DURHAM — Nolan Lennon is living the dream these days.
A few weeks after graduating from Clemson, he’s already pursuing an MBA as he prepares for his final season of eligibility with a soccer program that played for a national title just four seasons ago.
He’s tall, tan and in the type of physical condition that few people outside of Division I athletics ever achieve. He’s eloquent and confident as he explains his career goals as a hospital administrator and even the long path it’s taken to get here.
It’s a contrast from just a few years ago, when Lennon wasn’t confident in his place in college or soccer, or, really, anywhere. Once a highly recruited goalkeeper, three torn ACLs in a matter of 16 months left Lennon a shell of himself on the field.
“I found the hardest thing wasn’t rehabbing,” he said. “It was coming back and trying to play soccer and sucking, trying to play soccer again and just being terrible.
“I don’t play like I used to play, and trying to cope with that, just being the way that I am, I wanted to take it upon myself and get it done and figure it out.”
Lennon eventually sought help from a sport psychologist to get back on solid footing at Clemson, and today, he’s a champion for mental health services for other student-athletes. He was one of nearly 500 in attendance Tuesday as the ACC hosted its first Mental Health Summit in Durham, inviting athletes, administrators and mental health professionals from around the conference for two days of seminars and conversations as the ACC and its schools hope to set the bar nationally for mental health services available to student-athletes.
“The ACC needs to be a leader in this,” Commissioner John Swofford said. “We’re remiss if we’re not.”
As of January, all Power Five conferences are required to make mental health services and resources available to athletes in addition to providing education and information on how to access those services. North Carolina’s ACC programs were ahead of the mandate, with Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest all employing someone who oversees student-athlete health and wellness.
That investment is obvious from a financial standpoint. So, too, was it from a visibility standpoint as the tables in the Sheraton Imperial’s Empire Ballroom were filled with people wearing the logos and colors of every school in the league.
For nearly an hour, there was barely a sound as Kym and Mark Hilinski told the story of their son, Tyler, a former quarterback at Washington State who took his own life in January 2018 after battling depression in silence.
The couple travels the country, speaking a few times each month to college athletes and at conference meetings, hoping primarily to raise awareness for mental health issues that often go untreated in a sports-world that values toughness and perseverance.
Like Lennon, Tyler Hilinski was on top of the world. A 6-foot-4 quarterback from Southern California, he was expected to become the Cougars’ starter the next season. He surrounded himself with friends and couldn’t spend long enough on the beach.
The signs of his battle appeared only after his death, in the form of a suicide note and the data recovered from his phone — a phone he’d changed the locking code to spell out “sorry.”
“Not to scare anybody and not to worry every kid is going to die by suicide, but don’t be fooled by their exterior,” said Mark Hilinski.”For groups like this and teams like this, we want them to hear that it’s not very easy to spot. That’s why we spend so much time on the awareness piece.”
Mark and Kym have told Tyler’s story in front of crowds for more than a year, but the words still carry the emotion of fresh wounds. They spoke slowly, taking time to wipe away tears and recounting memories of him flying down their street on his bike.
“We’re all a little less good because he’s not here,” he said. “I think the thing that’s hardest to say is that I wish everybody knew him … this one particular kid was really special. If you knew him, you’d know why we bother.”
This — what the ACC is doing this week — is exactly why they bother.
“It’s the ACC mental health conference,” he said. “How many times have we ever heard that before? I don’t think, ever. However it happens, the fact that it’s happening is a great thing.”
When the Hilinskis finished speaking, Lennon had already put on one of the blue wristbands embossed with “Hilinski’s Hope” and his No. 3.
Lennon, 22, has a different view on mental health than when he first arrived at Clemson. Just like each of his teammates, he was “the man” on his high school team and one of the best athletes in his area. On every team in the ACC, athletes go from all-star to just another person competing for playing time.
“It’s been really, really impactful to say that those services I accessed really changed my college experience,” he said. “When I was playing and I wasn’t good and I couldn’t keep up with the level, I wasn’t having fun.”
With the understanding of what those services could do for him, Lennon has become a resource for teammates and other Clemson athletes. He and the rest of the student-athlete advisory committee there learned how to spot the signs of depression and how to reach out to teammates who might be suicidal.
He’ll learn more from this week’s summit, like how Miami has student-athletes that serve as mental-health ambassadors and hear from Olympic gold medalist and former WNBA star Chamique Holdsclaw about her battle with depression and bipolar disorder.
All of this, of course, is far beyond anything Swofford experienced or could have imagined when he played football at Carolina from 1968 to ‘71.
“In terms of individual dealings with pressures and issues whether they were on the field or off the field, there really wasn’t much said about it,” he said. “‘Just suck it up and be a man,’ sort of approach, I guess; that was indicative of the times.”
It’s certainly a welcome shift.
“The world has changed, obviously, and I think young people have a lot more on their plate and a lot more to deal with and a lot more to try to figure out in today’s world with technology and social media and so forth,” Swofford said. “There’s more assistance, I think, needed and I think it’s really appropriate. I think we’re also reaching a period where there are issues and problems, people are more comfortable expressing it and talking about it and getting help.”