8-minute read

‘Closer to my true self’: A star athlete turns mental wellness advocate

Harry Miller’s decision to leave football has changed his life. By opening up about his struggles with mental health, he’s impacting student-athletes everywhere.
Harry Miller stands in Ohio Stadium during the Michigan game on Nov. 26, 2022.
Ohio State mechanical engineering student and former football player Harry Miller has come forward and shared his mental health struggles in hopes of helping others. (Jodi Miller)

Harry Miller’s year of transformation is exemplified by the former Ohio State football player's current physical look. 

Miller has lost 80 pounds since he last wore a Buckeyes uniform in 2021, when his 6-foot-4 frame weighed 315 and his then-private struggle for mental wellness seemed too heavy at times for the offensive lineman to bear. 

“I wanted to physically change, but also because doing so sort of gave me the permission to say I’m a different person now,” Miller says. 

A scale isn’t necessary to measure how Miller has changed since March, when he announced in a Twitter post that he was medically retiring from football because his long battle with anxiety and depression caused him to contemplate suicide in 2021. 

In his own words, Miller feels “liberated” while maintaining welcomed daily ties to the football program without team responsibilities. 

Lighter in mind as well as body, he is reading voraciously, writing fiction for the first time, playing an array of musical instruments, and enjoying study groups with fellow students who, like him, are majoring in mechanical engineering.  

“Over the course of the past year, I feel that I’ve gotten closer to my true self, which has been very rewarding,” says Miller, on pace to graduate in December 2023 with a 4.0 grade point average. “It’s hard for me to fathom that a lot of this has all transpired this year. March seems like a lifetime ago.” 

Harry is not only an embodiment of resilience, but also a champion of resilience. His story shows how there is help out there – treatments that work – and that help can really be transforming.
Dr. K. Luan Phan
Chair, Ohio State Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health

March was when Miller’s emotional 736-word statement on Twitter went viral, prompting national media attention – including his appearance on NBC’s “Today” show – and empowering him to become an advocate for mental wellness. 

“Harry is very intelligent, very compassionate, very empathetic,” says Ohio State psychiatrist Dr. Joshua Norman, who has worked with Miller. “He wants other people to know that mental health issues are common, there are other people going through this, and you can get better. You can work through it. There’s a lot of support out there.” 

Miller credits Buckeyes coach Ryan Day and Ohio State Sport Psychology and Wellness Services – which has Norman and three other full-time mental health professionals working within the athletic department to serve all 36 varsity sports – for saving his life with care and understanding. 

Day has kept Miller on scholarship and feeling at home at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, where he works out most mornings. Miller cheered from Ohio State’s sideline at all home games, and he’ll do so again on New Year’s Eve when the Buckeyes play Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinal Peach Bowl.  

Miller says the unwavering friendship of former teammates has been very beneficial, as has been the support that he’s felt from his own family, fellow students, engineering professors and Buckeye fans everywhere. 

“Harry is not only an embodiment of resilience but also a champion of resilience,” says Dr. K. Luan Phan, chair of the Ohio State Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health. “His story shows how there is help out there – treatments that work – and that help can really be transforming. It’s a powerful testament and can make a big difference in destigmatizing issues around mental health and mental wellness.” 

Miller says he’s learned in the past year how much others care for him, and now he’s trying to help others by sharing his own experiences. 

“My story is widely accessible,” he says, “because, unfortunately, that’s the reality so many people are dealing with.” 

Since going public with his mental health challenges last year, Miller has had an open ear for others fighting their own mental health battles. (Jodi Miller)

An identity crisis

Miller didn’t see himself the way others saw him when he arrived at Ohio State in 2019 as a much-celebrated five-star recruit. 

“For a very long time, I had to assume this identity of being a football player,” he says. 

Miller learned to compartmentalize his athletic identity alongside his own widespread interests, but it wasn’t easy. “It felt like every time I went home, I had to take off my skin and hop into another piece of flesh,” he says.  

Still, Miller performed well on the football field, starting six games for the Buckeyes in 2020, and leading NFL agents to project him to someday be an early-round NFL draft pick.  

“My football responsibility increased, and therefore the expectations of others and the largeness of that character I had to play increased,” Miller says. 

His identity crisis reached a critical point in the weeks leading up to the 2021 season as expectations for the team, himself and his possible NFL future swirled with increased intensity. Miller told Day that he intended to kill himself. Day, who at nine years old lost his father to suicide, immediately arranged for and encouraged Miller to visit Ohio State counselors. 

“Luckily, I had Coach Day here,” Miller says. “Had I gone into this decision in a vacuum, I would have thought nobody had my back, in which case it would have made perfect sense to commit suicide.” 

The support aligned with the advocacy work of Day and his wife, who launched the Christina and Ryan Day Fund for Pediatric and Adolescent Mental Wellness at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in 2019. Last September, the Days created a 

resilience fund in their name and donated $1 million for research and treatment at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and College of Medicine. 

Finding resilience

The Nina and Ryan Day Resilience Fund encourages young adults to seek help for their behavioral challenges.
Support the fund

A culture of caring established by Day helped Miller turn to beefed-up resources at Ohio State. The athletic department added three full-time mental health professionals in 2019 to join lead sports psychologist Jamey Houle, who had been on staff for four years. 

“Not too long ago, mental health resources weren’t even really available at universities, especially within college athletics,” Norman says. “Ohio State has done a great job of having resources available. When you look across the landscape of the country, not a lot of schools are as fortunate.” 

Therapy sessions at Ohio State helped Miller – who played sparingly in 2021 with coaches and staff supporting his off-field struggles in private – find enough mental peace to leave football last March in a move he saw as honest, not courageous.  

 And an appreciation for his own circumstances made Miller seek to serve others in need. 

“I have found that communicating is so important when it comes to mental health, depression, suicide,” Miller says. “It breaks my heart to think about all these other people who have committed suicide. What if that person just called their mom or a friend or somebody?” 

Harry Miller says that the support of Ohio State's football program and coach Ryan Day helped him traverse his mental health challenges. (Jodi Miller)

Sharing his wisdom

The widespread response to Miller’s public expression of his personal struggles initially surprised him, and the impact still plays out in his daily life. 

Strangers occasionally stop him in Columbus, express thanks, and share their own stories. He’s had the same experience with students on campus. 

“Sometimes people want to interact with me and ask me a question like I’m Yoda,” says Miller, a huge fan of the “Star Wars” movies. 

Even if Miller doesn’t feel full of wisdom, he never hesitates to converse – always after first asking for the other person’s name – for he understands the commonality of mental health issues and the need for connection. 

“It’s taught me to always have an open ear,” he says. 

A friend from his hometown of Buford, Georgia, recently texted Miller and asked if they could talk for the first time in years. Their subsequent phone call lasted 45 minutes. 

 “For me, it was just a lot of listening,” Miller says. “Much of the past year has been about speaking, but it has equally been about listening.” 

Just as Miller is grateful that Ohio State heard him in his time of need, counselors are thankful that Miller has spoken out about his own struggles. 

Phan and Norman both say they’ve often heard Miller mentioned among the increase in Ohio State student-athletes and others in the university and local community who have sought help from mental health professionals this past year. 

We knew that Harry was special. We knew that he was going to have an impact on people.
Ryan Day
Ohio State football coach

“Harry sharing his story so openly and emotionally conveys that you don’t need to be alone,” Phan says. “You don’t need to feel guilt and shame. You should share your emotions about how your struggle is impacting you. That’s a powerful message.” 

In September, Miller shared his story as keynote speaker at Ohio State’s 13th annual Faces of Resilience event, which supports the university’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health. The crowd responded with tears and a one-minute standing ovation. In November, he received the Recovery Award from Southeast Healthcare.

“We knew that Harry was special,” Day says. “We knew that he was going to have an impact on people. Never would you imagine it would be like this and at such a young age, have such great impact on people.” 

Miller plans to give more speeches. He has also addressed mental wellness on social media, in his fictional writing that he hopes to someday publish, and to families he’s spoken with who have lost student-athletes to suicide.  

“Language is very powerful, and if used rhetorically and intelligently, it can do things other means can’t do,” Miller says. 

Miller has done a lot in the past year, including a summer internship in Washington, D.C., at Iridium, a satellite communications company. His next two semesters will see him apply for a Rhodes Scholarship in April and take on a capstone project to earn his degree. 

And he’ll continue addressing his own mental wellness with vigor while putting that same renewed energy into what he calls a lifetime mission. 

“You do a good job of being an advocate, and that can have huge repercussions that can be felt tangibly,” Miller says. “That’s my hope.” 

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Ohio State's Counseling and Consultation Services are a great resource for students in need of help.
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