Canadian-born NFL wide receiver Chase Claypool paid tribute this week to friend and former teammate Samwel Uko, who died earlier this year after being turned away from a Regina hospital during a mental health crisis. Uko's family says he died by suicide.
Claypool, who plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, posted photos of himself wearing a T-shirt with Uko's photo to Instagram earlier this week with the caption "Break the Stigma" and the hashtag #mensmentalhealth.
Claypool and Uko, who was 20 when he died, played football together in their high school years at Abbotsford Senior Secondary School in Abbotsford, B.C.
"Chase is a young man with a big heart," said Justin Nyee, Uko's uncle and spokesman for the family.
"We as a family are very grateful for him to remember his young brother's birthday. It means a lot to us."
Claypool, who was a grade above Uko, led the high school team to an AA Championship in 2015. Uko took the lead and did the same in 2017.
Nyee remembers Uko and Claypool hanging out off the field as well.
"They were very close friends, always visited each other," said Nyee.
He said Uko looked up to Chase and wanted to be like him.
"Although they had very different styles they were a pair to be reckoned with," said Nyee, who pointed out that the pair did keep contact after Claypool was drafted to the U.S.
Uko's body was found in Regina's Wascana Lake in May 2020. It was later revealed he had attempted twice to get help at the Regina General Hospital during a mental health crisis and was denied both times.
Video shows Uko being escorted out by security just prior to his death. The SHA later apologized to the family in a letter.
The Uko family has since filed a lawsuit against the province and the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA). The statement of claim alleges that "the SHA, through its agents and employees, allowed discriminatory and inadequate medical practice to occur and be conducted on Samwel."
The case is still before the courts.
Uko''s former high school coach Derek Black has nothing but fond memories of the young man.
"He was a joy to be around. We loved having him in our home," Black said in an interview from his Abbotsford home.
"I always remember him with a smile on his face."
Black was the first to put Uko on the field. He said he recognized Uko's athletic ability when he was assigned to mentor the youth at the high school.
The coach chuckled at his first memory of Uko, who was wearing size 13 cleats on the field with size nine feet.
Born on New Years Day, Uko would have been celebrating his 21st birthday this week. Claypool's Instagram post reflected on his friend's nearing birthday.
Coach Black said he appreciated the gesture from a former player. He said it shows Claypool remembers where he comes from and the people he knew along the way.
"That just showed you the kind of person that Chase is. He is a genuine person and he cares about his community."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
Where to get help:
Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text) | crisisservicescanada.ca (chat)
In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca.
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.
Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 or chat online at hopeforwellness.ca.