A group of Radford University women’s lacrosse players has taken the initiative to enhance mental health awareness and make sure that it is a key component of the Highlanders’ student-athlete experience through a program called Morgan’s Message.
Spearheaded by Molly O’Brien and River Rupert, the underclassman duo serve as ambassadors for Morgan’s Message. They have helped expand the group, which now has eight different ambassadors on campus that aim to serve Radford’s 310 student-athletes as well as the surrounding student body and local community.
Morgan’s Message was founded by the family and friends of Morgan Rodgers, a former women’s lacrosse player at Duke University. Coming out of high school, Rodgers was a highly-touted recruit. Her goal was to play college lacrosse at the highest level while also receiving a top-notch education. As she was about to begin her sophomore season, she suffered a horrific injury that brought an end to her playing career. The sudden changes this injury brought to Rodgers’ life led to many silent battles that she chose to fight on her own. She committed suicide when she was 22.
O’Brien knew Rodgers personally as the two played club lacrosse together. At the time of Rodgers’ passing, O’Brien was a junior at Westfield High School and chose to become an ambassador shortly after the organization was created.
So when the Chantilly, Va. native committed to Radford, she didn’t just bring her on-field talents, she brought Morgan’s Message with her.
“I brought it up to [Assistant] Coach Heather [Conklin].\,” O’Brien said. “I’ve worked really closely with her on that. It’s taken off from there; we started an Instagram page and started planning our meetings.
“We just wanted to get everyone involved that we could.”
As the work began on Radford’s campus, it quickly gained the attention of many student-athletes, the same student-athletes who understand the often-unseen struggles of balancing so many responsibilities at such a vital time in a young person’s life.
One of the first to join O’Brien’s efforts was her teammate. Rupert didn’t know Rodgers but was well aware of the situation. The pair’s respective clubs were connected locally, so Rupert felt a connection she had with Rodgers needed to live on.
When the sophomore decided to help spread awareness about mental health, she knew it was a responsibility she wouldn’t take lightly. “It is such a great opportunity, not only to work on my mental health but everyone else who needs it, especially in athletics,” Rupert said.
As mental health continues to be an ongoing crisis in the collegiate athletics world, Morgan’s Message has continued to grow into a bigger community. “It has grown to support and represent all student-athletes who have been affected by a tragic event,” Rupert said.
“It’s all come together and has become such a great community. People are really coming together and raising awareness.”
Such a passionate response from student-athletes has inspired those higher up to get involved as well.
Assistant women’s lacrosse coach Heather Conklin is proud of her players. “I think it’s great that they are advocating for not only themselves, but for other student-athletes as well,” Conklin said. “It’s a great organization that these ladies are bringing to Radford to give student-athletes a voice and bring awareness.”
Conklin believes the sad truth is that often people seek out help when it’s too late, when they think there is no other solution or option, or they never get help at all. Since Morgan’s Message was begun at Radford by a handful of lacrosse players, Conklin recognizes the opportunity her team has to reach others.
“Although it was created for women’s lacrosse athletes, they have an opportunity to become an umbrella for all other athletes who have unfortunately fallen into the mental health crisis by providing them with an opportunity to learn, grow and/or seek guidance,” Conklin said. “This movement continues to grow throughout campus because the student-athletes are each other’s biggest supporters and advocates.”
And although the student-athletes were the ones to get things started, the program has become an effort by many different members of the Highlander athletic community. The lacrosse team has seen an increase in turnout at their meetings and will be hosting a dedication game to recall Rodgers’ story and many others like hers.
“The more awareness that is brought to athletes, coaches, and families of the support and message this organization provides, the better it will be for our entire athletic community,” Conklin said.
The number of lives changed has increased.
The impact of Morgan’s Message is still growing.
Her story continues to live on; it continues to spread across the world.
More than 1,500 institutions in the United States and Canada have formed chapters designated to promote mental health awareness and provide a landing spot for student-athletes who are either struggling or want to join in on the efforts. Many different colleges and universities are bringing in ambassadors from different sports in hopes of reaching a higher number of student-athletes who may be suffering in silence.