MINNEAPOLIS — Rachel Baribeau stood in front of more than 100 Gopher football players in the program’s auditorium in early August and asked a big question: “Who wants to take the mask off and get real with this team?”
Baribeau — a speaker, sportscaster and non-profit founder — had broke the ice, opening up about her struggles with mental health after her mother, Georgia “GiGi” Kelley, died in May after metastatic breast cancer spread to her bones, brain and liver.
“I had a very dark summer,” she recalled telling the Gophers. “I was isolated and I was depressed. I had a night where I contemplated suicide.”
Baribeau was in her third visit to Minnesota in three years, and with that familiarity, she felt comfortable to share that story. In turn, her relationship with the program grew deeper.
But, at first, no Minnesota players were willing to reciprocate their own struggles. “There was a moment when you’re frightened and you think nobody is going,” she said.
Then, one by one, players spoke about some of their personal issues in front of all their teammates. Approximately 10 Gophers shared.
“I’m talking about very vulnerable, real, raw things that totally inspired their teammates,” Baribeau said. “I was in tears.”
For more than three years, Baribeau has been invited to travel from her home in Nashville for paid speaking engagements with college football programs around the country. She has addressed teams ranging from powerhouses Clemson and Alabama to smaller schools like Buffalo and Division II’s Southwest Minnesota State, where she will talk Sunday.
She was the first speaker to go to Washington State after quarterback Tyler Hilinski committed suicide last year, and she is willing to do the talks for free, if resources are tight or special needs arise.
Baribeau has spoke more than 50 times at around 35 schools, with multiple visits at places like LSU but she has come to the University of Minnesota more than any other. Her first visit to Dinkytown in 2017 came with the theme “changing the narrative,” which P.J. Fleck was hired to do after the program was mired in a sexual misconduct case in 2016.
Baribeau’s message constantly evolves from how men and women should aspire to be “kings and queens” in how they act and inspire others, and has since shifted to destroying society’s idea of being perfect, which can permeate social media.
“It’s one thing to have speakers every year,” Fleck said. “It’s another thing to have topics every single year come up but have the same speaker talk about them in a very different way. Where then I feel like our players have a relationship with that person. They can text that person, they can come to that person, they will open up more to that person when they are speaking to them. Rachel has done that. She has reached to the hearts of all our players.”
Fleck and the Gophers have extended the invitation for Baribeau to speak annually and are working on a bigger collaboration they’re not yet ready to share publicly.
Gophers sophomore offensive lineman Blaise Andries was one of the players to speak in front of the team during Baribeau’s visit.
Andries, a mathematics major from Marshall, Minn., has said he felt the need to be perfect earlier in his U career and when he fell short, it became “too much.” The 6-foot-6 and 325-pound guard missed a few practices in spring 2018 and has met to the U’s sports psychology staff about his mind-set and putting things into perspective. He also credits Amy Gunter, his academic advisor in the U’s College of Science and Engineering.
“I tell myself, ‘You’re playing football and hanging around your best friends. You’re doing just fine, trust me.’”
Andries could tell some of the freshmen were struggling during preseason camp — the rigors of college football and no longer being the star player, that kind of stuff. During some practices, he could see it on their faces in practice, and with fellow offensive linemen, he would help make calls at the line of scrimmage to help out.
He used his talk to share his story and address them specifically.
“I can tell you are trying to be a big manly man, but it’s OK to go talk to someone,” he recalled telling the team. “It’s OK to go open up. I struggled with it the same as you guys and I probably broke down a lot more than you guys. If you need someone to talk to, you can come talk to me.”
A few teammates have taken Andries up on his offer.
After Baribeau shared the story about losing her mom, she asked the Gophers, “Who here has lost somebody significant to them that rocked their world?”
“Nearly every hand shot up in the damn room,” she said. This was therapeutic for her.
“It’s not just me,” she told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “My loss was significant. She died in my arms and I nursed her for 10 months through cancer. I put my life on hold to be there, but in asking everybody who had a significant loss — I can’t quantify if your aunt is just as special as my mom.”
Fleck, Andries and Baribeau each shared how the goal is to break stereotypes that men are not supposed to share their feelings.
“You are a man! Tough! You can’t have feelings; that is so not true,” Fleck said. “I think some of the best men I’ve ever met have the most feelings. They know how to direct them, how to channel them. They know how to go to somebody else for help when they need it. We are providing all those resources for our student athletes. That being a man is saying, ‘yes, I have an issue. Yes, I have a problem. Yes, I need help.’”
After Baribeau’s talk, more than 20 players stayed after to thank her, sharing more personal details or just stopping to give her a hug. This has become routine at Baribeau’s other stops.
“For so many of these athletes, they have been told their only worth is how good they are on a field,” Baribeau said. “So their identity is so closely tied to that and it’s really sad. I can’t tell you how many have hugged and cried and they’ve told me, ‘Ms. Rachel, you are the first person to tell me I have worth outside of football.’ That will break your heart and make your heart at the same time.”
Baribeau said it’s important for fans to remember players are people, too, when Saturdays come and the focus goes to a quarterback’s interception or a linebacker’s missed tackle.
Gophers senior defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere spoke in front of the team at previous meetings with Baribeau. He has since grown close with Baribeau, texting her on and appearing on her Sirius XM radio show.
“I just felt like it was really cool to have her back a third time because it felt like she was family,” he said.
DeLattiboudere knows more about his fellow upperclassmen’s stories, but in Baribeau’s latest visit, he learned about what some of his younger teammates have been dealing with.
“I was like I need to try to make sure I can lead them in this way, let me make sure I can check on him when he goes through this,” DeLattiboudere said. “That was the clicking point for me when I was like my leadership style has to turn more empathetic.
“When you have a connection where you know a guy’s story, that’s way different than just lining up next to a guy and playing.”