Mental health and college football: The story of Maryland punter Anthony Pecorella

Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The whispers inside Maryland football punter Anthony Pecorella’s head started on Christmas Eve just under two years ago.

His mind raced with the voices echoing inside him while he sat with his family before Christmas Day finally arrived.

“I was sitting at dinner, and there was a voice in my head telling me, ‘oh, you’re not gonna live to see tomorrow,’ and it started off as a whisper, but I didn’t really give too much thought of it, I just thought it was something in my head,” Pecorella said.

Christmas Eve is meant to be a joyous celebration for the Pecorellas. The entirety of Pecorella’s proud Italian family would come over for a meal and partake in a special get-together before the December holiday officially arrived the next day. Instead of enjoying the family festivities, Pecorella was consumed by his own thoughts that came about.

“I kind of just brushed it off to the side and went on with the rest of my night,” he said. “When I went to bed that night, the voice turned into almost like someone screaming at me like, ‘You’re worthless, you’re not going to see the light of day tomorrow, just pack it up, you’re done.’”

However, it took just one night for Pecorella to realize something. The voices that were pounding away inside his own head were wrong.

“When I woke up the next day it felt like as if I was walking on clouds on my walk downstairs to open gifts on Christmas morning because I didn’t think I was gonna be there because I believed what my voice was telling me, but what I know now is that the voice wasn’t me, it was just my mind playing tricks,” he said.

Maryland’s now-junior punter was coming off his freshman fall semester on the University of Maryland’s campus and finished his first few months as a student-athlete when he heard the voices. The stresses of his initial semester at college coming over from Long Island, New York, got to him mentally in a negative way, he explained, but his experience has opened up new avenues for him personally soon after.

Pecorella pushed through his mental health scare back in 2019, which eventually sparked the creation of Healthy Minds, an Instagram page that was originally orchestrated by himself and another Maryland student-athlete, Charley Baker of the Terps’ cheerleading squad.

Healthy Minds is a motivational page primarily intended to help people that have been or used to go through mental health complications. Pecorella described that one of the page’s goals is to help the community that he’s built to understand that student-athletes are just normal people, too.

“Especially around student athletes, everyone thinks that a student athlete has the perfect life and no one really gives too much thought to what goes on beyond their playing situation,” he explained.

Healthy Minds, which has gained nearly one thousand followers since its inception, features daily and weekly posts that are intended to motivate and push people struggling with mental health in the right direction.

One way that Pecorella does this, he explained, is that he shares visuals of his support system with his followers. If you scroll through the Instagram page, something that will stick out right away is the abundance of Pecorella’s family that is present. His family has been his helping guide through his mental issues.

“It’s always been my friends, my family, my mom, my dad and my sister,” he said.

His close-knit group of family and friends have helped him push through his ongoing struggles, and they helped Pecorella get back to a strong place mentally where he is today. But even though Pecorella’s family gets a spotlight on the Healthy Minds page, it certainly wasn’t easy for him to originally bring his family in on his mental complications in 2019.

Pecorella’s paternal grandparents were both immigrants from Italy, and ever since he was a kid, he’s recognized that it has always been a “tough love” type of environment. And even though he loves his family, sharing his mental health problems was an act that took courage and strength to do.

“My parents have done everything for me, so I didn’t want to go to them with something like, it wasn’t like I had a bruise that you could see, it was just something going on in my head that I couldn’t tell them something was wrong,” Pecorella said of telling his parents his problems in 2019.

“I felt weird because it wasn’t anything noticeably wrong. That’s the worst part about mental health because you don’t know what’s going on because it’s only happening in the person’s head.”

Pecorella recognized that going to his parents was one of the most challenging things that he’s ever had to do, and rightfully so. Telling the people that have always been there for you and that have never stopped caring for you, that’s something that takes an immeasurable amount of strength.

“They’ve given me everything so I didn’t want to go to them with another problem, and say like, ‘something’s not right,’” Pecorella said. “The worst part is you want to tell them what’s wrong, but really yourself you don’t know what’s wrong because it’s just a new experience and you don’t how to put into words so to speak.”

Pecorella specified the Healthy Minds page’s three original purposes: breaking the stigma around mental health, motivating people to get up in the morning while working through their mental problems, and his favorite pillar of the page, which is the fact that it’s an anonymous one-on-one forum with Pecorella to share problems surrounding mental health through direct messaging online.

Receiving and responding to DMs has been Pecorella’s way to share his advice, or just to lend an open ear for a little to those who need it. When asked if there are frequent direct messages through Instagram that people submit, Pecorella responded with a simple remark.

“All the time,” he proudly stated. “We respond to every DM we get.”

Pecorella explained that there is an influx of messages to the Healthy Minds account, he feels, because some people just want to talk to a regular person instead of “labeling” it as something specific. He has received notes of people sharing their own personal struggles with mental health, advice that they give and in return, Pecorella shares his own unique outlook and perspective.

“A lot of people are afraid sometimes to share, especially because they don’t know me... but I tell them to feel free to just open up and just tell me what’s going on,” he said.

But it’s not just directly through the Instagram page that Pecorella gets to share and communicate his experiences and advice. It has even become a topic of conversation amongst the Maryland football team. Players within the program are aware of Pecorella's mental health campaign and it has created an open environment amongst the team.

“From time to time, he’ll tell me about it or tell me about a new upcoming post that he’s having,” Maryland football wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. said about what he’s heard of Healthy Minds. “Just to be aware of it and to help him spread the word for that just to always be on his team.”

The willingness of some of the members on the team that talks to Pecorella privately about mental health is something that he cherishes very deeply. He said that countless people have shared their struggles, experiences and advice and that kind of openness on the roster has helped him tremendously.

“There’s more people than you would think that go through it,” Pecorella said of people coming to him. “It makes the struggle that I went through worth it because what I learned from my mental health problems in December of 2019, I’m glad that I can take what I learned from that situation and help others so they don’t have to go through what I went through.”

The Healthy Minds campaign has spread across the program in a positive way and creating an open environment starts with the head coach himself, especially during a time where mental health should be at a premium with an ongoing pandemic. Head coach Michael Locksley has advocated for an open and honest culture surrounding the program, and he continues to preach the same today heading into the 2021 season.

“I’m the leader of the mental health in terms of, you know, we got open door policies,” Locksley said. “We’re doing everything we can to kind of normalize an un-normal situation like what we are going through, you know, we’re not out of the woods yet with COVID and with the pandemic... mental health is important to us, we’ll continue to support our guys anyway we can from that standpoint.”

Pecorella’s mental health scare back in 2019 has certainly not gotten away from him in the slightest, and the Healthy Minds Instagram page is a testament to his persistence to make his mental health and others’ mental states, as stable and positive as possible.

But, Pecorella also realizes that not all people will go through the same struggles and identical situations on an everyday basis. Not everyone that sees his page can directly relate to those types of struggles. Being an ally, he said, is just as important as speaking out about your problems.

“If someone does come to you and says something is not okay, even if you’re not a mental health advocate or if you’re not really sure what all the mental health stuff means, just listen with an open heart, just try to be a good person, just listen with an open heart and just always give them the time of day, simply giving someone an ear goes a tremendous way,” Pecorella said.

Healthy Minds was intended to create a community of openness and a medium to share experiences and mental health advice without any repercussions. And ever since that Christmas Eve scare back in 2019, Pecorella feels as though he has turned his perspective into something that has caused good in his life, and more importantly, for others.

“That’s why we created the account... because if you have other people around you and you rally, it’s so much easier to overcome because simply just talking out a problem makes it that much easier... just talking it out is the biggest advice I can give,” Pecorella said. “Find that one person that you trust enough with what you’re going through. And if one becomes two, two becomes four, four becomes 10, start by finding that one person you trust.”

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