How Big Brent found strength to help others

SMU basketball player Brent Martindale makes community a priority

Some sportscasters call him Big Brent, a reference to his exuberant personality and 6’6″ frame. The nickname also fits the impact he’s made outside of basketball.

Brent Martindale is a fifth-year forward on the Saint Mary’s Huskies men’s team. He serves on the Saint Mary’s athletic council, volunteers for the St. Andrew’s United Church Sunday supper community outreach program, has travelled to Romania to volunteer with the Venture2Impact program and was an assistant coach for the 2018 Basketball Nova Scotia U15 provincial team. He has also been an instructor for Saint Mary’s basketball camps.

“I just remember when I was a kid doing those camps, I used to really look up to those guys [the instructors],” says Martindale, who grew up in Kingston, Ont. Now that the roles are reversed, “you want to be that good role model for them.”

In his first couple of years at Saint Mary’s, Martindale wasn’t such a big force — off or on the court.

“He wasn’t a highly recruited player,” says Huskies head coach Jonah Taussig. “He just kind of worked his way into playing for me and becoming a starter in his last couple years.”

Martindale admits that his first couple of years at university were unremarkable.

“I was very focused on myself and my social life. It would be like, go to practice, go to weights, go to class, and then ‘Hey, guys what are we doing tonight? What are we doing this weekend?'” he said.

A rival inspires

That changed at the end of his third year when he heard a speech by a competitor. Kashrell Lawrence, a player for the rival Dalhousie University Tigers, won the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) Student-Athlete Community Service Award in 2016-17. At the AUS banquet, Lawrence said student-athletes have a platform that can — and should — be used to make positive change in the community.

“He was kind of like an enemy, but you still couldn’t help but look up to him a little bit,” says Martindale. “He kind of called everybody out.”

Lawrence’s words stuck with Martindale, and so in the past two years, he became more and more involved on and off campus. Much of his work in the community is focused on mental health initiatives. He is the Saint Mary’s campus lead for the Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative. He also directs and co-ordinates a student mentorship program called Open Doors, Open Minds.

Personal struggle

Martindale was motivated by his own struggles with mental illness and the help that support systems like the health initiative offered.

“When I wasn’t doing well, those people had kind of brought me out of that, and so it kind of felt like I had a duty to do the same,” he says.

He struggled in his third year. He stopped going to class, called in sick to basketball practice whenever possible and avoided social interactions.

“It didn’t feel like I really had any control,” he says. Eventually, “it just became this thing where I never really wanted to leave my room, let alone my bed.

“It was a time when I didn’t really like who I was and I kinda looked for any escape from that.”

A turning point came that spring, when he was sitting with teammate Brett Parrott after practice.

“He just kinda said, ‘Hey, put your jacket on, we’re going to the counselling centre,’ and just took me there,” says Martindale.

The Saint Mary’s counselling system helped, Martindale says, but with six counsellors for roughly 9,000 students, it was far from perfect. He also struggled with the lack of athletic-specific mental training — ways to deal with body image, self confidence and performance anxiety.

“It started to get a little bit better, but it was very wavy,” Martindale says.

In the summer following his third year of school, Martindale was in Halifax and struggling with suicidal thoughts. One day, he “just kinda took off.”

He went to a bridge and after hanging out there for a while, started to climb onto the ledge. Then, a man in a car veered to the side of the road, got out and pulled Martindale down.

“I remember he had a red jacket on, a really distinct red jacket,” says Martindale, who never learned the man’s name.

Martindale spent a couple of days after that in the hospital. That fall, he went through a recovery process and started to speak out more about his experiences.

“When I started to speak out on social media and around campus some other people started to do the same and then, you know, it just comes in a wave,” he says.

‘Comfortable with who he is’

Martindale’s leadership in the community stems from how he’s grown as a person, according to his coach.

“I think he’s just kind of become more comfortable with who he is in the last few years,” says Taussig.

Martindale is finishing his last semester of a criminology degree and has applied to law school at Dalhousie University. In his last season of varsity basketball, he started in all 20 regular season games for the Huskies, averaging 6.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.

He won the AUS Student-Athlete Community Service Award in February and says he wants to continue with his community work once he graduates.

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