This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health emergency, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline available 24/7. To reach the 24/7 Crisis Text Helpline, text 4HOPE to 741741.
COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — “I have so many memories here from so many different phases of my life,” said former Ohio State running back Raymont Harris as he looked around the lobby of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
Raymont shifted around the OSU logo-adorned leather couch as he sat surrounded by Heisman Trophies, Big 10 Championship trophies, and the gold College Football Playoff trophy, glistening in the setting sunlight just over his left shoulder.
“It seems like the temperature of the city depends on how the football team does,” he continued in thought.
I asked him what that’s like – having a city’s hopes and dreams on your young, strong shoulders.
“The pressure is real and it’s palpable,” he said with a smile. “People actually forget that these guys are not professionals. They’re actually 18 years old, sometimes 17, maybe 20 years old, so they’re actually very young. And the majority of them come from a background that looks nothing like this place.”
Count Raymont as one of that majority.
“I came from a poverty-stricken environment, and when I got transplanted right here on Ohio State’s campus, it was totally different than anything I’d ever seen before,” Raymont explained. “There was no class for making the transition from having nothing to now being in the middle of having everything.”
Raymont arrived on Ohio State’s campus in 1989, and over the next four years, built a career that includes a Holiday Bowl MVP and being selected in the fourth round of the 1994 NFL Draft.
But while he ate up yards on the field, mentally and emotionally, there were things eating away at him.
“You actually are afraid of things. You actually are in moments when you want to cry and you need help, but we’re not really designed to do that as guys,” he said with a shrug. “My friends, we used to joke like we were raised by wolves. So we were the kind of people that like, you just worked through it. You can’t cry, you can’t complain, because that would be soft, and that would not allow you to be who you’re supposed to be in this environment.”
One of those friends was former Ohio State team captain Chico Nelson.
“He was always the life of the party. He had a huge personality. He was a captain, everyone loved him,” Raymont said, before pausing and sighing. “And Chico had mental health issues.”
Those came to the surface more than 20 years after Raymont and Chico played their last game together as Buckeyes. In May, 2016, Chico died by suicide.
“It really affected me to the point where I really wanted to make sure that his death wasn’t in vain,” Raymont said. “I actually had to heal, and the best way to do that was to try and acknowledge and be real about the trauma that I’ve had in losing my mother.”
Four days after Raymont was born, his mother, Jean, died. It is a tragedy that Raymont and his family have battled his entire life, starting with his father.
“His struggle and pain unfortunately bled all over me and my siblings, and all together, we had a very dysfunctional family,” Raymont explained. “When she was gone from our family, we suffered a great deal.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. The CDC cites multiple factors for the disparity, including a variation in quality healthcare, underlying chronic conditions, structural racism and implicit bias.
Raymont saw a connection between families in the Black community struggling with maternal mortality and needing mental health services, but not necessarily having the tools to work through either.
“We’re talking about generation after generation after generation of people that have had to withstand ridiculous circumstances. We’re talking slavery, racism and segregation – all of these different things. These generational curses are then passed down,” Raymont explained. “And as that happens, people get designed to be hardened. There’s no room or time for sulking or going to get professional therapy.”
Raymont decided he wanted to create a place where former athletes and families affected by maternal mortality could come and get the help and tools they need: The Jean and Raymont Harris Foundation.
“These areas right here, when you put them all together, it’s me. Like, that’s me: I came from that family, and that’s what I did,” Raymont said with a smile. “It’s extremely important for the Black community to embrace mental health, especially for Black men. If you are able to access the sadness and the happiness and any and all emotions in between, I think that allows you to be a real person. And that right there will be the key to Black men being able to at least know other people care and that their loved ones love them.”
The Jean and Raymont Harris Foundation will be based in Columbus. Learn more about Raymont’s work here.