Mills discovers healing mentality at Nebraska

Dedrick Mills
With the team bench celebrating in the background, Nebraska's Dedrick Mill surges down the sideline for a touchdown in Memorial Stadium. (Scott Bruhn - NU Athletic Communications)

Mills discovers healing mentality at Nebraska

28 Sep 2020    By Dedrick Mills - Child, Youth and Family Studies

Editor's Note — This is the most recent feature in the Huskers' "N" Our Voice series. Launched in September, the series offers Nebraska student-athletes the opportunity to voice more personal stories with the community. You can read other stories in the series here.

Dedrick Mills is a senior child, youth and family studies major from Waycross, Georgia. 

I could tell you what it feels like to hit rock bottom.

I know what it’s like to be pulled in so many different directions you forget which way is up. I know what it’s like to feel like you have the weight of the world pushing down on your shoulders.

The depression and anxiety from those feelings nearly tore me apart.

I just remember everything coming to a head — school, my family life, and my issues with substance abuse. Nothing was ever given to me in my life, and I always had to work for whatever I had. So maybe there was a sense of pride, in the beginning, to try and solve every problem on my own.

But I remained stuck with each attempt.

It wasn’t until I got to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and started seeing a sports psychologist that things finally started to fall into place. That’s when I realized it’s OK to seek outside help to overcome the mental hurdles.

It’s when I realized I didn’t have to do everything on my own and started healing mentally.

The Man of the Family

That mindset is tough to adopt when you’re the one your family depends on. I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. My mom had four boys, including me, and we were happy enough with food and a roof over our heads.

But there was always football.

Those two-on-two pickup games in the backyard were the best. They were even better since I won most of the time. Trust me, I have enough bragging rights to last a lifetime.

Football was always a way for me to release my frustrations. It was a way for me to show people what I could do and how hard I was willing to work for it.

It became my life.

Anything that would help me escape reality, if only for a few hours, was fine by me. My family lost everything in a house fire when I was a kid, and my mother had to work two jobs just to put food on the table.

We didn’t have much growing up, but we tried to make the most of what we did have. There were many nights when I’d have to find a place to curl up to sleep next to other family members because we didn’t have our own beds.

All of that wore on me mentally, and I carried it with me through high school. I got my first offer from a college to play football when I was in ninth grade, but my high school coach at the time kept it a secret so I wouldn’t lose focus.

It was too late for all of that.

By the time I learned Georgia Tech had offered me a scholarship, I had already adopted some bad habits, including smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol.

Opening up to those guys and speaking with them about life’s trials and tribulations inspired me. I vowed not to let my second chance go to waste if I ever got one. I finally came to the realization that I had to sacrifice what I was doing wrong to get something better out of life.

A Cry for Help

While I ended up joining Georgia Tech, I lost my scholarship and got kicked out as a freshman.

The stress of home life and school made me fall deeper into my addictions. It was the way I coped throughout high school, but due to the constant drug testing in college, I wasn’t able to hide my demons. I ran out of chances, and I was eventually sent packing.

Losing my scholarship only pushed me into a more severe depression. It wasn’t until I joined the football team at Garden City Community College, an NJCAA school in Kansas, that things really started to take a turn. I ran into so many other great athletes that had the talent to play Division I football, but they were never given opportunities because of a criminal background.

Opening up to those guys and speaking with them about life’s trials and tribulations inspired me. I vowed not to let my second chance go to waste if I ever got one. I finally came to the realization that I had to sacrifice what I was doing wrong to get something better out of life.

I couldn’t continue on the same path.

Not long after that mental shift, the call from the University of Nebraska came.

And I was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join the Huskers.

Coach Scott Frost encouraged me right off the bat to speak with Dr. Brett Haskell, our sports psychologist, because he knew about my previous issues.

Honestly, I was a bit hesitant at first. There I was being asked to go visit and open myself up to a complete stranger. That isn’t an easy thing to do.

When I first met her, I told her the truth about me wanting to get better, but I wasn’t showing her with my actions. As bad as I wanted to improve, it took some severe dedication on my end to actually follow through. After meeting consistently for three or four days a week, things finally started to click for me.

She helped me control my anger and deal with all the pressure which ultimately helped me open up more and become a better teammate. I realized I had to hold myself accountable and be a better role model for the younger guys on the team. It's one thing to want to get better, but actually doing so, man, that’s a whole different beast.

But the sessions with Dr. Haskell were life-changing, seriously.

The fact that the Huskers provided me with resources that allowed me to heal mentally isn't the type of story that gets told enough. Without Dr. Haskell and the support from my teammates and coaches, who knows where my life would have taken me.

Speaking of, my coaches and teammates were also always checking in on me. They’d make sure I was staying positive and actually dealing with my issues instead of just thinking about them. Even the staff would check in to see how my family back home was doing — just the little things, you know?

It matters. A lot.

Today, I'm still seeing Dr. Haskell once or twice a week and she continues to assist me in so many ways. I'm a huge advocate for mental health now as I experience first-hand how much it impacts my life and my performance on the field and in the classroom.

Overall, I'm just beyond grateful to be at a place that values mental health as much as I do and continues to provide us athletes with resources to cope with our struggles.

Paying it Forward

The strides I’ve made in my mental health have helped me become a better player on the field and student in the classroom. I feel like a better person overall, period.

I really did it for me and everyone that has always supported me.

I’ve put my life in the perspective of a professional. If I had a job, they would have fired me with all of the things I was doing. So, I now approach each and every day like a professional.

I plan on taking everything I’ve learned and carrying it with me through life and continuing to be a better person. My dream is to one day play in the NFL, but if that doesn’t pan out, I want to be a sports psychologist.

I want to help others the same way Dr. Haskell and the University of Nebraska helped me.

I can relate to so many things these young student-athletes deal with on a daily basis and she simply inspired me.

I found my way out, and now, I’m on my way to being the first person in my family to graduate from college. That means everything to me.

I always said I wouldn’t be one of those guys that messed up the second chance if I was lucky enough to get one.

So when I got my second chance, and healed mentally, I took it and ran with it.


All University of Nebraska–Lincoln students can find assistance with mental, psychological and emotional well-being through Counseling and Psychological Services. Supports for faculty and staff are available via the Employee Assistance Program.

College of Education and Human Sciences
Child, Youth and Family Studies