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Washington State spring game raises more than $80,000 for Cougar Health Fund, generates conversation around mental health

Washington State  wide receiver Renard Bell  is hoisted skyward by offensive lineman Robert Valencia  after Bell  scored during the Cougars’ Crimson and Gray Game on  April 20  at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Spotlighting the offensive and defensive players who will be on the field for Washington State’s football team in the fall typically is the main purpose of the Cougars’ spring scrimmage, and any spring scrimmage across the nation for that matter.

While the 2019 Crimson and Gray Game was a fine preview trailer for the 5,059 fans who attended, it was also much more than a football showcase.

Unlike in years past, when there had been no cost to attend the scrimmage, fans were charged $5 a head for general admission and $15 for club seats, as the spring game made its return to Pullman and Martin Stadium after an eight-year residency in Spokane.

While the small gate fee probably wasn’t a deterrent for Spokane and Seattle alums already committing a drive to Pullman, some may have still wondered why they were being charged for an event that was normally free.

Every dollar earned from Crimson and Gray Game ticket proceeds went directly to the Associated Students of Washington State University’s Cougar Health Fund, an endowment launched last April by former ASWSU President Jordan Frost and Vice President Garrett Kalt to support mental-health awareness and sexual-violence prevention on the WSU Pullman campus.

Spring game ticket sales made up the bulk of the proceeds, but Premera Blue Cross kicked in a $25,000 match while BECU donated another $5,000. WSU hosted a surplus apparel sale on Rogers Field adjacent to Martin Stadium, and the school also sponsored a 5K obstacle run – the Rugged Coug Race – to raise money for the Cougar Health Fund.

“This was a student-led initiative and a student endowment fund where all of the funds are going toward resources for these two very complex issues on campus that affect all students and I think it really resonated with (athletics),” ASWSU President Savannah Rogers said. “It actually was an idea they brought to me. It wasn’t an idea I brought to them.”

As it turned out, the 2019 Crimson and Gray Game was more than just a nice financial boost.

The spring scrimmage, part of what WSU had billed the “Gameday for Mental Health,” and other events raised $80,074 for the ASWSU Cougar Health Fund as of Thursday, an athletics spokesperson confirmed to The Spokesman-Review. Rogers estimated that figure could finish in the mid-to-high $80,000 range once everything was accounted for.

Equally important, the conversation around mental-health awareness and suicide prevention became a prevalent topic for at least 72 hours, nearly 15 months after former WSU quarterback Tyler Hilinski took his life in an off-campus apartment.

“It is important to keep the dialogue going,” WSU Athletic Director Pat Chun said. “… I think 25 percent of college students have some kind of mental disorder while they’re on campus, but only 10 percent seek help. So what can we do to make sure that 15 percent that isn’t seeking help, that we’re educating and creating an environment where more of those 15 percent are seeking and reaching and getting the help that we need?

“Just the fact that we’re talking about it at a football game keeps the conversation going and that’s where the destigmatization comes into play.”

The day before the spring game, profits from a golf tournament featuring a handful of current and former WSU quarterbacks went toward the Cougar Athletic Fund and Hilinski’s Hope, the nonprofit foundation set up by Hilinski’s parents following their son’s death. Former Cougar QB Ryan Leaf gave a motivational talk to WSU students later that night about his battles with mental health and drug addiction.

Another group of WSU student-athletes, including Abraham Lucas (football), Nnamdi Oguayo (football), Beau Braden (football), Geneva Schlepp (women’s cross country), Kelis Barton (soccer) and Jovana Subasic (women’s basketball), visited Pullman High School to speak about mental health in conjunction with the Behind Happy Faces initiative.

“If we can help Pullman High create this environment where they’re more communicative, more inclusive, more compassionate, that they’re empowering each other to have conversations, that’s a really powerful thing,” Chun said.

Rogers said the Cougar Health Fund has already placed $25,000 into an expendable account, and the endowment has targeted a sum of $200,000. With the recent donation from athletics, the fund has reached approximately $150,000.

That money could be redirected toward things like bringing high-profile speakers to campus or arranging work shops or training sessions that give students an outlet to learn more about mental health and sexual violence.

Where the money goes will vary depending on student needs, but it’s important that the resources are there to begin with, Rogers said.

“I see it going to those big-ticket items that WSU frankly just can’t afford right now and that’s the situation,” Rogers said. “But the situation is also that mental health and sexual violence will always be things that need resources and need funds and so we needed to figure out to continually and sustainably provide them.”

Thanks to a timely partnership with the athletic department, the Cougar Health Fund is off to a fast start.

“It’s something where, at other universities you might only see athletics focusing on athletics or on athletes,” Rogers said, “and this is athletics going, ‘No, this is about all students.’ ”