This story is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.
WARNING: This content may be triggering.
Brenda Tracy, 45, says she was brutally assaulted by football players in 1998. Now, she travels to campuses around the country, sharing her story with athletes.
By the time I was 24, I was back living at home. My husband had become abusive, so I took my two sons and moved in with my mom. Eventually, I started dating a football player at nearby Oregon State University.
One night, my best friend called and asked me to go to her boyfriend’s apartment with her. He, too, was on the football team and was having a few friends over. She didn’t want to be the only woman there so I agreed.
I had no plans to drink. I grew up with an alcoholic father and my husband got violent when he drank so I rarely touched alcohol. But that night, my friend convinced me to have a 4-ounce glass of Tanqueray and orange juice someone else had made for me.
Ten minutes after sipping it, the apartment began to spin. Right before I passed out, I watched my friend and her boyfriend slip away into the bedroom.
The first time I came to, I was naked, on my back and could only move my head, not my arms or legs. Four men were around me and I was being raped. I tried to say “stop” but couldn’t speak.
For the next six hours, I drifted in and out of consciousness. I remember the men putting an alcohol bottle inside me, as well as a flashlight. I also remember them laughing and high-fiving each other.
The next morning, I came to, face down on the floor, a dried condom stuck to my stomach and vomit and gum in my hair. Chips and food were strewn over my body. I felt like a piece of trash. To this day, it’s the most disgusting day of my life.
I got up and told my friend I wanted to go. As soon as we left, I began crying inconsolably. I went through a checklist of things I felt I did wrong. Why did I drink? Did I flirt? It didn’t occur to me that I didn’t do anything wrong.
My mom insisted on taking me to the hospital. I had decided to commit suicide on the way, but my nurse inspired me to want to live and become a nurse. Because I had a reason to live, I decided go to the police and report [what happened]. All four men were arrested.
This is when I thought my episode of Law and Order would start. Instead, the story hit the news because two of the men were OSU football players. The community turned on me for trying to “ruin” their lives. I received death threats against me and children. My boyfriend didn’t didn’t want anything to do with the case. My best friend told me that if I went to court, she’d testify against me.
When the DA insisted my case would be a hard one to win, despite all the evidence we had, I felt so defeated that I agreed to drop it. [Editor's note: The four men were never charged.]
The two OSU players were suspended for one football game. When the head coach [Mike Riley] was interviewed, he commented that they were “good guys” who made a “bad choice.” I was stunned. How could this coach–who everyone agreed was a stand-up guy–not do the right thing? I hated him more than the men who raped me.
For 16 years, I tried to ignore what had happened to me. On the outside, I was a success story. I went to college and became a nurse. I went from a teen mom on welfare to a homeowner with two cars and a dog. Yet inside, I struggled with depression, an eating disorder, and self-hatred. I thought of suicide every day. My sons were the only reason I didn’t go through with it.
Not until 2014, when I turned 40, did I begin counseling. I needed a way to heal and find closure. I found that in an unexpected place.
I was googling Coach Riley, and could only find glowing articles about him until I found an article from 2011 where he gave a player a one-game suspension for a domestic violence conviction. I decided to contact the reporter who wrote the 2011 story, explaining what had happened to me. Two minutes later, the reporter emailed and asked if I wanted to share my story.
I agreed out of sheer desperation. I’d been waking up for 16 years wanting to die. Maybe if I told my story now, things would be different.
This time, it was. People believed me and reached out. The president of OSU issued me a public apology. Coach Riley apologized as well–and even invited me to come speak to his football players.
The idea terrified me, but I knew I wanted to prevent what happened to me from happening to other women. I agreed.
In the summer of 2016, I traveled to the University of Nebraska, where Coach Riley had recently accepted a job. I sat with him for an hour and a half in his office and told him how much I hated him. He held himself accountable to the pain he’d caused me. I needed that moment.
Afterwards, we walked into a room of over 100 football players and I shared my story.
It was very tense and uncomfortable. I talked about my rape in graphic detail. Then I admitted that I hated their coach more than the men who hurt me. “I can rationalize rapists,” I said, “but I can’t understand good people who don’t do the right thing. Doing nothing is still doing something.”
My talk went viral. Suddenly colleges around the country wanted me to speak to their athletes. Baylor was next, then University of Oklahoma. I’ve been to more than 80 campuses since then, and shared my story over 100 times.
During my talk, I watch men get uncomfortable. They pull t-shirts over their faces or look down. They can’t believe I’m telling them this. Then I say, “Listen to me closely. I am not here because I think you’re the problem. I’m here because you’re the solution.”
I believe about 10% of men commit crimes of sexual violence, which means 90% of men don’t, but within that 90%, some men are complicit in their silence and inaction. If women alone could stop sexual violence, we would have already done it. The 90% of good men need to get involved.
I talk to them about how to get active. By the end, they’re laughing and smiling. They take photos, hug me, and I hear that they’re survivors of rape, or their moms or sisters are.
“When did you tell your sons?” is the no. 1 question I get. My older son was 17 when I finally told him. Our relationship changed from that point on. He no longer looked at me as a mom he didn’t get along with. He understood the trauma I’d been living with all these years.
Today, my sons are my biggest fans.
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