Irish Strong, Men’s Lacrosse spearhead Mental Health Awareness Week // The Observer

Notre Dame vs. Syracuse is always a massive ACC lacrosse game. This year is hardly any different, with the Irish entering as the No. 15 in the country, and Syracuse ranked 18th. The buzz will be palpable, but this year the on-field result is hardly the most important part of the day.

Both Notre Dame and Syracuse are collaborating in an effort to support mental health. The game ends a Mental Health Awareness Week throughout Notre Dame Athletics. Notre Dame’s Student-Athlete Advisory Council started the initiative, with the lacrosse team spearheading the effort. Junior midfielder Maxim Manyak is a board member on the council and the co-president of Irish Strong. Irish Strong is a student-athlete-led program focused on destigmatizing mental health and helping-seeking within the Notre Dame community. Manyak discussed the origins of his team’s motivation to raise awareness for this cause.

“How it started was we have a guy [Jose Boyer] from Yorktown, New York. [Rob Kavovit] was from his hometown. A really good lacrosse player and an influential guy in his community.”

Kavovit was a former Syracuse lacrosse star, having graduated in 1997. However, tragically, in the spring of 2021, Kavovit took his own life at age 45.

“We wear tape on our helmets to honor people sometimes, and Jose’s tape was for Rob,” Manyak said.

This came about nine months after Notre Dame lacrosse alum Tommy O’Brien who passed away at age 49 during the summer of 2020. The two tragic events linked the two communities, and it led to Manyak, Boyer and the Notre Dame coaching staff looking for a way to help.

“We were talking — between us and with our coaching staff and we decided it would be super cool if we could do something to honor both families,” Manyak explained. “We are both wearing completely customized warm-up jerseys, just for this game, to honor both Tommy and Rob.”

Manyak also noted the team was making flyers to distribute around campus and the South Bend community.

Not only are the teams wearing these jerseys, but they’re selling them via an online store that opened this week. A portion of the proceeds go back to Notre Dame lacrosse, and the team is turning that over to a pair of charity funds set up for both Kavovit and O’Brien.

“There are two funds set up, one for Rob and one for Tommy. It’s recognizing mental health together within a very tight-knit lacrosse community,” Manyak said. “So we are doing something for our respective alumni but also together as a community.”

For O’Brien, proceeds from the warm-up jersey sale will be donated to the Tommy O’Brien Fund and to honor Kavovit, funds will also be donated to the 15 For Life Foundation. Kavovit wore No. 15 while playing for the Orange.

While the men’s lacrosse team led this effort, the rest of the Irish Athletic programs worked to honor the Mental Health Awareness week as well. Every other team wore “Irish Strong” warmup jerseys and dedicated one of their games to the “Mental Matters” cause. The goal, beyond raising money for these funds, was to raise awareness about mental health and to highlight resources available to the Notre Dame and South Bend communities.

The broader goal, Manyak stated, is to make sure this effort doesn’t fade away after the week. He and his peers within Irish Strong hope to make it a lasting movement, and one that doesn’t stick within the confines of Notre Dame sports.

“We don’t want to keep it to just athletics. It’s a problem in far more than just sports. Sports are just a way to bring people together.”

Notre Dame and Syracuse will play at 2 pm on Saturday. There will be a moment of silence before the game to honor O’Brien, Kavovit and all those who have been directly, or indirectly, impacted by mental illness.

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