Scarborough High School mourns death of student wrestler who overcame tough odds

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Sam Mercer and his adoptive father, Dan Mercer, pose atop Pike’s Peak in Colorado last fall. (Courtesy photo)

Sam Mercer overcame seemingly impossible odds to make it to his senior year at Scarborough High School.

He lost his left leg to an infection that required amputation when he was less than a month old in his native Ethiopia. His father put him in an orphanage when he was 6. His adoptive American parents gave him up after three years. He bounced around Colorado foster homes and schools for most of the next decade.

But then last year he landed in Scarborough, where he quickly found himself in a real home and began to spread inspiration and cheer in the hallways of Scarborough High.

“Sam’s super power was his ability to inspire people,” said Dan Mercer, his newly adoptive father. “He was a survivor. He was loved by everyone. He resonated with people because of his disability and how he approached it.”

Now the high school community is mourning the death of the popular teen, who celebrated his 18th birthday March 26 with Mercer, an associate chaplain at Long Creek Youth Development Center who has been a single foster father to 15 other boys, six of whom he adopted.

His father, his teachers, coaches and friends are trying to come to terms with Sam’s decision to end his life Friday night, one of the few times Mercer had left him alone at home.

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“My heart just broke. It was such a surprise and a shock. I hate that it happened,” said Anthony Griffin, 17, a senior football player and one of Sam’s closest friends.

Additional counselors will be on hand at the high school Monday to help in the grieving process.

Mercer said in a telephone interview Sunday that Sam, with whom he talked frequently and deeply, had given neither him nor his mental health counselor any indication that he was suicidal.

But one of Sam’s closest friends said he knew Sam had suicidal thoughts and the friend reported them to high school officials earlier in the school year.

And Sam texted a female friend shortly before his death Friday alluding to his decision. She immediately told her parents, who called Mercer, who was on the way back from a friend’s baby shower in Boston. The Scarborough police rushed to the house. It was too late.

“Part of the problem was he was really shy and introverted. He would shine on the one hand but had a problem connecting to people on the other,” explained Mercer, who said he has been going over possible red flags since his son’s death.

Mercer, 57, who is part of a national register of foster and adoptive parents, got to know Sam last year during visits between the two in both Colorado and Maine. They found that they fit and Sam decided to make the move just a few days before school started last fall. The adoption became official on Feb. 20.

Sam was passionate about cooking and rap music. He was an enthusiastic member of the wrestling team and was profiled in a Portland Press Herald story in December. His father said Sam – whose surname at the time was Leishman – had amazing strength and due to his missing leg he weighed less than his opponents, one of the advantages of being an amputee.

Josh Bois, 17, a Scarborough High senior, counts himself among Sam’s best friends, along with Griffin.

“When he moved here he was in my math class and I introduced myself and became friends,” Josh said Sunday. “He was one of the most positive kids I knew. He was motivational and always trying to push me to do things.”

Josh said Sam was known in school mostly for his role as manager of the football team. He was famous for doing handstands on his crutches during games.

“Trying to fit in at the same time trying to show he wasn’t limited,” said Josh.

Josh said Sam did share his dark thoughts last fall about trying to fit in and had told him he thought about suicide. Josh said he went straight to the guidance department and shared some of Sam’s texts.

“They said they were going to handle it,” said Josh.

Josh said Sam seemed to get better, especially since he learned he had been accepted into Johnson & Wales University, a culinary school in Providence, Rhode Island, but the two of them seemed to drift a part a little. Josh figured Sam had figured out he had reported him to the guidance office.

Josh said when he learned of Sam’s death he immediately uploaded one of Sam’s rap songs on SoundCloud, an online service that allows musicians to share their music.

“I want him to be remembered as an artist, rather than a kid who suffered this tragic incident,” said Josh.

Anthony said he got know Sam through the football team.

“Me and Josh usually sat with him at lunchtime. That’s how we started having convos with him. He was still trying to figure out his life and who he was. I liked writing music but he really loved writing music,” said Anthony.

He said Sam would text him his verses and he would critique them.

“I think he understood music more than anyone did. His word play was so good,” said Anthony.

Anthony said he would see the sad, emotional side of Sam in his music.

He also said he has many regrets about Sam, such as not talking to him more about his emotions. He said he regrets that he didn’t try harder to change Sam’s mind when he turned down Anthony’s invitation to work out together Friday.

“The last thing I heard him say was, ‘No man, I have (expletive) to do today,’ ” said Anthony.

Mercer said Sam desperately wanted a girlfriend, which had not yet worked out, and he was still trying to figure out whether and where to go to college. He said Sam wasn’t sure he could handle Johnson & Wales University.

“I think he felt stuck,” said Mercer.

Now Mercer is planning his son’s funeral, for some time later this week, although he has little money to pay for it. He said he wants to return Sam’s ashes to his family in Ethiopia, with whom Sam had recently re-established communication and hoped to see again in person someday. He wants to establish some sort of memorial to Sam.

School officials have developed a support and communication plan for Monday morning and the following weeks. Letters went out to staff, students and their families. There will be additional counselors and substitute teachers on hand and special areas will be set up at the high school where people can mourn, Scarborough School Superintendent Julie Kukenberger said Sunday afternoon.

She said similar services will be offered at Westbrook Regional Vocational Center, where Sam was enrolled in the culinary arts program.

Kukenberger encouraged families to listen to their children and share two important messages – “that all of us should reach out when they are down or feeling suicidal and hurting and friends should reach out” for help.

Kukenberger said the National Association of Mental Illness is helping provide support, which will continue during spring break next week.

She said the high school staff will meet at the end of the school day Monday to strategize and align additional resources.

Kukenberger could not be reached for comment later Sunday about Josh’s statement that he had reported Sam’s suicidal thoughts to the guidance office.

If you or anyone you know is battling depression or has had suicidal thoughts, help is available at the Maine Crisis Hotline is 888-568-1112, and state resources are also available by calling 211 in Maine.

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