Shedding stigma and suiting up: Riley Bodine conquers mental and physical setbacks on his way to playing football one more time

by Kelley Pearson, Sports Editor

Last year, Riley Bodine was hired by the UVA Wise football coaching staff to help out with the tight ends and the offensive line. This year, after much physical and mental healing, Bodine has traded his whistle and title for cleats and pads as he will suit up for the Cavs in the fall.

Bodine got serious about football in his freshman year of high school where he played for Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. At only six feet tall, he knew attracting the attention of anyone scouting for NCAA Division 1 football would be hard.

“Everyone loved how I played, but no one really took a shot on me,” Bodine said. “I started getting offers the summer of my senior year. [They were] nothing big, but I was more than happy to have them.”

Initially, Bodine committed to play for UVA Wise, but less than a week later, he received that illustrious D1 offer when Tennessee Tech called with a preferred walk-on spot. He would play five games in his freshman year and was red-shirted in his sophomore year. After a coaching change, Bodine would look to transfer. He would once again commit to UVA Wise before ultimately heading to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. Less than two months after his transfer, COVID-19 brought all sports to a standstill.

“I could barely remember what year it was because everything was so slow and boring without playing,” Bodine recalled.

Bodine had his personal battle with the disease and it affected him, mind and body. Once sports resumed play, a debilitating feeling of anxiety kicked in.

“I was sick every morning. I felt off at times. I wouldn’t eat or feel like eating. I didn’t want to go fishing with friends or do anything like I used to. I just shook it off as being focused,” Bodine said.

Despite being gifted an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID season, Bodine opted to graduate and move on from the sport he loved. At the start of the 2021-22 season, he weighed in at a respectable 300 pounds. But the constant state of unease was taking its toll on his body.

“The day before camp, I’d lost 15-20 pounds. I figured out I had COVID. I sat out the two weeks and came back. When I did come back, I couldn’t eat to put the weight back on. I went from 300 to 245 in two to three months. As an offensive lineman, you can’t play at that weight. I went through the season and couldn’t gain weight. When we started spring ball, I weighed 225 pounds. I decided to stop playing after spring ball. After I graduated, I got diagnosed with sports anxiety.”

A May 2022 article by the Associated Press suggested that rates of mental exhaustion, anxiety and depression were as much as twice as high as pre-pandemic levels. The survey was designed by NCAA research in collaboration with the NCAA Sport Science Institute and the Division I, II and III Student-Athlete Advisory Committees.

The results showed that 69 percent of women’s sports participants and 63 percent of men’s sports participants agreed that they know where to go on campus if they have mental health concerns. However, less than half of each said they would they would feel comfortable seeking support from a mental health provider on campus.

Another study from October 2014 showed the issues with anxiety in athletes existed well before the pandemic era. NCAA research showed that almost 85 percent of certified athletic trainers believed anxiety disorders were an issue with student-athletes on their campus.

Bodine may have lost his physical stature on the field, but he was able to take the tenacity which made him a Division I talent and seek the help he needed.

“I called coach [Dane] Damron a month later and explained the situation and he hired me as a coach,” Bodine said.

Despite de-committing from UVA Wise twice, Damron knew the talent Bodine would be bringing to his program as a coach and didn’t think twice before extending the offer. Now that Bodine wants to don the red and black, Damron couldn’t be more excited.

“The fact that he’s doing what he’s doing speaks volumes about the kind of person [Riley] is. He’s still got gas in the tank. He has unfinished business on the field,” Damron said. “When football is over, it’s over. There’s no pick-up football games like you can find in a lot of other sports.”

Bodine got back to work in the gym. He credits his family and best friends for helping him to love football again.

“I started feeling better and lifting and got up to 230. I asked coach Damron if he would let me play. He made sure it was what I wanted to do and that my family was okay with it,” Bodine said.

The next step was talking to the players. The young men he had coached and instructed for a year welcomed him immediately with open arms.

“I went into a player meeting and said if you all want me to play, we can make it happen,” Bodine said.

“The biggest adjustment for the players is going from calling him ‘coach Bodine’ to ‘Riley.’ He was never far removed from playing. These kids thought a lot about him as a coach and are thrilled to have him on their roster,” Damron said.

Once Bodine finishes this season and hangs up his equipment, Damron and his staff are ready to have him return to the sidelines in his same coaching position.

“We’ll do whatever to keep him. He’s a fantastic young man. He’ll be a huge benefit as a player and we’ll welcome him back with open arms as a coach once this year is over,” Damron said.

In one word, Bodine is ready. After giving up the opportunity to play at Carl Smith Stadium twice in his career, the third time will be the charm for the courageous young man from Signal Mountain, Tenn.

“It took a lot to coach and a lot more to play, but I want people to know that anxiety and depression can be beat and you can still do what you love. I couldn’t be happier to play again for a special place and special people,” Bodine said.

The football season begins on Saturday, September 2 when the Highland Cavaliers welcome Union College, Ky. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.