Chris Herren told his story at the LBJ Presidential Library.
And young people heard him.
I’m hopeful they listened.
Drugs are running rampant on our streets and on our high school and college campuses, and people like Herren are helping our nation wage what some believe to be an unwinnable war.
Kudos to the Texas athletic department, The Last Resort Recovery Center and the UT Center for Students in Recovery for putting on an absolutely amazing event involving Herren. This was more important than any sporting contest. Lives are at stake and some may have been saved Wednesday night.
These days, Herren, 37, calls himself an extremely blessed person. He’s that rare former NBA player who treats his short time in the league as a blessing.
“I’m grateful it didn’t last long because I would probably be dead,” he told me a few days ago. “With the money these guys are making now, I wouldn’t have been around for very long.”
The subject of the gritty ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Unguarded,” Herren is a self-described open book who doesn’t hesitate to reach back into the darkest corners of his past to counsel others. Austin is one of the 200-plus cities he will visit in a typical year.
He was unplugged Wednesday. The former McDonald’s All-American described his first semester at Boston College and that first line of cocaine he snorted at age 18, succumbing to peer pressure in the same community that was rocked by the cocaine-induced death of Boston Celtics rookie Len Bias years earlier.
“I had no idea that one line of coke would take 14 years to get away from,” he said.
He failed a drug test the next day and two more over the next four months, leading to his dismissal from school and a second chance at Fresno State, where he also battled a cocaine problem.
He talked about that first Oxycontin pill he bought from a “friend” for $20 after his first NBA season and the resulting $25,000-a-month habit that followed.
He recalled the night of his second start with the Celtics when he waded through fans entering the Fleet Center to meet up with his drug dealer just five minutes before tipoff.
He talked about the night eight years after that game when he slept behind a dumpster in downtown Modesto, Calif., while his wife and kids were waiting to pick him up at the Oakland airport, some 70 miles away.
Today he has earned his family’s forgiveness after 17 years of drug addiction, seven felony charges, multiple heroin overdoses and a suicide attempt at age 27.
Hard drugs took away his livelihood and nearly cost him his life, but he finally got clean with the help of NBA Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, who paid for his stay in rehab.
“August 1, 2008,” he told the audience. “That’s my sobriety day.”
Ivana Grahovac, who directs the UT Center for Students in Recovery, heard Herren speak in San Antonio a few months ago and knew she had to get him to UT, which she said houses one of only 40 university recovery programs for students in the country. She also headed the effort to expand CSR to the other eight schools within the UT system, a move approved by the Board of Regents in November.
A former runway model who interned at the White House during the Clinton administration, Grahovac spent time living on the streets of Detroit while addicted to heroin. (She was a student at the University of Michigan at the time.) After getting clean, she later started the school’s first student recovery center.
The world needs more people like Herren and Grahovac. For every parent or coach who warns a young person about the perils of drug use, the message is sometimes stronger when it comes from someone who struggled within the abyss of drug addiction.
After Herren spoke at the NFL’s annual rookie symposium last month, Cleveland Browns rookie defensive end Armonty Bryant told reporters he has a substance abuse problem. Herren said stories like those are confirmation that his message is getting through.
After he spoke at a high school recently, he received an email from a girl who said she and her boyfriend were planning to commit suicide that night but were now encouraged to seek help for their addictions.
Most of Herren’s speeches are geared toward young people because he believes it’s pivotal to get to those who are about to come to that fork in the road early in life: the big one that separates sobriety from drug use.
Longhorn basketball player Javan Felix said the speech hit home with him.
“I didn’t expect it to be so powerful,” he said. “Coming from New Orleans, I know a lot of people who are going through similar struggles. They would have benefited from being here tonight.”
Herren’s year-old Project Purple initiative assists individuals and families struggling with drug addiction. This year, 150,000 kids wore purple t-shirts to celebrate being sober. After posing for a pic with Texas football players David Ash and Jaxon Shipley, the group’s founder got back to work, counseling a UT football player whose close friend is currently in a dark place in life.
Yes it’s a war, and Herren is on the front line.