By Marie Wilson
May 11, 2015
What do Brandon Marshall, mental health and Harley-Davidsons have in common? Trick question.
The answer, in some ways, is nothing. But in other ways, it's everything.
And that's exactly the point of the second annual Brandon Marshall Mental Health Awareness Ride, scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, May 16, at Linden Oaks at Edward Behavioral Health's outpatient center, 1335 N. Mill St. in Naperville.
A former Chicago Bears wide receiver, Marshall has borderline personality disorder and has become a mental health advocate through a foundation he runs with his wife, Michi, called Project 375.
But mental health and motorcycles -- and the people who ride them -- don't have anything more to do with each other than mental health and soccer players, or mental health and clarinet players, or mental health and any other group of people.
Illustrating that mental illnesses can occur to people in all walks of life who enjoy all kinds of hobbies -- however "manly" or tough -- is a major goal of the ride, said Erin Vandervelde, operations manager at Starved Rock Harley-Davidson and one of the ride's organizers.
Vandervelde has a family member with a mental illness, but even so, she admits she didn't initially see the connection between mental health and the bikes her family's business sells.
Hearing Marshall speak at last year's inaugural event after she connected with him through a mental health fundraising walk really helped her connect the dots, she said.
"I think there are a lot of people riding who are suffering," Vandervelde said about the community of Harley riders, which includes many current or former military members who may be suffering mental conditions that arose because of their service.
"I think there's more of a connection, actually in any group of people, than the society realizes. It's a good fit now that I see it."
Marshall's advocacy is all about helping people see that connection.
"It doesn't matter if you're a biker. It doesn't matter if you play golf. Mental health affects all of us and hits both ends of the spectrum," Marshall said during last year's ride. "For us to come together and ride for awareness says a lot about how powerful this issue is."
Last year's event drew roughly 300 riders. Roughly 150 more people attended the kickoff at Linden Oaks to hear Marshall speak but didn't drive the 50 miles southwest through Aurora, Oswego and Yorkville to Starved Rock Harley-Davidson, 750 Centennial Drive in Ottawa, for the after party.
Organizers are hoping to involve more riders and nonriders this year with the addition of a VIP meet-and-greet and breakfast with Marshall beginning at 8:30 a.m., said Amit Thaker, director of marketing and business development for Linden Oaks.
Tickets for the VIP experience are $50 for nonriders and $75, including a ticket for the ride. Preregistration is available at brandonmarshallride.eventbrite.com and on-site registration will be allowed.
Marshall's openness about his diagnosis in 2010 and the benefits of treatment for mental illness helps normalize the conditions and reduce the stigma around them, Thaker said.
"For him to be up there and be completely vulnerable and talk about his journey -- it spoke volumes," Thaker said. "He does such a wonderful job at ... really inspiring others to say it's OK to need help."
Contractually, Marshall isn't allowed to ride motorcycles, event organizers said. And his schedule this year, as a member of the New York Jets instead of the Bears, doesn't allow him to make the trip to Ottawa to visit with fans, Vandervelde said.
But mental health advocates and bikers alike are looking forward to a day of enjoying the road and promoting an important cause. Proceeds go to Project 375, which raises awareness about mental health conditions and helps connect people in need to resources and care.
"May is mental health awareness month," Vandervelde said. "And a wonderful month for riding."