‘We just can’t let her end here’: How Morgan Rodgers' message is starting the mental health conversation

Duke women's lacrosse's warm-up shirts for this season's Morgan's Message dedication game against Boston College March 23.
Duke women's lacrosse's warm-up shirts for this season's Morgan's Message dedication game against Boston College March 23.

Content warning: This article contains mentions of suicide and death.

Many find solace in butterflies after a loved one passes. Dona Rodgers was not one of them. She shied away from the symbolism — that they are the ones fluttering around us — for as long as she could. 

“It's very typical, and to me, Morgan was not typical ... ” Dona told The Chronicle. “She would hate that.” 

Dona couldn’t escape the butterflies. Hundreds swarmed the woods right off her driveway a few days after her daughter’s passing. They filled a giant tent at her public memorial. At her private funeral, one fluttered between Dona, her husband Kurt and their two other kids, Aberle and Austin. 

“It almost took away from the service because I was more focused on this butterfly that wouldn't leave us alone,” Dona said. 

“It’s hilarious,” said Sarah Houlston, Morgan’s former coach at Cardinal Lacrosse, a girls club program in northern Virginia, where the family lives. “Butterflies? Ew … We joke that it’s a joke, that [Morgan’s] like ‘I’m gonna make you all have butterflies everywhere.’”

Morgan’s Message, a nonprofit geared toward equalizing treatment of mental and physical health by reducing the surrounding stigma, hosts a blog and a podcast for people to share their own experiences. It leads an ambassador program so that athletes — at any level — can raise awareness about suffering in silence and educate their teams and communities on resources. Ambassadors worldwide (there are chapters in Canada, Germany and England) work to change school and team cultures toward mental health transparency and host dedication games to spread the word about the organization. 

Morgan’s Message uses a butterfly as its logo. The wings are filled with Morgan’s artwork. Its body is a semicolon, a sign of continuity despite the option to stop — a symbol of hope for those struggling with mental illness. 

There are now 127 episodes of  “The Mental Matchup,” the organization’s podcast, and a new story is published on the blog each week. The space to share is being occupied with fervor. 

* * *

Ten months after Morgan’s passing, with her friends from Virginia all back home due to COVID-19, everyone — together — went to see the Rodgers family. 

“We can't just let [Morgan] end here,” said Clare Kehoe, her club teammate of six years.

Morgan’s Message started with a podcast. The first episode was Morgan’s story, told by her parents. They have released 125 episodes in the last three years and added a blog, so more people can share their experiences. 

After Morgan’s passing, her varsity teammate Anna Callahan started a group at Duke for student-athletes to talk about mental health. She went to see the Rodgers before the 2020-21 school year, and proposed doing something on campus in Morgan’s name. 

At this season's Morgan's Message game, merged with Alumni Day, Duke's jerseys boasted the butterfly logo on the sleeve and the team wore ribbons in their hair.
At this season's Morgan's Message game, merged with Alumni Day, Duke's jerseys boasted the butterfly logo on the sleeve and the team wore ribbons in their hair.

“I think that her story can be really powerful,” Anna told them. “I think people struggle with this stuff more than we realize.”

We can’t truly know Morgan’s story without her here to tell it. We can try to know her as a daughter, sister, teammate, coach and friend. We can learn about her through the eyes of those who she will forever be with — and will forever stay with. They have plenty to share.

Morgan’s selflessness is what those who love her remember most. 

When Clare was studying for the MCAT, Morgan left snacks and encouraging notes outside her apartment door when she knew Clare was stressed. She delivered groceries to a freshman on the club team having a hard week. When Anna had surgery on Halloween, missing varsity freshman trick-or-treating, Morgan showed up with a pillowcase full of Anna’s favorite candies. Morgan thought Anna might feel left out. 

Once, she had leftover homemade apple pie. She called Duke teammate Lindsey Reynolds without warning, asked if she wanted some and Ubered to Lindsey’s to drop the pie off. Morgan’s car was in the shop, but she made sure that her teammate got her slice, even if she hadn’t asked for one. When Sarah was in the process of moving to Canada, she asked Morgan to take over some of the younger teams. They met at a Bartaco; Morgan brought a book of notes and took even more. When the check came, Morgan snatched it before Sarah could. That was not an argument Sarah would win. 

Morgan was intense, too. Clare and the other Cardinal Lacrosse 2015 team members, even though they had more experience, were intimidated when she showed up at tryouts. But Duke was Morgan’s dream, and like all her dreams, according to Dona, she made it happen. Clare and Morgan came to Durham together in 2015, the former as a student and the latter as an enthusiastic rookie on the women’s lacrosse team. Clare cheered Morgan on from the sidelines, finally at school together for the first time. 

That support was invaluable for Morgan, whose Duke career was far from linear. She injured her knee before her sophomore season, needing surgery and taking a semester of medical leave her junior spring. In the meantime, she coached for Cardinal back home. Sarah describes them as a family; they still do Christmas together. 

Morgan was stubborn, as anyone who spent any time with her knows. Her expert grasp of sarcasm — “since birth,” Dona said — and attention to those around her made her the most beloved coach at Cardinal. When Morgan returned to Duke as a senior in 2018 and stepped away from the varsity team after the fall, she linked back up with Clare on the school’s club team.

* * *

In July 2019, Morgan died by suicide. 

No matter how well anyone knew her, they didn’t see it coming. 

“She had a therapist, she had a psychiatrist, but even they were completely shocked,” Clare said.

After Morgan’s passing, her friends and family read her journals. Loneliness, isolation, hopelessness — all on the page. She didn’t let anyone see it. Her loved ones were left to piece together the puzzle, to make sense of her absence, then grow used to it. 

“I never did,” Dona said.

“[That family] talked about everything, except this,” Sarah said. “Everything seemed fine.” 

A research group at the University of Washington published the results of an analysis of NCAA student-athlete deaths from 2002-2022. Suicide rates have steadily increased over the whole period for male athletes and over the last 10 years for female athletes, and rates are highest in Division I. After five high-profile deaths in 2022, including Stanford soccer goalie Katie Meyer, athletes have increasingly begun to speak out. 

In December 2022, Duke softball catcher Kelly Torres published a guest column in the Tampa Bay Times about her struggle with depression. The Washington Post spoke to four current or former collegiate athletes pushing for NCAA reforms, which released its updated “Mental Health Best Practices” earlier this year, just the second revision since 2016. 

“Schools are legislatively required to make mental health services and resources available to their student-athletes consistent with this document,” it reads

But what good are resources if student-athletes don’t feel empowered to use them?

“We thought if Morgan had known that there were other people like her who were going through something, that maybe she wouldn't have felt so isolated,” Clare said.

Anna became Morgan’s Message’s first campus ambassador. She spearheaded the inaugural dedication game in 2021. With stickers on their sticks and ribbons in their hair, Duke and visiting Syracuse joined forces.

Anna Callahan cradles in Duke's first Morgan's Message dedication game against Syracuse March 6, 2021.
Anna Callahan cradles in Duke's first Morgan's Message dedication game against Syracuse March 6, 2021.

The ambassador program started growing instantly.

“These kids came to us,” Dona said.

Sarah’s daughter Maddie Schermerhorn is currently a sophomore at Virginia, but when she was in high school at Mercersburg Academy, she co-founded their Morgan’s Message chapter. Though she had known Morgan growing up and knew the story through her mom, she and her team were exposed to the ambassador program through Instagram after an uber-successful kickoff social media campaign. Mercersburg Morgan’s Message hosted its first dedication games in spring 2021 with a boy’s and girl’s lacrosse double-header. 

The weather was cold and rainy for the girl’s game, but it didn’t stop the team from blasting “Morgan’s Jams” as they warmed up. The team was huddled pregame when “California Gurls” by Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg came on the speaker; they giggled and teased Morgan for the raunchy lyrics. The club sold shirts with the trademark butterfly, and even if attendance was low, purchases were high. 

“After the games, I would see that shirt everywhere,” Maddie said.

Peyton Wilt founded her chapter at Powhatan High School outside of Richmond, Va., just this fall. She said about 130 people came to their first meeting, athletes and non-athletes alike. They started off writing positive messages on cutouts of butterflies that Peyton then placed around the school. It caught people’s attention, and even Virginia football head coach Tony Elliott took notice, coming to speak with the club in March about student-athlete identity and inner strength. 

“I think it's really opened [the male athletes’] eyes to the whole other side of sports,” Peyton said. 

“Trying to get the boys to open up about how they're feeling, about things, is hard and challenging,” Duke women’s lacrosse head coach Kerstin Kimel said about the conversations she has with her own son. “And I don't know, you know? I'm not a male, so I don't necessarily know what buttons to push. You just kind of try.” 

Kimel has a daughter as well, and the tough discussions with both may look different, but they happen all the same. 

* * *

Morgan’s Message’s impact is not limited to student-athletes embarking on their mental health journeys. It affects adults, too, with their playing years far in the rearview but a lasting stamp on their psyche. 

Sarah is one of those people. After Morgan passed and her story was out in the open, Sarah felt like she could finally talk about her own experience. 

“I was able to breathe again after,” she said. 

As of April 5, Morgan’s Message had 4,988 registered ambassadors in 45 states, Canada, England and Germany. Chapters host dedication games and educate about mental health advocacy and resources. On campus, Duke’s team has been deliberate in providing athletes the resources and support they need.

Dr. Shawn Zeplin is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics/Student-Athlete Wellness. He hasn’t been in Durham long, but his time has been tumultuous. 

“When I first got here in 2018, people weren’t necessarily sure of what to make of me,” Zeplin wrote in an email to The Chronicle. In his six years, he experienced both a tragic loss and a global pandemic. His department has grown from one person (himself) to four. 

“We have been able to be both proactive and reactive,” Zeplin wrote. “We are able to have a presence so that student athletes know who we are and how to access us.” And they do access it. 

“Girls on our team see everybody on that staff,” Kimel said. 

The last cohort that played with Morgan at Duke, Anna and her classmates, exhausted their eligibility in 2023. Morgan may not have teammates at Duke anymore, but there are plenty of people eager to preserve her legacy.

The first public lacrosse turf in her hometown was inaugurated in 2020 in her name. When the Cardinal 2015 team texts about Christman plans, Morgan’s number is still in the groupchat. The Blue Devils’ women’s lacrosse program still puts on its Morgan’s Message game every year, where staff hand out bracelets and stickers in her honor. And during every game, every goalie’s helmet is covered in butterflies. 

“She's on all these fields, in all these places,” Sarah said. “You can't ignore her because she's gonna be there.”

Each Duke goalie helmet is decorated with the Morgan's Message butterfly.
Each Duke goalie helmet is decorated with the Morgan's Message butterfly.

Mental health resources 

Rachael Kaplan profile
Rachael Kaplan | Sports Managing Editor

Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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