COLLEGE PARK — Rachel Baribeau has spent the better part of her adult life talking about college football, typically focusing on teams at the top of the national rankings and players in the hunt for the Heisman Trophy.
For Baribeau, the narrative changed in the summer of 2016 when she found the shows she did as a host on Sirius radio were geared more to those making headlines for the wrong reasons, most prominently the rape scandal with the Baylor football team.
“It was guys all over the country getting in trouble,” Baribeau recalled this week. “It was domestic violence, sexual violence. I remember doing a show on Sirius in Nashville and, I’m not kidding you, I literally took a [commercial] break and I cried. I was like, ‘What is going on here?’
“I had given my life to covering this sport. I know there are great guys that are coaching and playing, but when we let guys who are not doing it the right way steal the headlines, then you have people make these broad assessments about athletes and football players. That’s what was happening.”
Baribeau thought she was “audacious enough” to affect change.
It led Baribeau to create a curriculum — “Changing The Narrative” for high school students and eventually brought it to college programs to help football players on both levels of the sport speak about domestic violence, of which she had her own experience, as well as mental health awareness.
“I really started to listen to the players because they wait afterwards to talk to me,” Baribeau said. “I’ve talked to people about why that is. I think it’s because I’m a female, I care about them, I don’t want anything from them as so many people do other than them to live at their highest and best life.”
“They tell their heartbreak, they tell me how they overcame, and they tell me what they’re dealing with. And they tell me they’re struggling. And they tell me they’ve heard the same voices that I’ve heard before to kill themselves. It’s real-life stuff.“
In the past year, Baribeau’s talks have grown to include mental health awareness, leading to a partnership for Saturday’s game between Maryland and 17th-ranked Minnesota in Minneapolis putting the issue in the spotlight.
Players on both teams will have stickers adorning their helmets, showing green ribbons, the symbol for mental health awareness. The respective coaches, Maryland’s Mike Locksley and Minnesota P.J. Fleck, will wear actual green ribbons on their shirts and a video talk by Baribeau and players from both teams will be shown at TFC Bank stadium. On the back of every game program, there will be a list of resources and information about Baribeau’s program.
During the past three years Baribeau estimates she has spoken to 40 different teams — some of them more than once — and the message she hears back from the players is usually about how they don’t quite understand how to cope with their struggles.
“I realized that mental health is something that we have to start talking about, particularly men,” Baribeau said. “By and large, a lot of men have passed down something to the men in their family generationally that is killing people across the country.
“That is the idea, to be masculine, or to be manly, you need to shove it down, shut up, don’t cry, don’t talk about it, put some dirt on it, keep moving. And because of that, we have a generation, not just of young men, but older men too that came back from the war and just stopped talking about it.”
For Locksley, it hits deep in his soul. His son Meiko, who was 25 when he was shot to death in what is still an unsolved homicide in Howard County in September of 2017, was diagnosed at age “21, 22” with Schizoaffective Disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and mood disorders such as depressor or bipolar disorder.
“Out of the blue, and Kia [his wife] and I as parents had no idea how to manage it, and what it was,” Locksley said after practice Wednesday. “NAMI [National Alliance of Mental Illness] gave us resources to deal with it. It’s really something I’ve been conscientious about.”
Locksley said that Baribeau’s hour-long talk with his team in August was helpful.
“She had some really strong messaging about taking off the mask and the stigma of having mental health issues,” Locksley said. “We talk about developing these kids mentally, socially, physically, educationally. The mental part, it’s real. The unfortunate piece I found, having dealt with it as a parent, is when a kid has a broken leg, everybody knows it and they try to get it healed.
“Having a broken brain, or a sprained brain, or whatever has created it, sometimes people don’t have as much empathy for it because they don’t know. I just think to have the awareness, if there’s something wrong, go seek help, talk to somebody. As parents, what to look out for, what are signs of it, to help your kids if they’re dealing with depression. All the things that come with it.”
Fleck said during his weekly news conference that more than Baribeau’s message is getting through with his players.
“A lot of our players have very personal relationships with her in terms of being able to share information with her that maybe they haven’t shared with a lot of other people,” Fleck said. “I think it’s important to put other resources in front of them, that have voices. … She has a huge voice in college football, she does a tremendous job, and for her to be able to take her path and her platform and to move it to this direction and to this awareness, I give her a lot of credit for doing that and I wish more people would do that.”
Baribeau said there were “two middle of the night calls” when players at different schools called and told her they were contemplating suicide. She got in touch with officials at their respective schools, which quickly took action to make sure the players received immediate help.
“Thankfully they did not follow through with it,” Baribeau said.
Baribeau said that she has struggled with her own mental-health issues in recent months, since her mother died in early May.
“I had a night when I heard voices telling me to kill myself,” she said. “Thankfully I survived that. Truly, I believe I survived that because I have experience and I can say to somebody who’s struggling, ‘I’ve been there before. Here’s what I would have done, here’s what a professional told me I should have done what that happened.’ I now have the blueprint to help other people.”
Baribeau said that helping broker the partnership between the Terps and Gophers “is probably one of the proudest moments of my life.”
That life is about to undergo a major change. Toward the end of a telephone interview Thursday, Baribeau told The Baltimore Sun that she will leave her job at Sirius and her other college football reporting duties at the end of the current season to focus of getting her message out to more athletes, coaches, schools and parents.
It starts with what she tries to convey to them from the start.
“I’ve told them, ‘I’m a lifer, as long as you want me, as long as you need me, I’m here for you,’” Baribeau said. “I’m not going away and I want to come back. Schools like Minnesota and now Maryland — and Mike has promised to have me back in — that’s where the magic really happens where you have the continual relationship with me. They know they can trust me. I don’t want anything from them.”