This past Friday, Boston College invited a guest speaker to share his experiences with those anxious to listen.
Seldom do I take advantage of such events, even when I am aware that I could benefit from what is being said. But when I heard that Chris Herren would be on campus, I was sold.
Having seen the ESPN film Unguarded and read the book Basketball Junkie—both of which chronicle Herren’s life and career as an athlete—I figured I was aware of everything I needed to know about the guy. He grew up in Fall River, Mass., and was destined for greatness from the moment he first set foot on the hardwood.
Seen as the pride of a community that took to basketball as a rallying source of comfort, Herren was placed in the spotlight at an early age. At just 18, all the stars were aligned: he was on full-scholarship at BC and a prosperous NBA career was in his reach. That’s when everything changed. A seemingly harmless line of cocaine laid out in front of him on a dorm room desk one evening is the reason he tells his remarkable story today.
A story characterized by addiction. Failed drug tests. Expulsion from BC. Second Chances. Pain Killers. Broken Trust. Missed Opportunities. Third Chances. Heroin. Treatment centers. Four Overdoses. Being proclaimed dead for 30 seconds. Helplessness. Sickness.
If his story ended there, it would be a tragically realistic narrative of what becomes of some. But somehow, in some way, Herren dig deeper than anyone thought was possible to get to where he is today. Six and a half years sober, a proud husband and father of three, Herren stood before me and courageously told his story. When I first considered comparing the struggles of mine and those around me to the ones Herren spoke of, I felt guilty. It felt selfish to even consider relating my minuscule daily inconveniences to the massive issues encountered by a former junkie. But then I began to think about it more broadly. I thought about his time as a student at BC and Fresno State. I thought about how as an 18-year-old on campus, there are some things the college curriculum simply can’t prepare you for.
No matter how many hours you spend in a classroom, you can’t be taught about how your decisions are going to impact yourself and those around you. There is no formula to call upon to repair damaged relationships. No homework assignment you can complete to right a wrong. No syllabus mapping out the steps to follow in order to fulfill your goals.
In a way, that is scary to think about. Scary to think that experiences rather than intentions shape one’s life. When you begin to struggle, there is no quick fix to turn things around, no path at the end of the road you can take that will steer you back on the right course. Combine that with the chaos surrounding his being a college student and it’s easier to imagine how things snowballed for Herren.
Between classes, practices, work, and time on your feet, putting things off becomes a normal occurrence. I do it everyday. I tell myself I’ll mend a broken relationship, fix a bad habit, or better myself in some way, only to not find the time. Herren is a living example of how overcoming deeply-rooted individual obstacles requires tough work. The kind of work you would rather leave in the bottom drawer of a desk until it becomes irrelevant.
Summarizing Herren’s road to recovery would not do him justice. What I can say is this: It is when he let his guard down that things began to change. Between a nurse who believed in him for the sake of his mother, a treatment center that took a chance on working with him more than once, and a wife whose instincts lead her to continuously see the good in her lost husband, relationships with others saved him. In many ways, this is relatable.
When I can swallow my pride and accept the help others are willing to give me, I usually end up in a good place. Sometimes it feels unnatural forcing yourself to remove the smile from your face that everyone has come to define you by. It seems like the last thing college kids want to do is burden those around them with their troubles.
I am working to move away from this stance. When I think about it, the best and most valuable times I’ve had during my college years can be attributed to those around me. Sitting at the kitchen table and getting advice from a good friend. Phone calls to the parents on those tough Sunday evenings. Walks to campus through a snowstorm with a bud. Texts to the brother about what to say to a friend. Stops at the dining halls that turn into hour-long conversations. That is the kind of stuff I’ll remember about my time here. Not even what was said as much as who it was said with and how I walked away feeling.
Herren made a point that with every talk he gives, he hopes that one person can walk away feeling as if a difference was made. I would bet that at least one person struggling with substance abuse walked away ready to face their demons. I can only speculate on that end.
Whether it was his intention or not, from a relationship standpoint, Herren made a difference for me. He opened my eyes to something we look past on a daily basis: the value of good friends and family. I don’t thank some friends enough for reaching out to me, and I’ll go without thanking my parents for the continuous advice they give.
Sometimes, all it takes is for you to step back and listen to someone whose shoes you never imagined you could find yourself in.
Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor
Matt Pierce is an op-ed contributor for The Heights. He can be reached at [email protected]