extra year of eligibility in the pandemic, roster spots dried up.
For weeks in late 2020, he was sure he was headed to an Ivy League school. According to DeBruhl, the coaching staff had convinced him not to commit to Seattle U and even nudged him to reclassify to 2022 and play a year at a post-graduate prep school. The school helped connect him with viable post-grad options.
Then, DeBruhl said, the same coaching staff called and told him he no longer had a spot on their roster in 2022.
He was crushed, and left with few options. So he decided to go the prep school route anyway, and signed up for a year with the post-graduate team at the national high school powerhouse Montverde Academy.
“At the time, I was really ready to be done with it all,” DeBruhl said. “It was weighing a big toll on me at the time. It was really stressful.
“The entire recruiting process has been a bunch of false hopes.”
Returning to the high school basketball setting this spring marked a change in his mental health for the better.
It also turned a page in his grieving process.
Before DeBruhl left for Arizona to play on the Grind Session with USBA, he penned Jennings a letter, which he gave to a friend who dropped it off at the hospital.
When she was first diagnosed with cancer, DeBruhl felt helpless. So he started researching. He Googled things like “how to support a friend battling (cancer)?” He went from seeing her every day, to only seeing her twice during her 10-month battle. Every suggestion of a visit was prohibited because of COVID.
Jennings was a bright presence to those who knew her, especially within the halls of Seattle Academy. She played volleyball, in addition to her duties with the basketball team, and was loved by her peers in the tight-knit arts and sciences school in Capitol Hill. Leo recalls Stella’s laugh (“the most contagious laugh you’ll ever hear”) and how she would laugh at his jokes, no matter how bad they were.
Even on the toughest days of her battle, when Leo knew she couldn’t respond, he still texted her anyways.
In mid-January, when he was in Arizona playing in the Grind Session, he woke up to a call from his dad. On Jan. 14, Jennings had died. He went numb. Far from home, Leo confided in his club teammate, Bellevue’s Hudson Hansen, who he was sharing a hotel room with.
At first, he thought there was no way he could bring himself to play in his game that night.
But in the moments of raw pain, confusion and grief, DeBruhl thought about what Jennings, his “No. 1 fan”, would want for him.
She’d want him to play. So he did.
“Stella meant so much to me,” he said. “The type of friendship that we had was one you could never really break.”
DeBruhl posted a double-double and was named MVP of the game. After the final horn sounded, he was overcome with emotion. Wracked with sobs, he called his dad and asked to come home. Looking back, he’s not sure how he mustered the strength to step foot on the court.
“She was definitely watching over me that game,” DeBruhl said.
On June 8, five months after her death, her presence was felt during Seattle Academy’s cap and gown graduation ceremony at T-Mobile Park.
It was felt in the form of a bench DeBruhl and his friends built in her honor. They constructed the bench, which will live on school grounds, in one afternoon and brought it to Seattle Academy’s graduation. Every student received a white rose, and one by one, each placed a rose on the bench before sitting down for the ceremony. One student sang a song they wrote about Jennings.
“It was a really cool thing,” Leo said.
DeBruhl led Seattle Academy to a 16-1 record during a shortened spring season. They won a district title and finished runners-up at an unofficial 1A state tournament, losing to Life Christian Academy in the finals. Each game, he wrote “Blue Thunder” on his shoes, in honor of Jennings, whose middle name “Blue” inspired his dad, Joel DeBruhl, to coin the nickname.
Leo’s dad made Jennings a poster of her name with a blue jay in the middle, which hung in her hospital room. The poster read “be strong, be stellar.”
“She was my No. 1 basketball supporter,” Leo said. “I don’t think she’s ever missed one of my high school games before.”
Added Joel DeBruhl: “She was a special girl.”
After she died, Leo learned she’d read his letter. Knowing she’d read the message has helped his grieving process, which is still ongoing. She may not be there when he instinctively looks up in the stands after a great play, but when Leo steps foot onto the court, he feels close to her.
“I’ve been told to try to find the things that remind you of her most,” DeBruhl said. “And every time I play basketball, I’m reminded of her.”
For immediate help with a mental health crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
This GoFundMe is raising money for Seattle Children’s Hospital in Jennings’ honor.