Before Devin Cosper could start to focus on life after basketball at the University of Arkansas, a challenge every student-athlete faces eventually, she was forced to deal with life in addition to basketball in a painful way.
Before she landed the first internship (in the areas of Competition and Student-Athlete Engagement) as part of a renewed program at the Southeastern Conference office, she had to compete for her own peace of mind.
More than halfway through her internship year in Birmingham, Cosper has a story to tell that will weigh heavy on your heart at times but ultimately will inspire you.
"It was absolutely worth it," Cosper said. "It was not easy, but I wouldn't change a thing. If I didn't go through what I went through, I wouldn't be the person I am today. It made me a better person, a better family member, a better friend, a better everything."
The University of Arkansas is better because Cosper played basketball there for three seasons after transferring from her hometown Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. She averaged a career-best 14.1 points a game as an Arkansas senior in 2017-2018 and finished 11th in program history in career three-point field goals made despite playing much of her final season with an ankle injury that would later require surgery.
That adversity paled compared to the hardships Cosper endured in the fall of her junior year. She suffered a severe concussion that September, which was intensified by the migraines she already suffered, and recuperated to the point that she was about to return to the court -- when worse news arrived in November. Her 18-year-older sister, Sierra, died after a 12-year battle with multiple sclerosis.
Sierra left behind two sons who are now teenagers, Tajahn and Tariq, and a younger sister struggling to cope with all that hurt.
"That was definitely the hardest thing I've ever had to go through," Cosper said. "Basically, I was out of body for a long time."
Finding herself in a dark place, Cosper was fortunate to encounter multiple rays of light. Prominent among them were Natalie Trotter, the head athletic trainer for women's basketball, and Felecia Saine, now the school's associate AD for academic services. They staged what you might call a kinder, gentler intervention with Cosper that helped her see she needed support to help carry her burden.
"I didn't want to ask for help," Cosper said. "I didn't ask for help. I was almost forced to do it. Those two women, Natalie Trotter and Felecia Saine, I love them to death. They saved my life. They really did. They said, 'We're worried about you. You're not snapping out of it. What you're doing is not working. We can help you.' I'm like, 'Leave me alone. Don't talk to me. You don't know what you're talking about.' I was in denial about everything. One day I was by myself, and I thought about what my life was like four months prior and I thought, 'This could get bad.' I had to be strong enough to go to them and say, 'I need help.' "
That put her on a positive path that included counseling and caring gestures as simple as breakfast or lunch invitations from teammates or Trotter and Saine. More support arrived from new Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors. He said he wanted Cosper to stay and play her final season as a graduate student - but only after urging her to return home during the first summer session to spend time with her family and friends, grieving for her sister, addressing and shedding her pain.
"I was able to be myself again," Cosper said. "Brought back healthy vibes, being around my parents and my friends. It definitely determined the person I was going to be. I'm grateful that (Coach Neighbors) allowed me to do that."
Cosper's performance beyond the basketball court, as a member of the Arkansas and SEC Academic Honor Rolls and the SEC Community Service Team, put her in position to earn her current internship at the conference office. While working on events as diverse as the SEC Soccer Championship, the SEC Football Championship Game and the SEC Career Tour, she was able to complete the extensive requirements of the Capstone Project required for her master's degree.
For the project, she chose a meaningful, personal subject: the mental health of student-athletes. It was a major focus of last week's NCAA Convention. Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA's chief medical officer, called mental health "the single most important health and safety issue facing our student-athletes today."
Cosper addressed that reality in her academic project by creating a guide that contains every mental health resource available at Arkansas throughout the campus, inside and outside the athletics department. As part of her focus on peer support, she devised a mentor training program to help students recognize signs in others who may be struggling to deal with the stresses they face - as Trotter, Saine, her teammates and coaches did for her.
"You don't get through things like that without people in your corner," Cosper said. "You just don't do it. I was lucky enough to have childhood friends who were always there, the people I was around at Arkansas who saw me the most, my parents who never wavered. I want to be that person for somebody else. I have to give back. That's why I'm so adamant about mental health. People don't talk about mental health like they should."
Cosper is willing to discuss it and find ways to do something about it as she contemplates the end of her internship and the beginning of her career in either sports administration or event management. She's gotten a healthy taste of the behind-the-scenes work done by so many people to stage successful events such as the SEC Soccer Championship, the SEC Football Championship Game, SEC Basketball Media Days and the SEC Career Tour.
She'll bring so much to the table at her first full-time job, including an uplifting story she's glad to share.
"In the next 20 years, I could be an associate AD," she said. "You never know."