It was a pristine night at Ellis Field on Oct. 2. The first hint of fall was in the air following a sultry Texas summer, and the 3,162 fans in attendance soaked in the cool temperatures and gentle breeze while watching the Texas A&M soccer team dismantle Mississippi State.
The Aggies owned a 2-0 lead near the midway point of the second half but wanted to put an exclamation mark on the evening. In the 66th minute, a pair of veterans combined for a clever one-two combo on the right flank. Karlie Mueller slipped a quick pass to Janae Cousineau, who quickly one-touched it back to a streaking Mueller near the sideline. Mueller dribbled once and then rifled an arcing cross toward the six-yard box.
Standing in textbook position was sophomore Haley Pounds, who timed her leap perfectly and rocketed a header past the helpless MSU goalkeeper. The goal locked up A&M's 10th victory of the season, and Pounds immediately beamed a megawatt smile as teammates raced toward her for a series of congratulatory hugs and high-fives.
It was a moment that has played itself out often this season. Pounds, the Aggies' leading scorer, has looked very much at home during these moments of exaltation.
Indeed, the gleeful joy in Pounds' face on Oct. 2 was both contagious and undeniable.
Less than a year ago, however, that joy was almost unimaginable.
To hear Pounds' family and friends tell it, having a place on the field--and even being enrolled at Texas A&M--represents a significant story of success.
"I believe that we are allowed to go through difficult valleys in order to prepare us and strengthen us for great things ahead," said Blake Pounds, Haley's father. "Haley went through a deep valley during her freshman year. She experienced some really, really dark days."
Haley Pounds' story of battling severe depression is not one that is necessarily comfortable to discuss, but it is a narrative worthy of ample conversation around college campuses.
According to a National Institute of Mental Health study in 2011, roughly 30 percent of college students reported feeling "so depressed that it was difficult to function" at some point in the previous year. Further, studies reveal that a person's college years represent the first time in their life when they experience symptoms of depression. While the feelings of helplessness, insomnia, loneliness and anxiety (among others) may pass quickly for many, the disease can be debilitating for others.
Such was the case for Pounds.
On the outside, it seemed as though Pounds had everything going her way.
Playing for A&M was a lifelong dream for Haley Pounds, who grew up attending Aggie soccer camps.
A young woman who grew up attending Aggie sporting events, Pounds fell in love with Aggie soccer as a 5-year-old. That was the year her father, Class of 1989, took her to Meyer Park in Spring to watch coach G Guerrieri's team play North Carolina. She was hooked immediately and later spent many summers traveling to College Station to participate in Aggie soccer camps.
"I came to my first A&M football game when I was four months old," recalled Pounds. "We also came to a lot of soccer games, and I remember watching those girls and thinking I wanted to play there some day. Everyone was so friendly here and really welcoming. I loved the traditions, and there's something about A&M and the atmosphere that is hard to describe."
Pounds was ecstatic when the Aggie coaches offered her a scholarship as a ninth grader. The decision to commit was an easy one. For Guerrieri, landing a player of Pounds' caliber represented a big-time get. With extensive experience on various U.S. national teams and a successful club soccer career, Pounds was also an academic all-state honoree at The Woodlands Christian Academy.
Eager to begin her college career, Pounds graduated early from high school to participate in spring practices with the Aggies. By all accounts, she was having a standout spring--until the end of the team's final practice.
Pounds suffered a broken leg, immediately undoing months of hard work and planning. It was also the first in a series of events that led to what became a tumultuous freshman year.
"It happened on the last touch of the last drill of the spring season, and it made it to where she had to go through the whole summer just trying to get healthy," Guerrieri said. "She spent that whole summer in rehab, so instead of using the head start she already built in, she had to start over again."
Pounds was still in recovery mode as the 2014 season began, but managed to see action in 23 games. She made three starts and tallied one goal to go along with two assists, one of which came on the game-winner of the SEC Tournament championship match on Nov. 9.
But like many students (and student-athletes), the pressure to succeed at a high level took its toll. While the Aggie soccer team was steamrolling its way to the Women's College Cup--a first in school history--Pounds felt as though she was not contributing enough. Even though that team was loaded with nine seniors, five of whom had extensive experience at forward, Pounds' secondary role weighed on her. Add in a devastating breakup with a boyfriend in the midst of the season, and the emotions became overwhelming.
"She sets a high bar for herself in everything," said Blake Pounds. "To not be accomplishing what she wanted to on the field or classroom...she began to suffer serious bouts of depression. Quite frankly, every day was kind of touch-and-go. There were so many dark days."
Pounds' depression was serious enough that there was true concern from her family, coaches, teammates and doctors that she may have to withdraw from school for a period of time and perhaps even give up soccer altogether.
Pounds' emotional spiral steepened as the calendar turned to December.
In the face of worsening depression, one email changed--and perhaps even saved--her life.
Mackenzie Rollins, one of Pounds' former teachers at The Woodlands Christian Academy, had moved to Ecuador with her family to become missionaries in the fall of 2014. A Facebook post by Pounds immediately caught Rollins' eyes.
"She mentioned being depressed and how her life was falling apart," wrote Rollins in an email interview with 12th Man Magazine. "That penetrated my heart right away."
The Rollins family is no stranger to tragedy. Just months before they moved to Ecuador, the couple's youngest child, a daughter who was three months old, died unexpectedly due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Perhaps it was divine intervention, but Rollins felt a call to reach out to her former student.
"I wrote to her and invited her down," recalled Rollins. "She replied immediately and said this was exactly what she had been praying for--a chance to get away and refresh. God held us tight (during our time of grief), and we knew some of the same things we were learning and feeling were gifts that God wanted us to share with Haley, as well."
Road to Recovering
After a tumultuous fall semester in 2014, former-teacher-turned-missionary Mackenzie Rollins invited Pounds to spend a couple of weeks with her family in Ecuador. The trip renewed Pounds' sense of self-worth, and she returned to Texas A&M to lead the Aggies in scoring this year.
For Pounds, the chance to get away for a couple of weeks was perfect medicine. Rollins was living in a city called Cuenca, which is located in the highlands of Ecuador at an elevation of 8,400 feet. Surrounding Cuenca are many rural, impoverished areas of the Andes Mountains. Rollins and her family spend their time there educating and ministering to residents of all ages.
For two weeks, Pounds was an active participant in the family's efforts. She traveled where they traveled, assisted while they taught and even spent time playing soccer with local children. When they were not working, Pounds had time for personal reflection and conversation with her hosts.
"They are people I really look up to," Pounds said. "We were able to talk through a lot of things. I was able to share how I was feeling, and they poured a lot into me and encouraged me. They were still going through (the loss of their daughter), and we were able to share our pain together. They told me they knew what pain felt like and shared some ways they were able to get through it."
As the trip progressed, Pounds began to feel a weight lift off her shoulders. With every Bible study and interaction with those in need, her mind became clearer and more focused.
One interaction in particular helped put things into perspective. During an eight-hour drive deep into the jungle, the family stopped in a remote area they had visited previously. A young villager quickly attached herself to Pounds and made a lasting impression.
"She didn't have shoes on and her clothes were in bad shape," recalled Pounds. "She had a necklace with a cross on it, and it was something you could tell was very special to her. She told me in Spanish that she wanted me to have it. I was wearing a necklace at the time that I had just gotten for Christmas, so we ended up exchanging necklaces.
"Here was a girl who basically had nothing, and she was able to give one of her most prized possessions to me, someone who she didn't even know. We got back in the car and I had tears in my eyes. I didn't even have to speak her language. Just being there and loving on her, I think that really impacted her, and she wanted to give something back to me. That made me feel really special."
Pounds eventually returned to Aggieland with a reinvigorated spirit. She attacked both school work and spring drills with a new vigor. The smile and joy that had vanished during the first part of her college career returned, and she began to focus on things that truly mattered.
"I had a firmer foundation and knew what I wanted to do," said Pounds. "I knew I wanted to work my butt off in soccer and invest in the right relationships. Before every game now, I reflect on where I was last year. I keep a band on my wrist and write on it that I'm renewed. It's kind of my motto. (Soccer) is my outlet. I've been given this ability by God, and I have so much fun playing."
To her family and friends, the sight of a joyful Pounds working hard and leading the Aggie soccer team is a welcome one. Her teammates have embraced her, and her coaches have pushed her to continue improving. Pounds' faith continues to play an important role in her recovery from depression.
"Her faith has strengthened and evolved," said Blake Pounds. "I see her making a lot of good decisions, and I see her relying on her faith as a context for how to make those decisions. we are very proud of her. As a father, it's awesome to see her grow into the young lady she is becoming."
Part of Pounds' growth is a desire to share her story. She has since gone on another mission trip and it is her hope that other students or athletes who are dealing with depression may gain some hope from learning about her trials and tribulations.
Her recovery also serves as a stark reminder to others that character and faith can help lead someone out of the dark valley of depression.
"Our advice to Haley was to remind her of her worth beyond soccer and school," Rollins said. "If I could give one piece of advice to those close to athletes, I would remind them to praise them for their character more than their skill. Skills come and go and athletes win and lose, but character is deeper. The character of a person is something that will never fade away. Haley has great character, and that is what makes her a star."
It's a real pleasure for us to do this, because I think back about all the support Aggies have given me. No one accomplishes everything in life by themselves, and A&M and the Aggie network have definitely been there for me throughout my life."