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Hoops bust Chris Herren gives NFL rookies a wake-up call about drug addiction

By Tim Graham

AURORA, Ohio -- The AFC's newest players were struggling to pay attention this afternoon at the NFL Rookie Symposium.

Doctors talked about steroids being a banned substance and how many beers it takes for a 200-pound man to get drunk and that a government-issued ID is required every time a player takes a urine test and ... Zzzzzzzzzzz.

The rookies squirmed in their chairs, rubbed their scalps and rolled their necks around simply to stay awake. One player, mouth agape and face pointed toward the ceiling, openly slept.

Rest assured, they were awake when Chris Herren walked onto the stage and told his life story.

Herren, the former college hoops star who got a taste of his NBA childhood dream before drug addiction ruined his career, delivered an indelible speech about the dangers of thinking it won't happen to you.

"In this room right now, there are more future drug addicts and alcoholics than there are multimillionaires," Herren said. "So you can choose to sit back and look at me and say, 'Nah, I'm good. I don't need to hear it.' But I sat back and said, 'Nah, I'm good. I don't need to hear it.' "

By the end of Herren's speech, the AFC rookies gave him a standing ovation. A couple dozen lined up to thank him, take pictures with him, shake his hand and hug him.

Herren, now 37, spoke with a rapid-fire delivery in a thick New England accent. He paced briskly around the stage in a slick suit.

He told the sordid tale of a prep hoops phenom from Fall River, Mass., who was so sensational he was the leading character in the book "Fall River Dreams."

He was a blue-chip prospect, a McDonald's All-American. He got to play for his hometown Boston Celtics on their parquet floor.

By 24, Herren was "the kid publicly known for throwing it all away," he said.

Herren chose to play for Boston College, but drugs derailed him there ... and at Fresno State ... and with the Denver Nuggets ... and with the Boston Celtics ... and with every European club that gave him a shot to keep alive some semblance of a career as long as those teams didn't get between him and his drugs.

Herren said he was introduced to cocaine at Boston College, Oxycontin with the Nuggets and heroin in Italy. He loved them all.

"By the time I went back to my second season with the Denver Nuggets, I was walking into that locker room a full-blown junkie, a strung-out dependent," Herren said of an Oxycontin addiction that had him ingesting 10 pills each morning and another 10 at night.

He told a story of how he was charged with two felonies after he passed out while shooting heroin while inside his car. He overdosed, his foot came off the brake and his car collided with somebody.

A team in Poland proved to be his last basketball chance, but it sent him packing. Herren said he returned to the Fresno area and shot speedballs -- a combination of heroin and cocaine -- for five days straight with an old college pal.

The 27-year-old Herren, who hadn't seen his kids in months, was reminded he was supposed to pick up his family at the airport in a few hours, but he said an intense, drug-induced paranoia repeatedly forced him off the highway until he tried to kill himself by stepping into traffic. He ended up in jail again.

The next time he saw his kids, they couldn't look at him.

"Five minutes later, I got the words I'll never shake; I don't care how sober I get: 'How come you don't want to be my daddy no more? Why did you leave us at the airport, dad?'

Throughout Herren's speech, the AFC rookies shot bewildered expressions at each other and shook their heads.

Herren still couldn't get sober. He became what he called a "street junkie" back in Fall River, selling his family's belongings to buy two pints of vodka and collect discarded cigarettes outside the neighborhood 7-Eleven every day until his kids got home from school.

Another heroin overdose caused Herren to crash into a pole near Oak Grove Cemetery, where Lizzie Borden is buried. He later was told he was dead when the ambulance arrived.

Herren eventually attempted rehab at the urging of former NBA star Chris Mullin, but Herren relapsed when he left the facility to be with his wife as she delivered their third child.

Herren said after holding his newborn son for a few hours, he excused himself to drink vodka and shoot heroin. He returned to rehab and was confronted by the counselor.

"He threw me his phone, and I caught it," Herren said. "He said, 'Now you're going to do the most courageous thing you've ever done in your life. You're going to flip that phone open and you're going to call your wife. You're going to tell her you'll never contact her again. Promise your wife this will be the last phone call you ever make to her. Then tell your wife to tell your three kids that when daddy left the hospital this morning he died in a car accident. From this day forward, you're going to play dead for your kids because you're a no-good, scumbag, washed-up junkie who doesn't deserve a family.'

"At 32 years old, that made a whole lot of sense. ... I walked out of his office broken, crying."

Herren said he has been sober since Aug. 1, 2008.

He finished his presentation to the AFC rookies by addressing their likely nonchalance about the gravity of recreational drugs.

The Buffalo Bills have added a few rookies with marijuana and alcohol histories.

Inside linebacker Kiko Alonso had multiple arrests for alcohol-related problems at Oregon. Safety Duke Williams was suspended three times in his first 12 months at Nevada partly because of alcohol and fights. Wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers left Tennessee after failing multiple drug tests.

"The most commonly asked question when I do this is, 'Mr. Harren, smoking blunts and drinking, that's not gateway drugs is it?' Listen man, I was a heroin addict for 10 years," Herren said. "I never met one that said they started with crack and heroin. I never met one that told me, 'I can't wait to be a dope fiend.' I never met one that said, 'I can't wait to rob my family and break everyone's hearts.

"We all start with red Solo cups and blunts, man. That's the first page of every dope fiend's story."

As for marijuana not being a big deal, Herren emphasized his stance.

"It's just weed? Oh, for real?" Herren said. "If it's just weed, why are you going to throw away a $250,000 scholarship to one of the best football programs in America?

"If it's just weed, you've been busting your tail for 15 years to get to where you're at now, and you're going to throw it all away for something you call just weed? Your dream is to get to the NFL and support your family, and you're going to throw all that away for just weed?

"It's not 'just weed.' If you could be you 24/7, you'd drop that weed and be about your dreams. But you can't."

Herren brought his speech full circle at the end.

He recalled being at an NBA orientation in 1999 and listening to some hard-luck, retired player talking about drug awareness. Herren thought it was silly.

"I'd give anything," Herren said, "to go back to 1999 and sit in this front row and pay attention."

tagged

Da'Rick Rogers | Duke Williams | Kiko Alonso
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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham | [email protected]


Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan | [email protected]


Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski | [email protected]

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