SIDNEY – Former nationally acclaimed basketball star, Chris Herren, said Thursday, the best way to prevent youth from falling into substance abuse is positive parenting from the start of their children’s lives. Herren strengthened the point by sharing his life’s story to a crowd of some 200 people at Lehman Catholic High School.
Now sober and drug free for the past eight years, Herren has established a program that allows more than 500 people a year to attend substance abuse rehab centers throughout the country at no cost. He makes 250 corporate and school presentations a year to educate people the harm that even a minor substance abuse can lead to total destruction.
It took being abandoned by his family and a long-lost faith to get back on the right track.
In 1994, Herren, as a high school senior in Fall River, Massachusetts, was named to the McDonald’s All-America team. The designation made him one of the most sought-after college prospects in the nation. He turned down offers to such places as Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse, to play at his father’s alma mater, Boston College.
However, despite his unrelenting denial then and for many years to come, Herren was already on the path to destruction.
“It started when I was 13-14 years old. I lived in a culture where drinking alcohol was accepted. That was my first experience and completely unnecessary,” Herren told the SDN prior to his presentation Thursday.
At the time, his father was a Massachusetts politician and his mother was highly involved in the corporate world in Boston. He said several generations of family members were well-respected and well-to-do. His actions would destroy it all.
While still in high school, marijuana soon entered the picture. During his prep playing days, an author followed his team for an entire season writing a book about their impact on the town. Of the 13 players on that team, Herren said that seven would eventually use heroin. He noted that over the years, all have become sober.
In 1994, as a freshman at Boston College, he was being considered to have his photograph on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. Instead, he received a two-page photo layout inside the publication.
Following a large campus celebration honoring his arrival, he returned to his dorm room. He discovered his roommate and a highly-recruited freshman from the women’s soccer team using cocaine. Challenging his bravado, the woman goaded Herren into trying cocaine. He caved.
“I chose this over going out to dinner with my family that night. At the age of 18 I was a cocaine addict even though I told myself I would never do it again. I honestly thought I was above it all.”
Before playing, Herren failed a drug test for marijuana and cocaine use. On Nov. 25, 1994, in his first game, Herren scored 14 points in 21 minutes of playing time, but broke his wrist and was ruled out for the entire season. Herren failed two more drug tests for marijuana and cocaine use, and was expelled from the team and the university.
Back home with national media chronicling his failures, Herren had another door open.
The late legendary coach, Jerry Tarkanian, contacted him saying “I’m a fan of second chances and asked if I would like to go to Fresno State.” After sitting out a year due to NCAA rules, Herren scored 30 points in a nationally televised game. After that game, he would use one line of cocaine.
Notified the next morning that he would be drug tested, Herren said he knew while being tested his basketball career was over. Fresno officials gave him the option of going to rehab or being expelled once again, but he would have to face the cameras on ESPN and admit his use.
During his senior year at Fresno, Herren’s wife, Heather, became pregnant with their first child, Christopher, now 17. Despite his past, Herren became a second round draft pick of the Denver Nuggets.
Over the next few years, pain killers, heroin and alcohol abuse would consume his life. A short NBA career, including a stint with his hometown Boston Celtics, would lead to playing for teams in Europe. During this time, his substance abuse was out of control. He was spending up to $25,000 a month and taking 1,600 mg of OxyContin pain medication per day.
His last basketball salary disappeared when his $500,000 annual contract was lost when he quit a team in Italy due to training camp being secluded and being unavailable to his drug dealer.
Eventually, Herren became a “street junkie” scrounging anything he could to get drugs.
Herren said his life finally changed years later following the birth of his third child, Drew. He had been in a New York rehab center, through the sponsorship by former NBA star Chris Mullen and his wife, when Drew was being born.
Herren left the center to be with his wife, whom he said had been abandoned by her family and friends due to his behavior, and was all alone. Soon after the birth, Herren’s oldest son, then age 9, and his daughter, Samantha, 7, scurried into the hospital room. They barely recognized Herren.
Unable to fully cope, Herren left the hospital purchasing vodka and drugs. The next day, his wife banished him from their life. She was going to tell the children he had been killed in an auto accident, so they wouldn’t have to continue witnessing him in near-death experiences. He became suicidal.
For a reason he can’t explain, Herren drove back to the rehab center in New York. Met at the door by the counselor who told him he had just spoken to his wife. He agreed it was time for him “to die and be dead” if the children were ever going to have any positive lives. The counselor urged him to call Heather one last time to say goodbye and never contact them again.
It was late at night and they agreed he would make the call the next morning. Once back in his dorm room a childhood memory raced to the forefront.
Growing emotional before the crowd Thursday, he said as a child his mother took him to church every Sunday morning. He fought her every time, he said, also stating she was “taken by cancer way to soon in her life”.
Herren said he began thinking of his mother and her love for him in all aspects of his life.
“On Aug. 1, 2008, I went to my knees and began to pray about what I had done. That is my sobriety date. That’s when it all changed.”
The Herrens have now been married for 18 years and reside in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, with their children.
Herren told the SDN, “I thank God she stayed with me until I found my way back. We met in seventh-grade, so she knew me to the core long before the drugs. She always knew that side of me and I am truly blessed by her being in my life.”
He noted that his faith, family and peers in the recovery community inspire him to stay sober.
Directing comments and questions to both youth and parents in the crowd, he spoke of parents pushing academics in school. But when it comes to social behavior, “We tend to just turn our backs and hope nothing goes wrong.” He said parents also give their children too many “parachutes” in life for a soft landing referring to obtaining medical and emotional help, if things go wrong, instead of dealing with the problem direct.
He challenged students by asking them, “Why do you need something (drugs/alcohol) that cause you to be something you truly aren’t just to be around people you’ve know your whole life.”
He hopes that someday a “wellness” curriculum is created in schools for grades K-12 to help them deal with such issues, self-esteem and bullying.
In closing, Herren said, “Over the past eight years, the greatest gifts I can give my family is to be the same father I was eight hours ago. To be the same person my children knew yesterday and to be the same son, husband and friend all the time.”
The event was sponsored by Wilson Health, Shelby County United Way, City of Sidney Police Department, Orthopedic Associates of SW Ohio, P.T. Services Rehabilitation, Inc., Realty 2000 Group, and Shelby County Family and Children First Council/Help Me Grow.
Information on Herren and his foundation may be found online at www.theherrenproject.org.
The writer is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News.