Mike Locksley listened intently as every Maryland football player and coach, one by one, shared the hero, highlight and hardship of their lives. He often felt tears welling in his eyes during the team bonding exercise he implemented this past offseason.
Some recounted stories of loss. Some spoke about battles with injury. And some shared their struggles with mental health and illness, long and short term, for the first time.
There was no sugar-coating, just the cold, honest truth. Locksley wanted to know the good, the bad and the ugly. He wanted to know what his ‘football family’ has been through. He wanted everyone to get to know each other beyond the images they project. But most importantly, he wanted to know how he could help, how he could support them.
“Anything I can do as far as my part as the leader of an organization of 18 to 22-year-olds that may have or may be dealing with issues and mental health issues, I owe it to our program and our players to provide the best resources available to help them be the best version of themselves,” Locksley told Testudo Times. “The mental health of our players [is] at the first and foremost of our thoughts.”
It’s easy to slide in a few sentences about mental health at a press conference. It’s easy to send out a generic post on social media. It’s easy to bring up the topic on a rare occasion. And that’s how it’s dealt with across most programs in college football. But that doesn’t satisfy Locksley. Rather, mental health is one of the fundamental values of his program, because for the second-year head coach, it goes well beyond words.
There isn’t a day that goes by where Locksley doesn’t think about Meiko.
His son was shot and killed in Columbia, Maryland on Sept. 3, 2017, and there still aren’t any leads, leaving the Locksley family longing for closure.
Meiko spent the last few years of his life learning to cope with mental illness after being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which caused him to lose his sense of truth and fiction, unable to tell if something was real or fake inside of his head.
Just a year prior, Locksley said his son appeared as a typical 21-year-old, then playing for New Mexico as a safety — the same position the elder Locksley manned at Towson State University. It was a completely unexpected shift.
As things began to unravel, Locksley’s initial reaction was to question whether his son was on drugs or not, as he simply couldn’t comprehend what was happening. The inclination was wrong, but, like the majority of people, the father of four didn’t have a full understanding of mental illness, unfamiliar with the wide spectrum of conditions and the way they take shape, oftentimes overpowering one’s personality and actions.
Once they learned about Meiko’s diagnosis, Locksley and his wife, Kia, reached out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to help them navigate the situation, with the hopes of educating themselves to be able to help Meiko as best they could. “We just didn’t have a playbook for dealing with it and knowing what it was,” Locksley said.
Schizoaffective disorder incorporates symptoms of schizophrenia, which can cause episodes of hallucinations or delusions, and a mood disorder, such as mania or depression. The chronic health condition is considered relatively rare, only affecting 0.3% of the population, equivalent to one in 300 people, according to NAMI. However, those numbers are just estimates as it often is misdiagnosed.
Misdiagnosis is a frequent occurrence across the wide range of mental health conditions, and the perpetuation of stereotypes plays a big role in this. Conversations on the topic of mental health have become somewhat more common in recent years, but vast generalizations, judgment and misinformation still remain.
Though society has developed more acceptance towards people dealing with struggles associated with mental health, such as depression and anxiety, it’s often only to a certain extent. A temporary phase is accepted, yet mental illnesses, which are chronic and typically influenced by genetics and chemical imbalances, remain taboo and extremely misunderstood.
“People look at cancer and they have empathy for people that have cancer. And for some reason, they don’t see mental health or mental illness as a disease and they seem to think it’s chosen or something that they can beat,” Locksley said. “But what I found is it’s a disease and there’s no cure for it, just like there’s no cure for cancer.”
The wide spectrum of mental illnesses, which affect a person’s thinking, feeling and mood, is also widely misconceived. Depression and anxiety are the first things that come to mind for most people, but it goes well beyond that. Regardless of what diagnosis someone falls into, if there is one, there are different classifications with symptoms that show in a multitude of ways, in some cases much more subtly, and no one goes through the same experience.
Let’s take bipolar disorder, for instance. The condition is rarely projected realistically by mass media and entertainment, in which people with the disorder enter a state of manic craziness in a split second and can often be violent. It’s also used negatively as an insult in rap songs and other music.
But in actuality, there are four different types of bipolar disorder, only one of which is known to cause major manic episodes. Each classification involves shifting phases of high and low mood.
While vastly different, conditions such as psychosis and dissociative disorder affect how someone perceives reality in their own head. But, once again, none of these necessarily make someone violent as many superhero villains like the Joker are represented.
Another deeply misunderstood illness is borderline personality disorder. This is not something that makes people have two completely different personalities, as can often be misconstrued because of the name. Though there can be more mild forms, people with the condition experience intense emotions that are hard to regulate, including low self-image, mood swings and disconnect from one’s thoughts or sense of identity, which makes forming relationships difficult.
Those affected by any form of mental illness work hard every single day to have the best life possible, as anyone does, often hiding their symptoms because they don’t want to be perceived a certain way. But that can be extremely difficult at times with so many factors out of one’s control.
Now armed with all of this knowledge, Locksley feels a responsibility to pass on the information to his players. A responsibility to break the stigmas and common misconceptions surrounding mental health issues. A responsibility to make sure his players know they don’t have to be ashamed to ask for help, rather, that they are encouraged to do so. A responsibility to make sure he’s checking in with how his players are doing and pay attention to any warning signs that they might be struggling.
“[It’s important] to be able to communicate, to be able to listen, to familiarize yourself as a coach or as a leader with what it looks like,” Locksley told Testudo Times. “Changes in behavior, changes in appearance, all these different issues and things that, you know, even for us as parents, sometimes right under your own nose you don’t notice the change in your child. Well, for me, my antennas are always up just because I got caught off guard with Meiko.”
According to NAMI, every year, one in five American adults deal with some form of mental health issue, such as a period of depression or anxiety, while one in 20 are living with a serious mental health condition.
And though a lot of this arises for men during their college years, Locksley said he tends to see more and more that players come into his program with issues they haven’t dealt with or have been scared to get help with. They were always told there was no room for any sort of weakness in football.
“Emotions are for girls.” “Fight through the pain.” “Toughen up.”
Tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo heard these phrases repeated over and over from the first day he strapped on pads. Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Keandre Jones, who played at Maryland in 2019, was told similar sentiments. So was Jeshaun Jones. Ask most football players and they’ll say the same.
“Growing up in that mentality, that sticks with you as you get older,” Okonkwo told Testudo Times. “It’s not like it ever changes because we never [had] those conversations. So that’s really a big problem because at some point all that trauma inside of you is gonna boil over.”
But Locksley wants to erase that hyper-masculine mentality. He wants to have those conversations on a regular basis. He wants to show players that they aren’t any less of a man or player for sharing how they’re actually feeling.
“The stigma that as a football player you’re soft if you wanna meet or talk with people about mental health, and that, ‘Oh, just get over it,’” Locksley said. “And there is no ‘get over it.’
There was no ‘get over it’ with Meiko when he went through his episodes of mental health and his issues. There was no ‘get over it.’ There was, ‘Hey, how can I help him get through it?’ And to me, that’s the approach that I’ve always taken as a head coach in dealing with developing and raising [young] men in our program.”
Locksley took over a Maryland football program still reeling from the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who collapsed during a practice in May 2018. Players had just gotten through a season filled with coaching changes, investigations and public scrutiny into reports of a toxic culture within the program, all the while still struggling to grieve with a life lost too soon.
“In terms of Jordan, most definitely it did play an emotional role in all of us,” Okonkwo said. “There were many days where we’d just chill like a team in the field house, you know, a lot of people would just be a lot quieter than they usually were and people would just be down.”
Locksley was going through a similar pain, still trying to find a way to cope with Meiko’s death. Regardless, he said he came in as “kind of a stepdad, an outsider” as the group had naturally built a shield around itself prior to his arrival. The first step of his program rebuild was to lay a foundation of trust and family, and in doing so, the group helped each other heal through their respective tragedies.
One of the first things Locksley did was interview players to get a sense of what they wanted to see out of him as a head coach, including how he could establish that trust and bring the team closer together.
In addition to holding fun activities outside of practice, Locksley brought the team into his life off the field. Throughout the summer, he welcomed players to his home, where they spent time together by the pool, played pickup games of basketball and drove go-carts on the track in his backyard.
“It was unique when the coaches don’t just involve just the football aspect,” Jones told Testudo Times. “I think it’s unique for them to actually get to know their players, and that’s what Locks is doing.”
From the start, Locksley and his coaches have stressed that the program has an open-door policy. They’ve encouraged players to come to their offices at any time, making it clear that they wouldn’t be punished, judged or viewed in a different light for sharing what they needed to get off their chest; whatever it be, they were there to help make the situation easier on them.
“That was really big to just know,” Okonkwo said. “I don’t really think that was really said with the old coaching staff. Like you just know you can talk to any coach and they’ll keep the information between you and them.”
Before nearly every team meeting, according to players, Locksley makes sure to emphasize the importance of mental health and remind players of the resources available to them.
Along with the option of speaking to any coach, players can meet with Dr. Michelle Garvin, the team’s director of clinical and sports psychology, whenever they want. They also have access to more specialized therapy, which the team will set up at their request. While Okonkwo hasn’t gotten therapy himself, several of his teammates have told him how much of a positive impact it’s had on their emotional well-being. Additionally, Locksley has his players fill out a mental health survey every month, as it can often be hard to notice changes within yourself.
“It was definitely an area of need for our team, especially after the 2018 year. You know, that was something that was very hard for a lot of people in very different ways, and I think having Coach Locks come in and emphasize that as a tool and as a resource for guys really helped a lot of people,” running back Jake Funk told Testudo Times.
“Kudos to Coach Locks for really understanding the situation, having sympathy for guys and using his platform to be able to provide resources and get us in front of people that were able to help a lot of the guys on the team going through X, Y and Z.”
Locksley has also brought in different people to further educate and empower his players on the topic, highlighted by Rachel Baribeau, the founder of I’m Changing the Narrative, last August before the start of the 2019 season.
Baribeau, a sports broadcaster, was deeply upset by how many negative incidents were being reported within college football programs during the summer of 2016, many of which centered around domestic and sexual violence. She said she was frustrated by how football players were being collectively generalized and wanted to help reduce such incidents, so she started giving talks across various campuses with a focus on self-love and how to respect, protect and cherish others.
With each program she visited, she learned more and more about the emotional struggles players were grappling with, adapting her talks along the way. Baribeau and Locksley had developed a close friendship ever since she led an event during his time at Alabama, so he invited her to come speak with his Maryland team. However, for this talk, she shifted her focus to shine an even bigger spotlight on mental health issues.
When she came to speak with the group, Baribeau knew that the losses of Meiko and McNair were still heavy on the minds of the men that sat in front of her. Locksley had lost a son, players had lost a brother, and she had lost her mother very recently. Grief hung over the room.
Baribeau went through a dark phase of depression following her mother’s death in May 2019. She isolated and told everyone she was fine, ashamed to reach out for help. She couldn’t sleep, unable to calm her thoughts. She had voices in her head telling her to stick a gun in her mouth and take her own life. Those thoughts grew louder and louder, to the point where she was on the verge of killing herself — she nearly went through with it.
By the time she spoke at Maryland in August, Baribeau had fought her way off the edge of that cliff and was determined to help others avoid getting even close to that point. She has always believed that her calling in life was to help people, but now she was also driven by the hope of sharing her pain for purpose.
“I’m actually glad I went through what I went through,” Baribeau said as she choked back tears. “Because I feel like now I have buckets of water for people that are still burning, and I’m going back into that burning house. I’m telling people, ‘You’re not defective, you’re not broken, you’re not alone.’”
She spoke to the Terps about her experience with complete honesty, emphasizing how stigmas often back people into a corner because of how hard it feels to reach out for help. Building on what Locks had already been preaching, she repeatedly told them to “take off the mask,” which symbolizes removing the cycle of toxic masculinity in which men bottled up their feelings, instead showing their emotions and living healthier lives — this was pre-2020, of course.
She also encouraged them to look out for each other, explaining how to detect signs that someone is struggling and the best ways to help that person cope.
“I’ll be the first to say, you know, before listening to Rachel or to Coach Locks, to them bringing it up, I never really gave mental health much thought,” linebacker Shaq Smith told Testudo Times. “After listening to them talk about it, man, those are conversations that [will] stick with me throughout the rest of my life. Those are conversations that I’d never forget. So it’s very big to me.”
Passionate about everything he’s learned, Smith now tries to educate the people around him on the topic as much as he can with the hopes of exposing them to a new perspective. He now goes out of his way to have open discussions on mental health. He now makes a habit of regularly checking in with his loved ones to see how they’re feeling and be there as someone to listen about whatever they might be grappling with, big or small.
Before she discussed own mental health battles and loss, though, Baribeau knew it was essential to bring up another tough topic during her visit; McNair’s death couldn’t be ignored. But it had to be handled delicately. She didn’t want to cut open a festering scab.
“I’ve never been more proud of a group of human beings that I didn’t know my entire life,” she distinctly remembers telling all of the players. Over a year later, Baribeau began to cry, overwhelmed with emotion, recalling that moment when she expressed how impacted she was by how the group came together during that 2018 season to honor their fallen brother.
Baribeau stayed in the room after the program as nearly 40 players came up to thank her and share their own stories. Tears were shed and embraces were shared as they continued to discuss things such as pain, loss and battles with one’s own mind. To this day, she regularly keeps in touch with many of the Terps, always there as someone to listen with patience and love, in addition to Locksley and the Maryland coaching staff.
“You have to keep at it,” Baribeau said. “And every single time you get one of these messages, you’re rewiring and rewriting these neural pathways, literally, to say, ‘Hey, listen, it’s not weak. It’s not weak.’”
Nearly a year after Baribeau first spoke to them, the Terrapins faced stress and uncertainty over whether they would even play football in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic had wiped out their spring practice and summer workouts, leaving players without a key outlet and an in-person sense of community, in addition to any other emotional issues they were originally facing.
After months of speculation over whether there would be a college football season or not, the Big Ten released conference-only schedules and medical protocols on Aug. 5. But just six days later, the decision was reversed, the season once again wiped away.
Instead of running out on the field themselves, Terrapin players spent their Saturdays watching college football on the couch. They followed ACC, SEC and Big 12 action, all the while hoping they’d eventually get their shot too.
Players waited in uncertainty as protests orchestrated by members of several other programs in the conference started to gain steam. As they watched from afar, pressure continued to build, with politicians also getting involved in the mix.
On Sept. 16, the conference once again reversed course and announced there would be a shortened season with a new format and set of protocols, citing that they felt more comfortable after evaluating more research and data on the virus.
“The emotional roller coaster of the year has a tendency to throw a lot of people off,” Funk said. “And it did for our team to some degree, but I also think that us emphasizing mental health allowed us to be able to manage the ups and downs of the year very well. I think as a whole, we did a great job keeping guys focused, keeping guys upbeat, never letting people get too down and out on themselves or the team or the season.”
After dropping its first game to Northwestern, Maryland pulled off a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback victory at home against Minnesota in Week 2. It followed that with a win against Penn State for just the third time in school history, on the road. Behind the dazzling performances of Taulia Tagovailoa, the Terrapins suddenly had national attention and looked to be on a promising path.
But that momentum was stopped in its tracks when an outbreak swept through the team, cancelling games for the next two weekends, against Ohio State and Michigan State, respectively.
After eventually being cleared by medical staff to play, the team returned to the gridiron to face No. 12 Indiana, without 23 players, including a chunk of its best talent, due to Big Ten protocol. The pause-induced rust was quite evident and the gameplay wasn’t pretty at times, especially on offense, but the Terrapins still managed to keep the eventual 27-11 defeat close for nearly three quarters.
“Our team in general is just strong-minded with adversity,” safety Antwaine Richardson said before the Nov. 28 matchup. “We just keep fighting and staying together as one, because once you start breaking apart, then that’s when your team go left. So just staying together and stuff like that, staying a family.”
Family. Whenever players were asked by the media how the team was dealing with the circumstances of 2020, that was the word everyone seemed to use. There are a lot of close-knit teams around the nation and it’s certainly one of college football’s top clichés, but Terrapin players say that bond has developed on a much deeper level because of the program-wide focus on mental health.
Because they’ve been honest with each other about their greatest struggles. Because they’ve been exposed to the realities of what mental health issues look like. Because they’ve been going out of their way to support one another. Because they’ve been continuously encouraged to open up to coaches without fear or embarrassment.
“It kind of just goes to show what kind of program that we have and the coaches that we have,” Smith said. “I know for a fact that it’s not like that everywhere in the country, so I’m blessed.”