February 11th, 2020 started out as a typical day in the Asbury house. Sam Asbury, son of David and Kelly, had just started his job at Northwestern Mutual after graduating from the University of Georgia. Like many things Sam did, he found success quickly. He was quickly finding his footing in the finance world and that morning he headed to the office.
Tragically, later that day Sam Asbury took his own life. He was just 23.
This is a story of tragedy, of a promising young man gone way too soon, but it's also about the number of people he continues to touch. His legacy lives on through countless people, which will be ever-present this week at the U.S. Open. J.J. Grey, a 30-year-old Englishman will tee it up on Thursday in his first major championship. In memory of his friend, his ball will be marked with Sam's initials, "SLA," as it always is.
David Asbury, Sam's dad, called me last Saturday morning. I went down to my office, turned the phone on speaker so I could take notes, and prepared for what I was sure would be one of the toughest calls I've ever had in my fledgling journalism career. I wasn't prepared.
David and I talked for over an hour about the great times, the legacy Sam has left, the people he has touched, and the darkest moments. "I'm an open book," he said early in the call. I discussed my struggles with mental health. I paused several times to collect myself. I admired his courage in telling Sam's story. I shuddered at the thought that these were the conversations my parents would have had if that window had opened in the Sahara Hotel.
The hour and some we spent on the phone had many moments of overwhelming sadness. It was also filled with overwhelming pride for Sam's life and the lives he continues to influence through past friendships or from the Samuel L. Asbury Foundation, which the family started soon after Sam's death.
From the outside, life came easy for Sam Asbury. He was a star athlete at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta. Asbury made the varsity basketball team as a freshman, started, and was the leading scorer. He went on to garner All-State honors in his senior season. Asbury remains just one of three players in school history to score 1,000 points. "He could have played D-I basketball," David told me, but golf had become his first love.
David introduced golf to Sam and Sam's brother, Ben, when they were young. While Ben mostly played in the sand traps and creeks, Sam was beating balls. He continued to play but rarely competed in events, as basketball took up most of his time.
During the summer of his junior year, despite playing mainly high school matches, Sam told his dad, "I want to play D-I golf." David explained that you just don't decide to play D-I golf halfway through your high school career, but Sam was determined. Later that year, they entered Sam in a southeastern amateur event, his first high-level tournament. He shot 69 and finished third. David remembers other parents asking, "Who the hell is this kid?" Next, he played in his first-ever AJGA event, a 36-hole tournament, which he won. Sam Asbury was going to play D-I golf.
PGA Tour winner Joe Inman recruited Sam to play at Georgia State. Other schools were recruiting him, but Sam decided to stay close to home, a choice that surprised his parents.
J.J. Grey was a junior at Georgia State at the time. Grey and Sam had met at the Dogwood Invitational tournament the summer before Sam's first year. They became fast friends. The Asburys would have Grey out to their club multiple times. At Georgia State, the two grew closer. Sam took J.J. to his first-ever basketball game, a Hawks game in Atlanta. They drank beer, laughed, practiced, and hung out almost daily.
Although he made great friends at Georgia State, Sam struggled on the course. HIs golf game started to suffer the summer before heading to Georgia State, and his first year was filled with more frustration. He played five events and averaged just over 77. The struggles continued into his sophomore year, and he elected to take a redshirt year to work on his game. Asbury never really found his form and decided to transfer to the University of Georgia and concentrate on his studies.
"It surprised us," David Asbury said a few times throughout our conversation, this time about Sam's decision to stop playing golf and transfer to UGA. He would often add, "Looking back and knowing what we know now…."
It's part of the torture a family of suicide goes through. The constant questioning of things that might have meant nothing, but wondering if they did. I assume those questions never go away.
At Georgia, Sam completed his degree in finance and landed a job with Northwestern Mutual back home in Atlanta. As Sam started his career, he decided to stay home with his parents.
On February 10, 2020, David and Sam went to coach their nephews’ youth basketball team. Sam grew up in the same gym, and when he returned that day, many former referees and coaches spoke with him, reliving his exploits on that court. David remembers Sam being quiet on the bench that night.
After the game, Sam shot baskets with his twin nephews, then David and Sam headed home to catch the second half of their beloved Atlanta Hawks game. According to David, Trae Young was Sam's favorite player, and he was terrible that night. When David spoke about that night with me, you could tell he held on so tightly to the memory of enjoying a game with his son.
After the game ended and they recapped it, as they often did, David noticed again that Sam was very quiet. As Sam climbed the stairs to bed, David said, "You OK, bud?"
"Yeah, Dad, just tired," came the reply.
The next morning David was up early as usual, but Sam wasn't, which was unusual for him. As David left for work, he went to Sam's bedroom and cracked the door. Sam said he was fine and didn't have a meeting until later in the morning. Eventually, Sam would get up and leave.
David Asbury was at his desk when he received the call. He didn't panic; he rushed home to Kelly. The paramedics came down from his room and told them Sam was gone. Twenty-three years old.
"I've been in a very dark place for some time," Sam wrote in a note. He thanked his parents for all they did, told him he loved them, and said, "As good as I've had it, and I still feel this way, I don't see how things will ever change."
David explained to me how grateful he was for the note. How it helped the family immensely, it at least gave a little insight into why.
David refused to let his son’s passing be his legacy. Two days after Sam’s death, David put his plan into action. They met with J.J Grey just a few days after Sam’s passing and discussed a plan to help J.J. chase his dream of the PGA Tour. A month later they made the deal official. "We aren't sponsoring you; Sam is."
The family then started the Samuel L. Asbury Foundation and developed a fundraising golf tournament, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. The foundation's goal is to create awareness of mental health and promote suicide prevention. The foundation has helped fund research and works with advocacy groups that raise awareness of mental health issues in student-athletes.
Mental health and suicide prevention have become the Asbury family mission. David talked about the future of the foundation. He told me about the parents and student-athletes who now reach out to him about mental health. He told me about Cooper, a former fraternity brother of Sam's, who has made mental health awareness his passion.
And J.J. Grey is the living tribute to Sam as a golfer. On Thursday, June 15, at 2:27 p.m., Grey will tee it up at Los Angeles Country Club in the U.S. Open. The ball will have "SLA" on it, as always, and in the crowd supporting him will be David and Ben Asbury.