AP Sports Writer Kurt Voigt spent more than a year getting to know Arkansas State receiver Allen Muse Jr. Like Muse, Voigt lost his father to suicide.
JONESBORO, Ark. -- All at once, the thoughts overwhelmed Allen Muse. One after another, before he could finish exhaling and start another breath.
The Arkansas State wide receiver stood in the doorway, eyes darting in all directions, scanning every inch of the bedroom.
How did this happen?
What am I going to do?
I should have known.
Oh, God. Please make it stop.
Just a few days earlier, Muse's father had stood in the same doorway during a visit that seemed like any other his dad had made from his home in New Orleans to Jonesboro, Ark. Something, however, had been very, very wrong.
The summary description box on the Jonesboro Police Department incident report has only one word: Suicide.
The report offers a brief narrative about the death of Allen Thomas Muse, a 51-year-old husband and father who ended his life in Room 106 at the America's Best Value Inn. What it doesn't offer are answers, particularly for Allen Thomas Muse Jr., who knows that he'll never find the answers in a police report or anywhere else. It has taken more than a year to reach that conclusion, a year filled with crushing emptiness.
While the 21-year-old Muse has let go of feelings of responsibility for his father's choice, he has accepted that pain will be a permanent fixture in his life. It will never go away, certainly not when Father's Day rolls around, but at least the promising young athlete is looking forward at where he might go with a degree and maybe, just maybe, a pro career.
It's taken a long time to get to this point.
Muse had finished his offseason conditioning Feb. 17, 2011, and was lifting weights inside the Red Wolves' practice facility when assistant coach David Gunn entered the room and asked the receiver to follow him.
The conversation between the two during the brief walk upstairs seemed normal enough. Gunn said several NFL teams had called about Muse, eager to see highlights of the 6-foot-4, 215-pound receiver who had turned in an honorable mention All-Sun Belt Conference performance as a sophomore.
Then he walked into the office and saw every member of the Arkansas State coaching staff, including then-head coach Hugh Freeze, waiting on him.
"What the hell is going on?" Muse thought. "Am I switching positions? Am I in trouble? Do I have a warrant? What's really going on?"
His position coach at the time, Tyler Siskey, was the one who spoke.
"The police found your dad in the hotel up the street," Siskey said.
Muse doesn't remember the words that followed, only a surreal out-of-body experience and an immediate numbness. He snapped out of the haze long enough to ask, "Who killed him?"
"He strangled himself," Siskey said.
The next few hours were a blur.
The coaches gave Muse his father's wallet and keys, and with his mother and sister traveling from New Orleans that day, it was Muse's job to go get his dad's car.
The 2001 Ford F-150 was parked in front of the hotel, comb, toothbrush, toothpaste and other things inside. Missing from his father's personal belongings was the gold St. Christopher medallion and chain that his dad always wore around his neck.
Muse noticed the door to his father's hotel room was open.
Somewhere from within, a voice told Muse he should walk away.
The desire to find the medallion, though, outweighed any concerns and he slowly walked up to the room. Empty. No medallion, just as there had been no note from his father.
After the car wouldn't start, Muse had it towed to his apartment complex. It sat there for a few months, a torturous daily reminder, until he essentially gave it away via an online classified listing.
"I said, 'Whoever can come get it first,' " Muse said. "I just got rid of it, washed my hands."
The thought about the medallion, however, wasn't so easily shaken.
Nor were Muse's racing thoughts about his father's surprise visit to his apartment a few nights before.
He tried his best to put the pieces together about their last moments together. Father and son ate spaghetti and talked about Muse's successful season and his prospects. Muse's dad asked to see Allen's honors, including the New Orleans Bowl's Inspirational Award that he had been given for overcoming both the loss of his house during Hurricane Katrina and heart surgery before his freshman year.
Allen Muse Sr. stared at his son for what felt like five minutes before saying, "I am so proud of you."
"Dad, you tell me that all the time," Muse said. "I know you're proud of me."
Shortly after that, Muse's father asked to borrow the red Atlanta Falcons jacket he had given his son several years before. It was snowing outside, and his dad wanted the jacket "for the ride home."
Muse pointed his dad in the direction of the bedroom, where he disappeared for an uncomfortably long period of time. Muse finally walked back to the bedroom and found his dad standing quietly in the doorway. He quickly found the jacket for his dad, who left shortly afterward and told his son, "I'll see you later I'll holler at you."
After his dad left for the night, Muse sent him a text.
"I love you."
The events of that night's visit played over and over again in Muse's mind as he stood in the bedroom doorway after returning from the hotel. He somehow began to understand what his dad had done. He walked toward the closest, where he started throwing clothes and papers around without care for the mess.
Suddenly, there it was, the medallion falling out of a pile in the closet, landing right in front of Muse. His dad had left him one last piece of himself. There was no note, no attempt to explain, but he had passed his medallion on to his son.
Muse had at least one answer.
"I didn't have a choice but to break down," he said.
Unfortunately and unintentionally, Allen Muse Sr. also passed on something else to his son.
"Why didn't I notice that he didn't have (the medallion) on when he walked back out?" Muse thought. "You just live with that. How did I not see that?"
Muse says only that he knows his father was struggling with depression, and while he respects the empathy behind the curiosity, no other word ignites his internal rage quite the way that question does.
"If nobody else has been through it, they really wouldn't understand," Muse said. "Everybody always asks, 'Why, Why, Why?' "
He has tried his best to suppress the frustrations since losing his best friend, the man who never missed one of his football games -- from trips across New Orleans to driving thousands of miles while following Arkansas State on the road.
Muse's father taught him how to survive on the rough streets in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, how to overcome the family's move to Leesville, La., following Hurricane Katrina, how to keep a positive outlook after the condition that led to open-heart surgery was discovered before Muse ever played a down of college football.
The grown-up kid who never turned down a game of catch, though, hadn't prepared his son for this. The foundation of their relationship, after all, had been an open channel of communication, no subject off limits.
"Whatever you do, just be honest with me," his father would say.
Muse was always just that, sharing his early dislike for high school to asking questions about girls. His dad continued to pass along life lessons as Muse blossomed into a top high school recruit, with interest from LSU, Ole Miss and Southern Mississippi among other schools. The lessons handed down from the former Grambling baseball player continued once Muse signed with Arkansas State, where he felt at home because of his relationship with then-coach Steve Roberts.
Father and son were inseparable.
Ardell Blossom watched the two on a near daily basis while growing up in New Orleans. Blossom, Muse's cousin, will never forget the pride Muse Sr. had about his son's football career -- or how eager Muse Jr. was to look in the stands at games for a brief look of support from his dad.
"The connection that they had was unbelievable," Blossom said. "Allen's dad was there every step of the way, his mentor from beginning to end."
Blossom still talks with his childhood friend 2-3 times a week.
Even he had no idea just how bad things were.
After the initial mourning period for his father, Muse's days began to run together. Relationships worsened and football became an afterthought. He told his coaches he wasn't sure if he wanted to, or could, play again.
He started drinking himself to sleep most nights, if he slept at all, while "going to every party I could find." His grades plummeted. Some days, he'd go to class in his pajamas. Other days, he wouldn't go at all.
Most people around him knew his father had died, but only a few knew how. Muse didn't even tell his girlfriend, Jordan Howington, the details until a month ago -- more than a year after he died and nine months after the two started dating.
Muse would call her some nights at 1 a.m. They would walk across the Arkansas State campus, sit on the football field and talk until 4 a.m. Howington thought it strange that Muse would and could stay out so late and still wake up just a few hours later for football workouts, but she saw a sincerity that intrigued her.
"He has a heart like nobody else I've ever met," Howington said.
Muse's mood worsened once last season began. He was expected by most to build on a sophomore season in which he caught 42 passes for 635 yards. He took a shot for a sports hernia injury during preseason practices and felt better than ever, but the effects wore off prior to the Red Wolves' season opener at Illinois. Muse reinjured himself during the game and finished the season with just 16 catches while missing multiple games.
"That's when his anger started to explode," Howington said. "I didn't know what to do; he was so down on himself. It was one of the most painful things I've ever had to watch."
Finally, during a trip to New Orleans to visit Muse's mom, Kimberly, and sister, Keaira, Howington decided she needed to know. Later that night, Muse "poured out his heart."
"I have to get this off my chest," he said. "It's time."
He finally let go.
According to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, there were 36,909 suicides in the United States in 2008. No stat calculates the impact on those left behind, survivors of suicide like Muse, his mother and sister, who declined to talk for this story. Often, they suffer in silence -- with a crippling mix of guilt, regret and shame fueling their grief, unable to find closure.
For Muse, April 13 is the hardest. It's his dad's birthday.
Muse has an 8-inch scar down the center of his chest. It's where doctors performed surgery prior to Muse's freshman year in college to remove extra tissue in his heart, tissue that threatened to stop blood flowing throughout his body.
Like the scar on his chest, Muse has learned that emotional scars are now part of him.
He used to wonder "Why me," especially while stranded on a bridge for three days following Hurricane Katrina or when his heart defect threatened to end his football career. Now, he realizes that all of these things were put in front of him for a reason.
"Everything I went through kind of prepared me for the last year after my dad," Muse said. "I don't know if I would have made it without everything else."
Muse is no longer hiding from the pain. There are simply too many good things happening to be dragged down. His grades are back up, NFL teams are still calling after he had surgery in February to correct that hernia and the computer engineering major is on schedule to graduate in December.
"Everything is about to start happening for me right now," Muse said. "Not too many young black guys from New Orleans can say they graduated from college, from high school, period. I can only imagine where I'm headed."
Muse still has questions. He misses his dad.
But he is finally more thankful for their time together than upset about the time they will never have.
"The 'why' is always going to stick with you, forever really," Muse said. "I'm just content with myself and that I won't ever understand why. I feel him around me all the time. I feel like he's there watching me play."