Proper attention to the mental health of college student-athletes has been long overdue. In the macho culture of sports, particularly football, it can be seen by teammates or coaches as a sign of weakness to express issues, troubles and concerns a player is feeling for worry of being seen as weak or broken mentally.
From common cases of simply trying to learn a new lifestyle as a freshman out on his own for the first time, to navigating a major life change, feelings of stress, anxiety or bouts of depression can develop and be hard to navigate and overcome alone, or for coaches and professors to detect and offer help.
The Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference announced at football media day this year efforts to help its member schools better understand and support the mental wellness of football players. The league provided three major documents to each coaches’ committee at their annual meeting for staffs to review and encouraged coaches to meet with athletic department administration to determine resources on campus to help student-athletes’ mental well-being.
Information included former coach and player testimonials on how they dealt with and overcame serious mental issues and how coaches successfully handled various situations.
Chadron State Head Coach Jay Long told me at media day about a resource CSC is using to address mental well-being of football players: counselors.
“We just got done last week (July) with our athletic staff meetings and we had our school counselor come in and visit with us, and I think that’s great. We are also going to have the counselor visit with our team when they come in for fall camp, which also I think is great. I think (mental wellness is) something that’s very important in today’s society, something that we’ve been addressing and continue to address.” Long said.
Coach Long continued, “The biggest thing is, when a kid leaves home sometimes he feels like he’s alone and we gotta make sure that doesn’t happen. When you look at our team, our team is a close-knit team. (In) Chadron one of the strengths that we definitely have is our town size and when you have a size of town that we have it forces our kids to always be around each other, and when they’re always around each other that’s when they create those memories and they create those experiences that you may not get when you’re in a town such as Denver. You are around each other constantly and you become close knit.”
Along those lines, Chadron State is counting on two Floridian upperclassmen this year to be very important contributors on the field and who are examples of the small-town size advantages players can have, and the closeness of the CSC team. Juniors, wide receiver Tevon Wright from Miami and defensive back Demetrius McFadden from Pahokee are preparing for breakout years and happy to see the step CSC is taking by having counselors available for the team.
Wright told me after practice Thursday, “They’re good, they came to our meeting and told us about themselves, how (they can) help us. They gave us their information and let us know that we can use them anytime, place, whenever. They said they’ll be there for us no matter what.”
McFadden says the newcomers will especially benefit from the resource, ““The counselors are great man. We’ve got a lot of freshman (that have) a lot of things going through their mind. They’re gonna want to quit, go home, be homesick. But, they’re going to have to get over it and listen to the counselors. They’re (counselors) giving us great advice because they’ve been through the same things we’ve been through.”
Both players are also acting as counselors of sorts and mentors to the Eagle freshman through their own experiences on the field at CSC. Both are typically flying around at practice, keeping a keen eye on the young guys, providing pointers and advice, and carrying themselves with a confidence that’s been building as their experience and maturity has grown in Chadron.
McFadden loves being in western Nebraska with his team and said about his early days away from home, “When I was a freshman, about my second day I was ready to go home (to Florida). I called my momma. My momma said ‘no you ain’t coming home.’ So, I just gotta do my thing man. I got around my teammates everyday, got used to them.”
Wright is doing the same with the young wide receivers to help them feel more comfortable and begin building their new life within the Eagle family.
“I was telling him (a young player) to stay focused, because first thing, you come out here and a lot of freshman are scared to do stuff because they’re just freshman. So, I tell them to relax, play their game. They all can play ball. They came here for a reason, because they can play ball. I just try to help them get settled down and just do what they do. Play good, play fast.”
Wright remembers how intimidating it can be in the first fall camp and reflected on what’s different for him now compared to when he played as a true freshman, something rare in CSC’s program.
“I’m more experienced, I’m learning as the years go on. I’m learning to be more of a leader. Leadership is one of the things that Coach Masters told me that I (have to have) this year. You know, it was hard to lead as a freshman, but that’s a role that I’m picking up now with being a leader. I’m helping my team get juice and helping them up, giving them confidence because to be a receiver you’ve got to have confidence, so that’s what I’m bringing.”
As for after the years pass on the field in CSC jerseys, Coach Long says he’s making sure his players know they’re building a family for life.
“The other piece is us coaches. The kids gotta realize that we just didn’t stop recruiting them on the day they said they were going to be Eagles. We’re going to continue to take care of them until they’re done, until they graduate and walk across that stage and then we’ll still continue to talk to them and still continue to be a part of their lives.”