My wife and I were at a girls camp fundraiser dinner for the young women in our LDS ward Saturday night when one of my daughter's friends blurted out, "Oh my gosh, Whitney Houston died!" She got the news on her smartphone.
Houston's passing over the weekend, with bottles of prescription drugs allegedly found in her hotel room, was followed by news Wednesday of a drug bust at Texas Christian University that involved 17 students, including four members of the football team.
For most of my life, I've been around addiction.
My grandfather, after whom I'm named and was very close, was an alcoholic.
I had BYU and NFL teammates who were drug addicts. I'll use their names because their addiction is a matter of public record.
After I gave LaVell Edwards a verbal commitment that I'd accept a scholarship to BYU, he asked me to use my influence on a number of fellow Arizonans whom BYU was recruiting who had yet to make a commitment but whom BYU wanted badly. Among them was a speedy wide receiver from Tempe High named Scott Norberg, who ultimately signed with Nebraska. The other was a tall, skinny and very athletic linebacker from Mountain View High named Todd Shell, who became one of BYU's best defensive players in the Edwards era. Norberg would leave Nebraska after his freshman year to serve a mission in Argentina, before transferring to BYU upon his return.
I don't know when and how they developed their drug problems, but they did and it ultimately cost Norberg his life and Shell a promising coaching career. Norberg died in a Phoenix jail in 1996 at the hands of 14 guards — a case Phoenix authorities had to settle out of court for more than $8 million in 1999. Shell resigned as head coach of the Arena Football League's Arizona Rattlers in 2005 after his arrest on a drug charge.
When I was drafted by the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals in 1986, I had no idea the team had one of the worst drug problems in the NFL and, according to some experts, was one reason they were perennial underachievers. The year before I arrived two players, linebacker EJ Junior and fullback Earl Ferrell, were suspended for failing the league's substance abuse program.
Oblivious to any of this, I was assigned to be Ferrell's roommate my rookie year and through my first four years with the Cardinals. I later learned the team had done an extensive search of my background and determined since I was a teetotaling Mormon and conveniently a fellow running back, I was a safe bet to be Ferrell's roommate.
Earl Ferrell and I became extremely close and he tried to teach me of his addiction in ways I might understand. One night as we lay in our beds staring at the ceiling unable to sleep, I asked him what it was like to be addicted to cocaine. I'll never forget his answer.
"Vai," he said. "If you put me in a room with two tables, one had an ounce of coke and the other was stacked with $100 dollar bills to the ceiling, I'd never see the money."
Ferrell's vivid description of his drug habit became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The following season Ferrell failed his third and final drug test, was summarily dismissed from the team and given a lifetime ban from the NFL. It happened mere weeks after he signed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal. He was right. He never saw the money.
Most people in Arizona are familiar with the story of another close Cardinals teammate named Luis Sharpe.
Born in Cuba, Sharpe's parents immigrated to the States just before the Castro regime took power and moved to Detroit where they worked in General Motors' factories. Luis went to UCLA, where he not only played but studied — graduating in political science. He was the Cardinals' first pick in 1982.
He was just reaching his peak four years later when I arrived and we went to a couple of Pro Bowls together. He was our union rep, über-smart and was so thoughtful and articulate that the media flocked to him. His wife, Kathy, and my wife, Keala, were close and our children had play dates together.
But beneath the facade was a cocaine habit that destroyed his marriage, his family and his life. Luis was shot twice while on drug binges, his daughter was murdered while he was in prison, Kathy divorced him, he lost his fortune, and on and on. His downward spiral would, in my opinion, rival the great tragedies in modern sports including O.J. Simpson and Lawrence Taylor.
As his life was unraveling, several teammates devised a plan to intervene and get him help. They literally "jumped" him, handcuffed him, put him in a van and drove to Palm Springs and admitted him to the Betty Ford Clinic. Obviously, it wasn't a sophisticated or well thought-out plan but it was done out of their love and concern for him.
The next day, Luis checked himself out, hailed a taxi and paid the cabbie nearly $600 to drive him back to Phoenix. It's crazy, I know, but that's what drug addicts do.
As a former NFL player, I've been privy to some of the league's ongoing substance abuse programs and have lectured teams on behalf of the NFL on managing the transition from player to civilian life.
As a bishop in the LDS Church, I dealt with addicts of all kinds: pornography, alcohol, tobacco, food, sex, illicit and prescription drugs.
In my experience, the Church's 12-step addiction recovery program sponsored by LDS Family Services is the best program that exists — better than the NFL's, NBA's, MLB's, NHL's, even than the more renowned Alcoholics Anonymous, though AA has done and is doing tremendous work.
One reason is it's based on President Boyd K. Packer's oft-quoted statement: "The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than talking about behavior will improve behavior." The Church's addiction recovery program incorporates the principles of honesty, faith, humility, trust in God, love for self and others and draws participants to Christ and His infinite Atonement. It is powerful and miraculous.
If you have a loved one who suffers from addiction, please seek it out.
It's never too late.
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