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UW's Race Porter and Myles Gaskin are raising awareness about mental health, one broken heart at a time

Seattle Times - 2/15/2020

Feb. 14--Race Porter paid $3.99 for his first broken heart.

Actually, it was two hearts -- a two-pack of iron-on patches he purchased at Michaels craft store in Interbay last May. He kept one heart intact and, using his mom's iron, attached it onto the left sleeve of a Costco-brand plain white T-shirt.

He took the other red patch and cut a jagged line through the middle of it -- his first broken heart -- and ironed that onto the left sleeve of another white T-shirt.

Depending on how he was feeling on any given morning, that was how he decided which shirt to wear. On the days he felt his depression begin to take hold, he would wear the broken-heart tee; when he woke up feeling better, he would wear the full-heart tee.

The shirts soon became a source of light and an unexpected social platform for Porter, the punter for the Washington Huskies football team. A turning point in his long-drawn battle with his mental health came during a study-abroad trip to Amsterdam with other UW athletes last summer.

"I wore the broken-heart shirt every single day there," he said, "and it probably smelled so bad by the end of the trip. But I didn't care. It was so easy how people would comment on it: 'What does your broken heart mean?' So I would tell them: 'I'm just not having a great day.' And saying that was so simple, but it meant so much to me.

"Sometimes all you need is a couple conversations with friends to feel better."

A heartfelt connection

As a teenager, Porter had struggled in silence for years. He saw various therapists and psychiatrists, but he would usually shut down in those sessions. Nothing seemed to work, and things got worse, he said, when he was a freshman at O'Dea High School.

There are, he said, high standards for all students at the all-boys Catholic school, and particularly for athletes such as him. Early on, Porter played basketball and ran track -- his dad, Doug, is a teacher and coach at Lakeside High School; and his stepdad is Monte Kohler, the longtime O'Dea football coach -- and he felt he was supposed to act a certain way as an athlete.

"At a time when you're trying to find your own masculinity, being thrown into a building of 400 boys doesn't necessarily help," he said. "There was a pressure to hold up this image of what I thought I was or what I thought people saw me as, versus what I was actually feeling inside."

Sports and competition became everything to Porter and that, in hindsight, was the root of his main issues.

"It was always induced by sports, being as ultra-competitive as I was," he said. "The games meant so much to me and O'Dea just enhanced that, the culture being so centered around sports. ... There were so many high highs, but so many low lows."

He briefly transferred out of O'Dea as a sophomore, but a new school didn't change his outlook. He went back to O'Dea but stopped doing homework and stopped doing much of anything.

"I was just numb," he said.

Myles Gaskin was one of the few people Porter could confide in. They grew close while at O'Dea together, and closer when they were roommates at UW.

Gaskin was the Huskies' emerging star running back in 2016 when Porter, then a freshman walk-on embarking on a redshirt season, moved in with him.

"When Race first moved in with me, he was obviously going through something," Gaskin recalled. "I tried to understand what made him feel that way and how to help him move forward. I was like, 'Hey man, this is college -- we're winning games, you better enjoy this.' I would try to open his eyes up about what was going on in life right now. Sometimes that doesn't help everybody, but I would try my best."

Gaskin laughed and added: "Race probably gives me much better advice than I've ever given him."

Porter said he and Gaskin are "polar opposite" in personality.

"I've always been an emotional person ... and (Gaskin) is never one to talk too much about anything, really," Porter said. "But him being such a good energy in my life really picked me up."

Said Gaskin: "Sometimes, just giving someone your time is the best thing you can do for them."

Said Porter: "Personally, it's just always been a struggle. I've lived in Seattle for 22 years now. I know about seasonal depression, but this is something I feel like I've always dealt with. I've always just thought it was a little low, and that it'll swing back up -- just wait for it. And I was always just waiting."

He was tired of waiting, which is how the iron-on hearts came into play.

"That was the first time when I felt mature enough to do something about it," he said, "instead of waiting for something to happen for me."

Spreading the love

Porter is sharing his story now because he knows others have had similar struggles. Hiding those struggles, in his experience, only makes them worse.

He was so encouraged by the reaction to his broken-heart-sleeve T-shirts last summer that he turned the concept into a small enterprise with Gaskin.

They're literally wearing their hearts on their sleeves, and they're trying to spread the message with their Heart On My Sleeve (HOMS) shirts and hoodies. The HOMS logo is a sequence of three hearts: one broken, one half-broken and one full.

"It's okay to not be okay," reads one of the shirts available at homsseattle.com.

Porter said a portion of proceeds from their sales are donated to the Seattle chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

For Valentine's Day, HOMS has partnered with another local apparel company, Rahlies, for a limited-edition collection of overalls featuring the HOMS' hearts. Those will be released at Rahlies.com at noon Friday.

Gaskin just completed his rookie season with the Miami Dolphins, and he said he usually wore a HOMS shirt or hoodie around the locker room, which prompted several candid conversations with his new teammates there about some of their mental-health issues.

"These are the biggest, toughest guys in the world, and people probably think, 'No way would they struggle with mental health,'" Gaskin said. "But football is a great example. Sometimes things don't always check the way you want them to, but (it's important to) just stay positive through it and seeing yourself through to the other side of it.

"And I think everybody can connect with this idea on every level; it doesn't exclude anybody."

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