Nathan Merren's college volleyball career had already been delayed two seasons due to circumstances out of his control when a family tragedy nearly ended his playing days before they even began. But with encouraging words from his father, who also had dealt with the death of a loved one during college, he overcame depression, returned to the court and earned a starting spot.
Merren, who plays at Cal State Northridge, and Jordan Smith, who overcame panic attacks to shine as the starting goalie for the Cal State East Bay women's soccer team, are the February recipients of the CalHOPE Courage Awards.
The CalHOPE Courage Award is presented by the College Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and CalHOPE, a crisis support resource for communities impacted by public health emergencies or national disasters, operated by the California Department of Health Care Services. The award recognizes student-athletes at California colleges and universities who have overcome the stress, anxiety and mental trauma associated with personal hardships, injury or life circumstances.
CoSIDA and an Associated Press panel selected the winners.
Merren had to overcome major obstacles to complete his journey from Quartz Hills High School in Woodland Hills to playing volleyball for CSUN. A clerical error during the admissions process made him ineligible as a freshman and then the coronavirus pandemic shortened the following season to just five weeks, so he chose to redshirt rather than burn a year of eligibility.
Merren earned a starting position heading into last season, but then his older brother, Christopher, who suffered from schizophrenia, was struck by a car and killed. The tragedy hit Merren especially hard because Christopher was his best friend and confidant. Merren became depressed, his grades suffered and he left the volleyball team.
Nine months later, with his mental health getting stronger, Merren's father, Mike, shared the story of how he gave up wrestling while at the Naval Academy after the death of his father. Knowing how much Nathan loved volleyball, Mike Merren encouraged his son to ask the coaching staff for the chance to resume his dream.
"What allowed me to get out of my funk was to embrace my brother's death and not pretend nothing happened," Merren said. "I chose to surround myself with people I love -- my family and the CSUN volleyball team. I learned that whenever I am sad, if I express my feelings, I can get the support and love I need."
Merren sat out the first three games this season to make sure he was ready physically and mentally before making his debut. He has since become a starter and is one of the Matadors' top players. He also made the dean's list during the fall semester.
Smith also has overcome many challenges, starting with the death of her father when she was 7, which left her mother to care for three children. She found soccer provided a release from grief and financial instability while growing up in Gardnerville, Nevada.
But after earning the starting job for the Pioneers as a freshman, she put too much pressure on herself and began to have panic attacks during pregame warmups. She sought help from the university's therapy program and began a pregame meditation routine to overcome the panic attacks.
Her next big hurdle was to come out as gay to her coaches and teammates. Although she admits that's an ongoing process, she hopes to help others by sharing her vulnerabilities in her visible role as the president of the Student-Athletes Advisory Council. She believes her openness will help ease the stigma of mental health among her peers.
"It has been a challenge balancing school, soccer, jobs, clubs, and mental health along with everything else that comes with being a woman in college," she said. "It has given me so much confidence and has really helped me develop into a person I always dreamed of becoming. It was isolating my first year of college as I didn't know how to reach out for help. Fortunately, my coaches and peers recognized I was struggling and helped provide me the tools and support to improve my mental health."
She has become a fixture on the field, starting 54 games in three seasons and helping the Pioneers to a conference championship. This season she was named a team captain and recorded three shutouts while playing every minute of every match.
Monthly awards will continue through April. At the end of the academic year, two athletes will be selected as annual CalHOPE Courage Award winners, and a $5,000 donation will be made in each of their names toward mental health services at their schools.