How Notre Dame football pushes its players with an eye toward mental health

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Notre Dame defensive lineman Howard Cross III (56) tries to tackle California running back DeCarlos Brooks (25) during the Notre Dame vs. California NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Howard Cross III is enjoying a breakout season on Notre Dame’s defensive line, but there are times when even the fourth-year junior pauses over the daily mental health check-ins all Irish football players must complete.

“It simply (asks): ‘Are you stressed? One to five,’ “ Cross said. “If you’re good, you’re not stressed at all. If you, I don’t know, have a lot of school going and football is stressing you out, you’re very stressed.”

A talented young player who says he “constantly doubts himself, constantly doesn’t think he can,” the namesake son of a former Super Bowl-champion tight end typically spends three or four hours per night on his academics. That comes after a full day of classes, practice and film study.

“After practice I go home and spend an hour on (football) or more if I know I need help,” Cross said. “Then the rest is some projects or studying and God knows what else.”

Notre Dame’s bye week didn’t include much of a break from football, according to the tentative itinerary coach Marcus Freeman publicly shared, but Cross also had an accounting exam and a design project to navigate.

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As World Mental Health Day approaches on Oct. 10, Irish players rallying from an 0-2 start recognize more than ever the importance of maintaining that aspect of their well-being. Under the guidance of Matt Balis, Notre Dame’s director of football performance since early 2017, far more than the physical workload is considered when it comes to an individual player’s readiness and capacity.

The mental-health portion of the daily player intake Balis and his staff collect has been enhanced and refined even since Freeman was elevated to replace Brian Kelly 10 months ago.

“They’re putting a lot of emphasis on it,” Cross said. “They want to make sure we’re OK because we’re practicing hard. Everybody can see that. We’re going really hard, but they wanted to make sure that they’re doing it with care. They want to know what our limits are and how far we can go. They want to make sure we’re good.”

Graduate senior safety Houston Griffith, also the son of a Super Bowl champion, has seen the progression since his arrival in early 2018.

“Coach Balis is awesome,” Griffith said. “When I first got here, he was one of the focal points of turning the program with the culture. He’s always on us about making sure you’re there mentally and when you walk in the building you have the right dominant mindset to attack the lifts or to attack practice.”

For a program that closely tracks every aspect of player health, including sleep patterns and dietary habits, it would be foolhardy to overlook the “mental health piece,” as Griffith called it.   

“It’s a big thing,” Griffith said. “It’s a reality of the situation. They’re finding ways for us here at Notre Dame to be able to talk to people about mental health.”

Removing the stigma of mental health

Karen Phelps, through her fledgling nonprofits Golden Touch and Golden Minds, hopes to supplement those efforts at her alma mater as well as Saint Mary’s.

Through a recent NIL partnership with PlayBooked, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company that also works with athletes at Michigan, Michigan State, California and Florida State, Golden Touch has enlisted the help of Irish football captain Avery Davis, women’s basketball standout Dara Mabrey and members of the national-champion fencing program as it seeks to expand the mental health resources for college athletes.

Karen Phelps, CEO and founder of Golden Touch and Golden Minds

The daughter of former Notre Dame basketball coach Richard “Digger” Phelps has raised more than $25 million since 2000 for charitable foundations such as Camp Erin & Camp Mariposa; the Eluna Network (formerly Moyer Foundation) and others in the fields of suicide prevention, addiction and grief counseling.

Along with ex-husband Jamie Moyer, a 269-game winner across 25 major league baseball seasons, Karen Phelps also has raised eight children, including six who have played college sports.

That includes a freshman baseball player at Oregon and a freshman in track and field at High Point University in North Carolina, so Phelps has first-hand knowledge of the pressures, self-imposed and otherwise, this generation of college athletes must face.

“They are all different personalities, raised in a house where their dad was a professional athlete,” Phelps said in a phone interview. “I grew up in sports. Even just looking at that, you can see how you’ve got to meet each kid where they are. Some are OK to talk about it. Some are influenced by others sharing their story.”

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With input from both of her parents, Karen Phelps has launched an organization that seeks to increase off-campus resources and outreach programs for college athletes that need help or simply wish to connect with others that do.

“Then they feel not so lonely and isolated,” Phelps said. “It normalizes it for them. Then that begins their step, which may have been a little delayed, but they’re inspired by hearing other stories. That’s exactly what we’re hoping to do at Golden Minds: Open the conversation and give them a place where it’s safe to have an open mind.”

Despite significant strides in the areas of mental health awareness and positive coaching, much work remains. In the NCAA's most recent well-being survey of more than 9,800 college athletes at all levels, 38% of those in women's sports reported feeling seriously overwhelmed while about 47% of overall respondents said they felt comfortable seeking support from a mental health provider on campus.

“The stigma is a national issue, whether it’s a student-athlete or a neighbor or someone in a big company,” Phelps said. “We know that overall, students don’t feel safe. They can tell you why they don’t feel safe, and we can guess why they don’t feel safe, but to me they should feel safe. It’s no different than if they were diagnosed with cancer or something else.”

Injured Notre Dame captain Avery Davis has partnered with Golden Touch/Golden Minds to increase mental health awareness

Dealing with the fallout of COVID-19 as well as public criticism via social media has only added layers of complexity to the national challenge of maintaining mental health for youth athletes, including those at Notre Dame and across the street at Saint Mary’s.

“You’re at a high-standard university, one of the best in the country, and your academics matter, your social life matters,” Phelps said. “It’s a lot on these kids. Added support is something I hope they can depend on. ‘It’s OK not to be OK’ is that mantra that has to exist for these kids.”  

'You're not weak'

Four games into his Notre Dame career, Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph is still looking for his first interception.

Having added punt returns to his full workload as he openly eyes next spring’s NFL Draft, the brash safety from Texas says he welcomes the additional pressure. Still getting to know his new teammates, Joseph wears an important reminder on his wrist: a purple-and-white “Hilinski’s Hope” rubber bracelet.

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Northwestern quarterback Ryan Hilinski and his family created the foundation to honor the memory of older brother Tyler Hilinski, the former Washington State quarterback who committed suicide in January of 2018. Tyler Hilinski was 21.

“They started a foundation to raise awareness about mental health, about being vulnerable about your struggles, to put the emphasis on how important that is,” Joseph said this offseason. “You’re not weak if you talk about it. You’re strong when you talk about it. I wear this (bracelet) every day to just remind myself I want to constantly be bringing awareness to mental health. I want to constantly be strong in my mental health. Mental health has just become so important to me.”

Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden, who led college programs at Temple and Miami and spent the previous six seasons as an NFL assistant, appreciates the daily emphasis on mental health that Balis spearheads.

“That’s important,” Golden said. “We all say they’re amateurs and all that, and I know it’s a different era, but they’re still going to school. They’re still in the community. They still have girlfriends and everything going on in their lives, school and otherwise. It’s really important that they have an outlet and they feel like we’re there for them and that we care about the total person.”

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Fifth-year senior cornerback TaRiq Bracy, no stranger to fan criticism during his up-and-down Irish career, said it only takes him two minutes or so to complete the mental-health questionnaire. Yet, he clearly recognizes its value in keeping his spirits up while playing such a high-profile position at a program that recently fell out of the national rankings for the first time in five years.

“I put a lot of thought into it,” Bracy said. “It’s very important. (Coaches) need to see how you’re feeling and how much they need to let off, just because it’s a long season, you know?”

Notre Dame defensive back TaRiq Bracy (28) runs for a touchdown that was called back during the Notre Dame vs. California NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Even for a player like Cross, whose outgoing personality typically lifts his position room, there have been times when his teammates have felt compelled to check on his well-being.

“I get in my head a lot,” Cross said. “I hold myself to an extremely high standard. I’ll have a really good practice where some people would think that was a great practice, but I would see the three plays I didn't make and I would be like, ‘Dang.’"

Cross paused and shook his head at the memory.

“I’ve gotten a lot better to where it almost never happens or hasn't happened in a long time," he said, "but it used to be pretty bad. People used to be like, ‘All right, you're fine. You’re OK.’“

Cross doesn’t take offense at such an exchange or feel singled out. Instead, he knows it’s a vital part of a 120-player roster helping each other make it through the year-long grind of a college football experience.  

“In our culture, we're here for everybody, no matter what,” Cross said. “It's always been that way, but coach Freeman has really emphasized, ‘If you see something, help somebody out.’ If somebody’s down or somebody's not doing well or somebody's not OK, and you see that, you’d better go over and see what's up.”

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino and TikTok @mikeberardinoNDI.