This article contains details about suicidal thoughts. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available at 800-273-TALK (8255) for anyone who needs support.
On a Sunday morning in the spring of 2011, the only decision Bill Sproat had left to make was where he was going to kill himself. Would it be easier for people to find him in his living room, he wondered, or the backyard?
“I was worried people would find bone fragments and bloody matter all in the yard,” he says. “I don’t know why I thought about that but I did.”
He sat at the kitchen table and weighed the options while putting the finishing touches on his suicide note. A gun rested on the table close by. He picked it up.
At that time when he was considering ending his life, it’s difficult to overstate Sproat’s stature on and around the campus of Utah State University. He was more than a student. He was a full-blown celebrity in Logan, Utah. And when he stepped inside the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, he became something more: a demigod, with 10,000 people chanting his name. Nationally, he had become one of the most recognizable faces in all of sports, written about in Sports Illustrated, discussed on ESPN’s First Take, and even given the top spot in ESPN’s Top 10 plays.
So why on earth did he want to die?
An unexpected phone call cut through the silence in the kitchen.
“I’m outside and I’m coming in,” Naki Asisi, Sproat’s former roommate, told him.
The two were scheduled to go to lunch, though Sproat had cancelled in a text just minutes earlier. Asisi remembers seeing the text and brushing it off, before a sudden sick feeling in his stomach compelled him not to take no for an answer. He called from the car and walked directly into the house though the unlocked front door.
Sproat panicked, hid the gun in a cabinet and buried the note in his pocket. He asked for a minute to get ready, ran into the backyard and burned the note, for shame of someone finding it. Asisi could tell something was off, but said nothing until Sproat asked him to pull the car over in the Cache Valley Mall parking lot minutes later. He shared that the surprise visit had saved his life. The friends cried together.
“I look at it as a miracle,” Asisi says now. “Somebody on the other side knew he wasn’t ready.”
Looking back now, it’s easy to see how Sproat used the same techniques that made him famous to successfully hide his depression. He even admits as much. To the outside world, he masked himself as a happy-go-lucky jester. He was the king of the Spectrum without ever stepping foot on the floor, ruling from his throne in Section F, Row 1, Seat 17. He was a costumed super-fan who mounted the barrier to the student section and held court during opposing free throw attempts.
The legend began on Dec. 2, 2009, when Jimmer Fredette and the BYU Cougars came to town. Sproat hated BYU, he couldn’t stand their fans viewing the in-state rivalry with Utah State as nothing more than a hammer-and-nail relationship with their little brothers up north. So he wanted to do more than just help Utah State win the game.
“I really wanted to offend them,” he said.
During the first free throw of the second half, the 26-year-old, 350-pound Sproat tore off his clothes, climbed on top of the barrier dressed as a Chippendales dancer — black speedo, bowtie, white collar and wrist tape — and shook his comically large belly. The crowd went crazy. The Aggies won the game by 10 points, and Fredette went an icy 5-for-15 from the field.
The legend of “Wild Bill” was born.
He followed up the Chippendales outfit with a Nacho Libre costume, then over the next two seasons dressed as Peter Pan, a hula dancer, a mermaid, a teapot, and basically anything else that didn’t restrict him from shaking what his momma (and an uninhibited diet) gave him.
Back then, the average sports fan didn’t recognize the Spectrum as one of the most fearsome venues in college basketball, even though the Aggies were in the midst of a 71-2 home winning spree. The students accounted for a third of the 10,000-plus fans packed in for every game, and had already popularized the “I Believe That We Will Win” chant spreading nationwide. But it was Wild Bill who became the icon representing Utah State teams that went 27-8 and 30-4 in his two seasons behind the basket, making a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances. Before the widespread use of YouTube and social media, his free throw escapades spread like wildfire.
A decade ago in Logan, everyone wanted a piece of Wild Bill. He never waited in line for a party. He rarely paid for a drink. Alumni treated him to dinners or gave him a $200 dollar handshake in the hopes that he’d come play craps with them. His house on campus became a nonstop hub of people coming and going, looking for a good time.
Sproat embraced living hard and fast. He once bet a friend that he’d be dead at the age of 33. It was a stupid bet, he admits, because if he won it meant he was dead and if he lost he’d have to buy his friend dinner. He felt in no danger of losing.
“I planned on dying at 33, just like three of the greatest men ever,” he said. He’s referring, of course, to his heroes: John Belushi, Chris Farley, and Jesus.
Farley’s Chippendales skit on “Saturday Night Live” inspired Wild Bill’s first costume, as well as his persona in front of the crowd. Sproat carried Farley’s burden as a particular kind of funnyman. His weight was not something he could turn off, and he felt the need to entertain people everywhere he went. He could make them laugh, but couldn’t determine whether they were laughing with him or at him. The uncertainty tortured him.
In the bowels of the Spectrum as he put on his costumes for games, Sproat would cry and scream at himself.
“You’re an idiot, people hate you, you’re ugly, you’re fat,” he’d shout. “Don’t you dare do this.”
He began disassociating Wild Bill, the carefree party animal, with Bill Sproat, the sensitive human being.
Jessica Wilkinson witnessed both sides. She met Sproat at a fall party when he was wearing nothing except a red speedo and a painted set of six pack abs on his belly (a “bodybuilder” costume, he claims).
“Even though I was like ‘who is this guy,’” Wilkinson said, “I had one of those unique feelings, which is like ‘we’re going to be lifelong friends,’ you just kind of know.”
As the wife of Utah State’s star basketball player Gary Wilkinson, Jessica saw the other Bill during weekly game nights with the players, where he relaxed and used his supernatural ability to connect with people to forge deep and meaningful relationships.
“Those are my favorite memories of Bill,” she added.
Sproat struggled to keep his two lives apart. And he self-medicated.
“To find a night that I wasn’t completely hammer drunk was damn near impossible,” he said. “It helped me not care for a little bit, but you can only drown the feelings for so long until you drown yourself.”
Inside the Spectrum, the Wild Bill persona became an uncontrollable maelstrom. During a February game he earned ESPN’s Not Top 10 play of the week by causing Idaho’s Marvin Jefferson to badly miss two free throws using a Cupid costume, complete with pink tutu, fairy wings, a miniature suction cup bow and arrow, and a nasty full-body sunburn from an unsupervised nap in a tanning bed. “Bill! Bill! Bill!” the crowd chanted before the first miss, pointing at the 350-pound fairy. After the miss, “You like Bill! You like Bill! You like Bill!”
After helping cut down the nets to celebrate Utah State’s 2010 WAC Championship, opportunities arose nationwide, pulling him further from his friends and support system with each experience. He travelled to Charlotte to appear on ESPN studio shows, then around the country for a “Nitro Circus” style stunt show called “Thrillbillies.” There were no lengths to which Sproat would not go to sustain his own legend, and his disregard for personal health passed a dangerous threshold. One “Thrillbillies” stunt broke both his ankles and cracked his skull. He’d been spitting up blood for three months, and hadn’t slept in at least six. His skin turned pale gray. Still the partying continued. The legend lived on.
Sproat refused to see a doctor until a violent coughing bout caused him to crack a rib during a grocery trip with his mother. He begrudgingly went in for x-rays, which revealed 50-plus blood clots in his lungs, two golf-ball-sized clots in his heart and a 10 percent ejection fraction (a healthy heart ejects 55 to 70 percent of blood in the left ventricle with each heartbeat). A virus, left untreated, had enlarged his heart and shut down his kidney and liver. The doctor told his mother he’d never seen someone survive in such condition. He was flown to a Salt Lake City hospital on a life flight plane. After a weeklong coma, he awoke to a room full of doctors, nurses, and concerned family members, so he chose his first words carefully.
“There better not be any BYU fans in here. I’d rather die.”
Soon after, he did “die,” when an incorrect dose of medication caused his heart to stop beating for seven minutes. He would learn later the nurse operating the defibrillator who revived him was a BYU graduate.
Sproat recovered and made a hesitant return to his Wild Bill character for the 2010-11 season. By then there was immense pressure to live up to expectations. According to WIlkinson, fans were coming to the games as much for Wild Bill as for the team. Sproat attended therapy for PTSD related to his brush with death, and remembers his doctor questioning how he could be depressed with 10,000 people chanting his name at every game.
“I feel like I’m going to let them down,” he would say. “This whole place can chant my name and I’ll feel all alone.”
Still, Sproat lived for those precious moments in the spotlight, like an addict’s high. The rest of his life spiraled downward. He stood on the barrier only once wearing one of his most memorable costumes, Mrs. Teapot from Beauty and the Beast, before he passed out and had to be taken to the training room mid-game. He hadn’t eaten all day or slept the night before.
Linda Zimmerman, a Utah State cheerleading coach who volunteered her office to let Sproat change into costumes, identified the incident as something more than heatstroke. She noticed his sunken eyes and the dark rings forming around them.
“Everybody thought he was this happy-go-lucky person, an entertainer, always a smile on his face,” she said. “When I worked with him one on one it was a totally different demeanor. Sadness, very, very, very depressed.”
In early 2011, in the depths of winter, Sproat began to question why he was still alive. He was failing out of school, medical bills were piling up, and he was certain that at any moment his funny guy act would tire.
“When I died and came back I felt that Jesus had given me a second chance, but I didn’t feel like I was doing anything with it,” Sproat said. “I felt like it was wasted on me, that someone else should have this.”
That’s how he found himself at the kitchen table with a gun in his hand. After Asisi’s miraculous intervention, Sproat used renewed faith to climb out of depression’s grip, rededicating himself to the Church of Latter Day Saints.
Sproat also reconnected with friends. He spent nearly every day in the summer of 2011 with Tai Wesley, the reigning WAC Player of the Year and a fellow Polynesian. Wesley played a key role in the Wild Bill origin story by convincing Sproat to come watch him play in early 2009, even though Sproat didn’t like basketball. When the duo got together it was like, in Wesley’s words, “putting gasoline on a fire.” Both had an insatiable competitive streak and a flair for high-school-style hijinks. For the prize of a dollar store WWE championship belt, Sproat would eat a banana so rotten it was black, or wear a string of fireworks across his chest like a bandolier and light the fuse.
A handful of times they stole the athletic department’s golf carts for joy rides around campus, hurling basketball-sized water balloons at passers-by, until one night the police got called. Sproat swears he wasn’t there, adding in the most Wild Bill way possible, “I think we would’ve gotten out of it if I was there because I knew the cop really well.”
He existed somewhere in the gray area between thinking his celebrity status made him untouchable and actually being untouchable. More than that, he was happy.
As summer turned to fall, Wesley shipped off to play professional ball in Australia. Gary and Jessica Wilkinson were already gone, first to Greece and then New Zealand. Time passed. Sproat began working at a residential treatment facility for kids on the autism spectrum, and — with Wild Bill behind him — found a measure of control over his mental health.
He began spending more time with James Clark, one of his best friends since adolescence, since both were members of what Sproat calls the “elite club” of people nearing 30 and still single in Utah’s LDS community. Then tragedy struck again. Sproat woke up in the middle of the night at Clark’s house in 2014 to use the restroom and noticed the door open and a light on in his friend’s room. He thought nothing of it and went back to sleep. In the morning he slipped out early and texted Clark to phone when he woke up. Immediately he received a call back.
“James is dead! James is dead!” It was Clark’s father. Sproat rushed back to the house and took in the scene with disbelief. An accidental overdose of medication for his severe back pain placed Clark’s time of death right around when Sproat had seen the light on in the night.
Sproat’s spirits plummeted. He blamed himself. For the next couple months he lived like a nomad, hitchhiking aimlessly and reliving the nightmare every time he closed his eyes. It was dangerous, but that was the point, he says:
“I wanted someone to kill me.”
Around 1 a.m. on an October night, Sproat sat and pondered the same morbid question he’d grappled with three years earlier. Where should he kill himself? He held a bottle of liquor in one hand and a gun in the other.
A text message buzzed on his phone.
Hi Bill, it’s Jess Wilkinson. Just thinking about you and hoping all is well. Please let us know if you ever need anything. We love you so much.”
Looking back, Wilkinson can’t believe the simplicity of the message. She felt burdensome, texting him so late at night, and besides, he was closer with her husband Gary anyway.
“What’s weird is right before I sent it I got this really sick feeling,” she said. “And that’s when I was like, whatever, even if he thinks I’m psycho and doesn’t answer, I’m just going to text him.”
Wilkinson remembers it taking several minutes for a response.
Love you Jess. Thanks for your message, I needed it.
“I’m just thankful that we had the relationship with the real Bill, so it was able to be received in the way my heart so meant it,” Wilkinson said, crediting divine intervention.
Not until November 2018 would she fully understand the gravity of her text, when Sproat shared his story on a friend’s podcast. He went into painful and intimate detail. Wilkinson remembers crying from start to finish.
Sproat has embraced the role of advocate since coming to accept his struggles with depression. He speaks at schools about mental health. He even started his own podcast, inviting Utah State figures past and present to share their stories. During a special episode airing during Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, he laid out his own near-suicides in full.
Ask Sproat or any of his friends how he’s reached what he calls “a really good place,” and the first person they will mention is Cami. They met in late 2016 via a mutual friend and were married in October 2017. Cami, fittingly, graduated from BYU. The school rivalry has been the source of endless trash talk and at least one serious marital fight when Bill refused to sit with Cami’s family underneath (or even beside) a BYU tent during a day at the lake. She took it to mean he didn’t like her family.
“I have standards,” he remembers saying.
Initially, she had no idea about Sproat’s Wild Bill side. He liked that, since previous girlfriends were more interested in the legend than the person behind it. For months she avoided videos and photos, and even when he felt comfortable enough to share it, she had a hard time grasping the magnitude of Wild Bill’s legacy.
Then in March of 2019, the Sproats travelled north from their home in Salt Lake City to Logan for a game against the nationally ranked Nevada Wolf Pack. At halftime, Sproat chatted with friends who had stood beside him in the front row of the student section a decade earlier. They floated an idea. Would Wild Bill consider a return, for old times sake? No, he told them. What if they paid him? One offered $50. Another matched. Ryan Balis, who used to stand in Section F, Row 1, Seat 16, directly beside Bill — a seat that “somehow” got detached and now resides in Balis’s home — remembers venmo-ing Sproat $50 with the memo line “Make Wild Bill Naked Again.”
After milking the pot for a couple hundred dollars, Sproat gave in. He descended the stairs of the student section nervously, unsure if current students would even remember Wild Bill.
“I was freaking out the entire time,” he said.
Finally, a foul. Wild Bill ripped off his shirt and stepped up to his former throne.
“I got up there and it was almost like…I don’t know,” he said. “It was a mix of the most scared I’ve ever been with like, ‘hey, I’m home.’”
In the stands, Cami remembers her own hands shaking as she took a video of the moment.
“I know what it had caused for him in years past, and I could tell he was kind of anxious and stressed about it, but now it wasn’t in a negative way,” she said. “To see him as Wild Bill, it was fun and it was something that I was happy I could finally see in real life.”
The moment certainly appeared cathartic, or at least as cathartic as a 35-year-old, nearly 300-pound man shaking his belly could ever be.
Sproat readily admits he hasn’t conquered depression. He’s learned better ways to cope now, whether it’s hunting, fishing, working out consistently, or eating cleanly. He’s happy with his job as a facilities manager for 1-800-CONTACTS.
But the tragedy of Sproat is that despite the extraordinary life he’s lived, he still struggles.
“I live with my demons every day, I still battle them,” he said. “I still get a little down on myself sometimes. I don’t think I’ve done anything significant with my life yet, and people are always saying you’re here for a reason. I say ‘when you figure that out will you let me know because I feel like shit still.’”
I met Sproat at his house in Salt Lake City, and we spoke down in a basement that he’s converted into a podcasting studio. The walls are plastered with Wild Bill regalia, framed jerseys and signed balls and magazine covers.
He seems content, at peace if not entirely happy. His latest struggle is with infertility, which Sproat calls one of the hardest things he’s ever been through. The day before, he’d undergone surgery to remove some blood vessels near his testicles, causing what Sproat affectionately refers to as “hot nuts.”
“[Infertility] strains your relationship, it strains your view of you as a human and as a man especially,” he said.
He then showed me his backyard, where he keeps his chickens. He turned and motioned to the ground where he plans to build a garden. For now, it’s still winter, and the ground is brown and barren. But one day, hopefully soon, he knows the weather will warm.
Hope springs eternal.