UNC star tight end raising money for suicide prevention after passing of close friend

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- It was a phone call UNC tight end Garrett Walston will never forget.

"I just remember literally dropping to my knees and my phone hitting the ground. It just fell away from my face," Walston said, remembering what happened when he learned that his friend, Riley Estes, had died by suicide in February.

Estes was a 19-year-old student at UNC-Wilmington; the Estes and Walston families were close, with Garrett and Riley forming a brotherly relationship.

"He was a good, solid boy that grew up loving sports. Grew up loved being outside," said Riley's dad, Brian Estes.

Seven months later, Estes found it hard to talk about his son's death.

"If what we went through blindsided us, it would blindside most anybody else out there," Estes said, who believes isolation caused by the pandemic likely caused his son stress.

Brian had dinner with Riley the night before his passing.

"We actually had a great night. Nothing was out of the ordinary where he said he was just done or anything like that, or mad or going bonkers about any sort of certain situation. He I guess just put himself into some self-isolation and depression that he couldn't get out of," said Estes.

After speaking at his funeral, Brian began to hear from other parents who asked if he would speak with their children.

"That helped (my wife) and I become aware that in the death of (our) son, we might be able to save two or three other kids. Just by communication by making them understand, there's other avenues to take," said Estes.

That desire played a role in inspiring the creation of The RILO Foundation, a non-profit aimed at spreading awareness for suicide prevention and raising money to create a greenspace in Riley's memory.

"My intent would be for young adults and teenagers who are just getting into the real world, trying to understand what real life is all about, and if they have some bad thoughts, some bad feelings that they really don't want to talk to their parents about, this could be an area they could reach out to. Because I promise if Riley knew of an opportunity or avenue for that, he may have reached out," said Estes.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that 47,511 Americans died by suicide in 2019, making it the 10th leading cause of death. White males accounted for nearly 70% of suicide deaths in 2019.

In the offseason, new NIL rules allowed college athletes to utilize their name, image, and likeness for marketing opportunities. The change in regulations also opened the door for them to use their platform for philanthropic opportunities, something Walston is opting to do to support the RILO Foundation.

RELATED: Lee County mother creates suicide prevention nonprofit a year after daughter's death

"If we can just save one person from committing suicide, then we've done our job. Because no family and no community should have to go through that, because it's just so tough and it's just such a tragic thing," said Walston.

He teamed up with Garrett Etheridge, his marketing representative at Loyalty Above All, who is a distant relative of the Estes family.

"Riley was a special young man. And we want to honor him. The biggest thing is to reach other Riley's who might be going through something and maybe they're not sharing it or maybe they're feeling overwhelmed," said Etheridge

Estes has been moved by Walston's dedication, and traveled to Blacksburg for the Tar Heels season opener against Virginia Tech to show his support.

"It is just impressive and fascinating and humbling that Garrett is out there busting his rear end for a great, noble cause," said Estes.

Walston is encouraging others to provide support to close ones, describing the value of even a seemingly small gesture.

"It may appear on the outside that your friend's doing fine, but you never know what's going on on the inside. And so always check on those ones you love, because especially in this case like Riley, you never know when it's going to be someone's last day," said Walston.

If you're interested in donating to or learning more about The RILO Foundation, click here. The website includes plans for the Riley Stout Estes Memorial Park, as well as a form to request Riley's parents to speak.

If you or a loved one is in need of assistance, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours, 7 days a week. The phone number is 800-273-8255.

"There's plenty of other kids out there that seem normal, (but) underneath they're extremely fragile. And we have learned the hard way that the reality sometimes hurts. A permanent solution to a short-term problem is not the best answer. And this is the ultimate one in his death," said Estes.
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