In December 2016, Newman University’s men’s basketball head coach of 19 years Mark Potter announced that the 2016-17 season would be his last. He had a new passion to follow: speaking on mental health.
The start of a journey
In 2005, during Potter’s seventh year coaching at Newman, he began suffering from severe depression. He missed eight games and 28 practices during that basketball season. His wife, Nanette, finally forced him to seek help.
“There’s such a stigma attached to mental health struggles that I was not going to tell anybody about why I wasn’t with my team,” Potter said.
At the time, the only people at Newman who knew about Potter’s struggles were the assistant men’s basketball coaches and the athletic director. When his doctor released him to begin coaching again, he had no intentions of talking with his team about why he had been absent.
But then, “I felt compelled to tell them why I wasn’t with them,” Potter said.
He took the team to the locker room and told them his story but asked that everyone keep it to themselves. Then one day, a freshman on the team came up to him and told him he thought it would be neat if Potter shared his story with the media. Potter found out the reason the student told him that was because he’d suffered from depression himself.
Their chat inspired Potter to go public, so he called a local reporter and told him about his battle with depression. When the article got published, Potter recalls being inundated with encouraging phone calls, letters and more from people who appreciated hearing his story.
“It was life-changing to say the least,” Potter said. “From that point on, my wife, Nanette, and I have been carrying the torch to be advocates for mental health and to make the statement that it’s OK to get help. It’s not a weakness. There’s strength in getting help.”
The Potters do so through speaking engagements across the country.
Building awareness around mental health
Five years ago, Potter retired from coaching, and his wife retired from teaching. Now they focus full time on sharing Potter’s message of hope and importance of taking care of mental health through their company, d2up.
Thus far, Potter and Nanette, who speaks from a caretaker’s perspective, have traveled to 18 different states and spoken at hundreds of universities, community colleges, high schools, middle schools, businesses and more.
“I truly felt called by God to get out of coaching and impact people through talking about what I had been through,” Potter said.
He added that with his background in athletics, he knows that mental health doesn’t often get talked about in that area, and he realizes many people suffer in silence.
“I knew we needed to do something about that,” he said.
A meaningful student connection
2014 art alumnus Joshua Prilliman shares a special connection with Potter.
“I suffer from depression and I had had moments throughout the years with it, but during a bowling tournament, I just fell into a pit that I couldn’t dig myself out of,” Prilliman said. “When we got back home, Coach (Billy) Murphy asked Coach Potter if he could talk to one of his athletes who was struggling.”
“I ended up spending about two hours in Coach Potter’s office that day, just talking about what had been happening, where my thoughts and feelings had been. … He took a lot of time to listen and then talked to me about his time and battle with his own demons.”
To this day, Prilliman said he vividly remembers walking out of Potter’s office, “like I could walk on the clouds.” Prilliman felt more confident, determined and sure he could conquer the challenges that came his way.
“One of the big things that I remember he said that I have told to a lot of people since then was, ‘Bad things are going to happen to you, there is nothing that can stop that from happening. You have a choice, and you can choose how to act and react to it, but no matter what, things are not always going to go your way,’” Prilliman said.
As an art major, Prilliman found a passion for creating superhero-inspired works of art. Mary Werner, who served as art director of Newman for 16 years before retiring in 2019, encouraged Prilliman to derive his work from replicating well-known superheroes.
“My senior year was spent creating people I know into superheroes as I could see them,” Prilliman explained. “I had spent two years thanking Coach, but I wanted to do something bigger and something to really show what his support had meant to me.”
After several brainstorming sessions, rough sketches and many edits, Prilliman was satisfied with a painting to gift to Potter.
Prilliman carried the framed painting into the athletics department, took a seat across from Potter and said, “There are not a lot of ways I can ever say thank you, but this was at least some way I can say it.”
Potter continues to treasure Prilliman’s painting, and even shared it at a mental health event for Newman staff and faculty in January.
Through d2up, the Potters have an opportunity extend encouragement and support to countless individuals who are struggling with their mental health.
“We are just trying to impact people in a positive way by using something that was a real negative,” Potter said. “When you know that potentially what you have to say can either save or change lives, then what else would we want to do? That’s why we’re here on this earth; to impact other people in a positive way.”
Potter, a Newman alum who played basketball and baseball for the university for two years, spent a majority of his adult life coaching basketball. After graduating from Newman in 1986, Potter spent a year as assistant coach for the university before taking a coaching position with Cheney High School. He coached high school for 11 years, spending time at Cheney, Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School and Wichita South High School before taking his first collegiate head coaching position at Newman.
When Potter accepted the job, the basketball program had been dormant for 11 years and he was tasked with restarting it.
“We had no players, no balls no uniforms, no nothing,” Potter said. “I’d go straight from my job at Wichita South to Newman and I’d be there, literally, until midnight for two straight months.”
By his second season, Potter had built a team that made it to the NAIA tournament and set an NAIA record with a 20-game winning streak.
In his 19 years at Newman, Potter led three teams to NAIA tournaments and one team to an NCAA tournament.
Newman counseling services
If you or someone you know wants or needs to visit with a professional personal counselor, Newman University’s Counseling Referral Service is available.