NWI.com sports medicine columnist John Doherty wrote a piece about how routine is needed during the COVID-19 pandemic. He spoke with Athletes Connected’s Will Heininger for this story about the program, his journey, and advice for those seeking a routine.
By John Doherty
Michigan football fans may remember Will Heininger. A defensive tackle for the Wolverines, he was a four-time Academic All-Big-Ten winner and Distinguished Scholar, who graduated in 2011.
I interviewed him two years later at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis following a press conference sponsored by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association regarding mental health in college athletics. Heininger was the final speaker to come to the podium that day — to give a face to the problem.
His was a face and story you might not expect.
Near the end of his freshman year, his parents divorced and Heininger went into a deep depression. Initially, he shared his pain with nobody, except his mother.
One day at the end of a practice, though, Wolverine athletic trainer Lenny Navitskis noticed Heininger with tears in his eyes for no apparent reason. Navitskis pulled the athlete aside and asked what was going on. When given an answer, he immediately took Heininger to the office of athletic department social worker Barb Hansen.
“As athletes, we are so accustomed to routine. A lot of student-athletes thrive on the regulation that comes with that routine. Everyone is dealing with the (current) uncertainty and we deal with that in different ways, whether you are a senior and unsure whether you are ever going to get to compete again or if you are a freshman and this is not the experience you anticipated coming in.” — Will Heininger
“(Her) office was in the football building where I spent the majority of my life,” said Heininger, “and I had never known it. A combination of good therapy from Barb, the right medicine, and love from family and friends helped me climb out from the depths of this horrible disease.”
The appearance in Indianapolis was a life-changing moment for Heininger. He had spoken about his struggles publicly only two or three times previously but at NCAA headquarters, it was the first time with any media present. As a result, it was also the first time many of his former teammates learned of his difficulties.
Shortly thereafter, the University of Michigan Depression Center successfully applied for an NCAA grant. It was intended to improve mental health among student athletes.
“I got a call from them and they asked if I wanted to come work on this project,” Heininger told me earlier this month. “At the same time, I was talking to (then football) coach Brady Hoke and about coming back and helping out with the staff a little bit there. So, I left Chicago in 2014. The first year, I did a split of football and working on this program that would become Athletes Connected, eventually. I have since moved into working more with the Depression Center and working more on outreach and education programing.”
The Athletes Connected program is, according to its website, “a unique collaboration between the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Depression Center, and Athletic Department to increase awareness of mental health issues, reduce the stigma of help-seeking, and promote positive coping skills among student athletes.”
With all the uncertainty they are currently facing, athletes need positive coping skills more than ever. In the pre-COVID-19 world, Heininger reported, 25-33% of athletes could be expected to experience a mental health issue at some point in their college career. It is reasonable to expect even higher numbers now.
“As athletes, we are so accustomed to routine,” Heininger said. “A lot of student-athletes thrive on the regulation that comes with that routine. Everyone is dealing with the (current) uncertainty and we deal with that in different ways, whether you are a senior and unsure whether you are ever going to get to compete again or if you are a freshman and this is not the experience you anticipated coming in.”
Read the rest of the story on nwitimes.com.