Two fathers.

Two lost sons.

Two deaths that could have been prevented.

In a forum Sunday at Newcomb Presbyterian Church, Davenport, 14 people heard Steve Hughes of Davenport and Brad Knutson of Park View, Iowa, discuss the deaths of their sons — one from “the choking game” and the other from suicide.

In the church sanctuary, each father spoke about his family’s loss and how education can help prevent such deaths.

Sharon Larrison, of Davenport, an elder at Newcomb, said she is familiar with Hughes’ story because her son is involved in the same Boy Scout group as the late Zach Hughes. She has been working with Genesis Medical Center to ensure the information about “the choking game” is available to health-care providers. “Some physicians did know about it, but most were just astonished,” she said.

She brought Hughes and Knutson together in the forum as a community prevention


Hughes, who spoke first, described his son as  a “gift from God.” Zach, he said, was a good-natured boy who enjoyed church camp and scouting. He was going into his sophomore year at Davenport North High School, where he played in the band and made the honor role. Zach’s photo was displayed on a screen during Hughes’ presentation.

On a Sunday morning in August 2007, Zach was nowhere to be found. Hughes figured that his son had awakened and gone for a walk.

When Hughes and his wife began to search for Zach, they found him “standing on the ground with a rope around his neck.”

His son “didn’t fit the profile for a suicide,” Hughes said. It took a sheriff’s deputy to alert Hughes to what had happened. “Most parents have no clue that kids are doing this,” Hughes said. “If he (Zach) had been told something was wrong, he wouldn’t do it. I’m a former law enforcement officer, and I

didn’t know about it.”

The experience, which also is called “flatliner,” “natural high,” “throttling” and other names, involves cutting off blood and oxygen to the brain by choking, hyperventilating or using rope to experience a “high” or lightheaded feeling.

The “game” may be played by well-liked, intelligent children who wouldn’t even consider using alcohol or drugs.

Hughes urged those attending to “discuss this despicable game with your children. Ask school boards to add information on ‘the choking game’ to the curriculum.”

At North, Hughes speaks about the dangerous activity every semester. “Statistics show the kids are aware of it. The parents are not,” he said.

Hughes fought tears several times during his presentation. “If I just buried my head in the sand and didn’t come out and do this, then Zach’s death would have been meaningless.”

Depression kills

Knutson, who is a Quad-City contact for the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program, lost his 16-year-old son Jeff to suicide in 1999.

“There’s always a different risk that is waiting to take our kids,” he said.

Knutson said the No. 1 cause for suicide is untreated depression. “It’s not a sign of being young, of being weak, of being selfish or being stupid,” he said. “It is a medical condition, not a character flaw.”

He discussed the major kinds of depressive disorders, and said family history also contributes to a person’s tendency toward depression. “Depression can run through families,” he said.

Kids can become depressed after changes in their lives, including changing schools, breaking up with a boyfriend/girlfriend or being bullied. Abuse of drugs or alcohol also is a contributor.

“People do not want to die,” Knutson said. “They just want the pain to stop.”

About 80 percent of those struggling with the notion of suicide give off warning signs. His son was among the 20 percent who did not, Knutson said.

“He had access to a gun” in his grandparents’ home, said Knutson. “There was no question of suicide. A note was found. (Jeff) had talked to his girlfriend for about half an hour before.”

His son also had called emergency services, Knutson said. “But it was too late.”

Knutson and his wife have given more than 350 presentations on teen suicide to groups from Chicago to Des Moines. As part of his presentation, he shows a brief Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency video that includes comments from Jeff’s friends and points out symptoms of depression.

“Death by suicide is 100 percent preventable,” Knutson said. “Talk to kids about it. Tell your kids you love them and be an example, showing them you do, and that God loves them.”

The city desk can be contacted at (563) 383-2450 or newsroom@qctimes.com.


* Brad Knutson is available to speak to groups. He can be reached through yellowribbon.org. Steve Hughes will speak to “anybody who will listen,” he said. His e-mail is stevehughes@mchsi.com.

* The Quad-City Times published a front-page story about Zach Hughes last December. It is available by searching for his name on qctimes.com.

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