'Mama Shelly' Takes Holistic Vision Into New Role

by Cody Worsham
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'Mama Shelly' Takes Holistic Vision Into New Role

Before she was Mama Shelly, Shelly Mullenix was TiTi.

Mullenix’s titles, nicknames, and job responsibilities seem to be in eternal competition to outnumber the other, each reflecting the need she serves to the population that wields it. 

There’s the aforementioned Mama Shelly, the most common cognomen around LSU’s Football Operations facility, especially among its student-athletes. Mama Shelly is the maternal protector of her athletes, doling out tough love, lending a sympathetic shoulder, and taping sprained ankles. 

Senior Associate Athletic Director of Health and Wellness Shelly Mullenix is the most bureaucratic, a title she earned this summer in a new, transformational role in the athletic department. It’s the culmination of everything Mullenix has worked for since arriving at LSU in 1997, when she was an up-and-coming athletic trainer with an open, innovative mind and a different perspective.

Shelly Mullenix, M.S.W, meanwhile, is the most recent, after Mullenix earned her Master’s from LSU’s School of Social Work in August. It’s a degree four years in the making, and it’s also a window to her plans to keep LSU’s holistic treatment of student-athletes – current and former – at the forefront of college athletics. 

But it all started years ago with TiTi, a player’s term of endearment for the closest thing to a mom a football program can offer.

“It was Bradie James who first called me TiTi,” Mullenix laughs, “which was the name that he gives aunts. So I didn’t start off as Mama. I was an aunt at some point. 

“As I as I’ve aged, I’ve taken on different names.”

In more than two decades at LSU, Mullenix has expanded her role within Tiger athletics from a daily-grinding athletic trainer to, now in her new role, a forward-thinking administrator still bent on keeping close to the action while providing a long-term, broad vision for the department. 

But Mullenix hasn’t just evolved with the times. Every step of the way, she’s evolved ahead of them, outpacing the rest of the country in her consideration of who student-athletes are, what they need now, and what they will need tomorrow. 

It’s that insight Mullenix takes into her new position, and it’s that insight which keeps her grounded in the lessons she learned in her old one. She’s moving LSU into the future with her, because she has a promise to keep to the past. 

THE NIGHT OF the funeral, Mullenix made a vow, one she’s contemplated every day since Naeshall Manard killed himself nearly 20 years ago: Never again.

Manard was an offensive lineman for LSU in the spring of 1998 when he drove his vehicle to the Mississippi River levee and shot himself. Mullenix, who had spent time working with Manard in her capacity as a trainer, counted herself among the heartbroken left behind to wonder what more could’ve been done.

“I did not pick up on the signs and symptoms,” she says. “I mean, I knew there were some issues, but I never knew the issues were that deep.

“I remember having this thought the night of his funeral: It’s going to be my mission to have that not happen again.”

The tears spilled over Marshall’s death gave water to a seed Mullenix had long harbored internally, from the day she began as an athletic trainer and realized the needs of student-athletes – with all their strength and swagger – were the same needs she possessed, and that she had a specific skillset to address them. 

“It always seemed kind of absurd to know that these student-athletes are no different than everyone’s children,” Mullenix says, “but we handled them differently. Well, my approach was to not handle them differently.

“We’re all the same, right? All these athletes are really having the same issues, just in different places. But how they were dealing with them was different.”

So she became their TiTi, and eventually their Mama, speaking honestly and listening earnestly. 

When Mullenix began her career in athletic training at Florida State, there were very few women in the profession, and even fewer working with football. Jack Marucci – who would come with her from Tallahassee to Baton Rouge in 1997 and who has always had an eye for niches in need of filling – identified that lack not as an obstacle for Mullenix to overcome, but as an opportunity to exploit. 

“It was definitely ahead of the game back then,” she says, “inserting a female into the football program. That was something that was really unheard of at the time. I think Jack had it exactly right – putting someone in there where maybe the guys would feel more comfortable to speak about their stuff that was less manly, that was less tough. 

“But you needed to have the right woman in the spot, I think, to be able to sort through those emotions, know when you could push them, know when you need to love on them a little bit.”

As she taped ankles and filled ice packs, Mullenix listened. She prided herself on being blunt, distinguishing her voice from the crowd by being direct with athletes far more accustomed to flattery than frankness. 

Coaches recruit. Mama Shelly derecruits. Five stars or none, Mullenix sees every player in the same light. She’s equally honest with all of them, and she expects the same in return.

“The truth is: I don’t like to be part of the recruiting process,” she says. “Because I honestly don’t care who they were. I want to know who they’re going to be.”

Mullenix sets the parameters for the relationship with her athletes from day one. What she gives, she expects to be given: honesty, trust, and vulnerability. She’s an open book, and she hopes that unlocks whatever barriers and defense mechanisms athletes have learned to lean on.

“I think that was part of the advantage of being a female,” she says. “That was what their mom would have done. Their mom would have whipped them into shape. Maybe that was how they saw me. That’s probably how that name evolved. 

“I wasn’t going to pull any punches, I wasn’t going to lie, to make them feel good about themselves. I was going to allow myself to be vulnerable in front of them, which allowed them to be vulnerable back to me.”

KRISTIAN FULTON NEEDED help.  A five-star cornerback out of New Orleans, Fulton nearly lost half of his collegiate career when he attempted to use a substitute urine sample during a February 2017 drug test. Though he ended up passing the test using his own urine, the momentary lapse in judgment landed him a two year suspension.

Fulton’s suspension lasted one season before LSU’s appeals led to his reinstatement last fall, but the 18-month limbo took a psychological and spiritual toll. 

Mullenix was there, every step of the way, in more ways than one. 

“She’s helped me through my tough times,” Fulton says. “Just having someone to talk to, put me in contact with people that I can talk to if I need anything, educating me on certain situations.”

In her previous role as Director of Health and Wellness – a position she held from 2009 until her administrative promotion this summer – Mullenix oversaw the entire spectrum of student-athlete well-being at LSU.

That included everything from mental health to drug testing, from peer leadership to daily nutrition. As Fulton awaited his fate, he leaned on Mullenix’s expertise in all those areas and more. 

More important than her expertise, however, was her approach. 

“She’s probably the most genuine person here,” Fulton says. “She really looks out for our best interests. You come into this building, your main focus is football and lifting weights and all those things. But she does the stuff that every person needs. Everybody has personal problems and has their personal needs, or needs to do yoga, or something like that. That’s what she looks out for us. 

“It definitely goes unnoticed, but it’s noticeable to us.”

It’s noticeable to Scott Woodward, too. It’s why one of his first actions in his tenure as LSU’s athletic director was to promote Mullenix into his administration. Like Mullenix, he recognizes the importance of taking care of athletes holistically.

“Health and wellness means a lot more these days than it once did,” Woodward says. “It’s no longer just about eating right and getting some rest. This is a burgeoning and evolving field that brings together all facets of sports science and research, mental health, nutrition and wellness into comprehensive programs that lead to elite performance on the field and healthy bodies and minds off the field.

“Shelly is uniquely qualified to lead LSU to the very top of this evolving field. She’s not only deeply passionate about LSU and our student-athletes, she’s also a recognized leader and innovator in implementing comprehensive sports science and wellness programs that help athletes reach peak performance on the field and healthy bodies and minds off the field.”

Mullenix’s specific duties are still evolving. There’s the day-to-day training and treatment of injured and ailing student-athletes, which will decrease as she adjusts to her new role. 

That’s the plan, at least, though she’s aiming to keep her finger on the pulse of as many players as she can. Her office is inside of the training room at football ops, so she’s still getting the daily interaction she considers vital to her position, perhaps even more so as an administrator. 

“I think it’s important that you’re with student-athletes, that you’re sweating with them, that you’re hearing the screaming that goes on a practice,” she says. “It’s hard to be in an administrative role and pretend like you really know what’s going on when you’re not in there sweating. I’ve always felt that way.”

Since 2009, when she was promoted to Director of Health and Wellness for the athletic department, Mullenix has also been involved with drug testing, behavioral counseling, and nutrition. All grew out of that underlying perspective: that athletes are people, too, and they have human needs that, at the time, weren’t being met as well as they could’ve been.

So she dove headfirst into nutrition, before LSU even had registered dieticians on staff, utilizing a computer program to process nutritional data and advise athletes on what they were eating. She studied the links between mental health illness and drug use and abuse. And she provided a space where athletes could open up on issues they’d been keeping to themselves.

It’s also why she went back to school to get her MSW. It was one thing to be Mama Shelly and offer a listening ear. But Mullenix wanted to offer more.

Could I be doing more from a counseling perspective? she thought to herself. If they seem to relate to me so well as Mama Shelly, what would they do if I had some real skills?  

“If I can actually do some therapeutic modalities and interventions with them, that would really help,” she says. “And I knew that I was outside of my scope of practice, as an athletic trainer, to do that. So I wanted to go back to school.”

Whether she was in the classroom or the training room, Mullenix has differentiated herself and LSU by eliminating differences. She takes athletes off their pedestals and treats them like people. 

“If someone’s got a drug issue, I want to talk about it,” she says. “If someone’s got an STD, I want to talk about it. I don’t want to just ignore these things, because that’s being human, and I wanted to normalize it all. 

“All these issues combined over time into what we now call health and wellness, and creating a position for it, that you can have a group of individuals helping to mold the student athletes in ways that we just never thought of outside of athletics I think is just a really unique perspective.” 

From left to right: Jack Marucci, Scott Woodward, and Shelly Mullenix

THERE’S ONE QUESTION Mullenix can’t answer yet, but she’ll know the answer by Saturday, when LSU opens the 2019 season against Georgia Southern.

Where am I going to sit? 

In 25 years of work, dating back to her days in graduate school at Florida State, she’s never sat in the stands for a football game. The lone exception: she was in the bleachers for a high school game in which her daughter worked as a student athletic trainer. 

“I still haven’t figured that out yet,” she laughs. “I don’t know where I’m going to be. I still feel like I have something to offer the student athletes in real time.”

It’s the administrator’s paradox, the part of the job that takes the most adjusting, whether it’s a teacher who has become a principal or a trainer who has become an associate AD. The micro view versus the macro view, hands on versus oversight. It’s a balance, and a tough one.

But Mullenix is the resident yoga instructor in football ops. Balance is her forte. 

“I have to be able to start looking at things in a bigger picture, a broader scope, and how can I affect more people,” she says. “It’s always been important for me to save one. Maybe I need to think about how I can save 20. And I want to be really good at that.”

Her vision is broad and bold, and it includes a desire to increase the support LSU offers former student-athletes, which is already significant. She’s proud of the support systems that are currently in place – that Tigers can eat well and do yoga and get counseling from the day they first step on campus until they take off their uniforms for the last time.

Now, she wants to expand that scope until well after their eligibility expires. 

“I want to somehow be able to be there when we’re done, and help them and guide them in that transition period,” she says. “That’s a huge change. It’s the same transition that they go through from high school to college. 

“All of a sudden, they’re by themselves again when they’re done (at LSU). They’ve lost their identity, and trying to figure out ways to best approach that, to keep them keep them moving in the right direction, and keep them proud of the fact that they were student-athletes at LSU, and that they value everything that that we provided for them and that sets them up for a better life after.”

Mullenix’s ultimate dream? A Student-Athlete Wellness Center. A brick-and-mortar, physical building, with a literal open door for athletes – current and former – to check in and address any health and wellness concerns they have.

“They do so much for us while they’re here,” Mullenix says. “What are we doing for them once they’re gone?”

Mullenix worries about athletes once they leave LSU. She worries about their cholesterol and diabetes. She worries about their migraines and mid-life crises, and she wants to provide the same quality of care to former athletes as current ones. 

“It’s a lofty goal,” she says, “but it’s one of my visions, having a structure where they can come, and they can get everything they need from mental health, to physical health, to spiritual health.”

The building may exist, for now, only in Mullenix’s imagination, but the care she aims to provide inside of its walls is more real and vital than ever. 

Until it becomes a physical reality, its architect has work to do. There are injuries to assess and spirits to lift. There are athletes in need of counsel, and others who simply need a dose of authenticity. There are bold visions to implement, and still yet more boldness to be envisioned.

It’s the work of a mama, and no one does it better than Mama Shelly.