Warwick Vets students flanked former professional basketball player Chris Herren in the hallway of the school Tuesday morning after he spoke to more than 980 children from grades 9 through 12.
They were thrilled to get an autograph from the Fall River native, who played for NBA teams such as the Boston Celtics from 2000 to 2001, as well as the Denver Nuggets the year before, plus several overseas basketball teams.
But they weren’t dazzled by his athletic fame, or the fact that he’s been featured in publications such as Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated. Instead, they were inspired by his words. Herren talked of his horrific struggle with substance abuse.
Herren, who has been sober since 2008, has been visiting schools throughout the country for the last three years. In that time, he has presented at more than 600 schools. Last year alone, he addressed at least 150,000 students.
Tuesday’s presentation left a group of students in tears, as they were touched by his emotional journey. They said they thought it was “amazing” that in addition to educating them about the importance of avoiding drugs and alcohol, he expressed how vital it is for children to treat one another, as well as themselves, with respect.
“The part that really made me proud of him was that he not only addressed drinking and drugs, but the whole issue of high school and being yourself and trying to be cool with all of these things,” said junior Amelia Hinsley, 17. “He related it to everyone in the room. There are a lot of people who have never been in contact with this stuff, but he spoke about it in a way that made it relatable to everyone.”
Taylor Palermo, 17, a senior, agreed. She said while she often feels tempted and curious about certain drugs, listening to Herren’s story was enough to encourage her to avoid experimenting.
“Now it’s going to be pretty easy saying no,” she said, also noting how inspiring his courage is to overcome his addiction.
Other students said they’ve witnessed drug use and have seen the negative impacts it causes.
“I was around it a lot,” said senior Chris Tevyaw, 17. “It destroys people.”
His classmate, Kara Scoffler, 17, agreed, and said she has a family member who is heading down the path of substance abuse. She, as well as her loved ones, are trying to help.
“It breaks my heart so much,” she said.
Senior Maryann Turnbull, 17, said she was emotional for similar reasons.
“I’m crying because it made me think of all the friends I have that [abuse drugs and alcohol],” she said. “I don’t want to loose them. I don’t want to see them go through life with struggles like that.”
But, Herren’s words give them hope.
“He helps teenagers,” said senior Taylor Nicholas, 17. “He cares enough to come back to fix the problem.”
Herren said the children mean the world to him. He talked about how a girl from one of the schools he presented at three years ago told him she was an outcast and would often cut herself with razors because her classmates bullied her incessantly.
“That little girl sends me an email every 30 days, and will celebrate three years clean of cutting herself this month,” Herren said. “Her emails mean more to me than any banner, trophy, or contract I’ve ever signed in my life.”
Herren enjoys visiting high schoolers because he began abusing alcohol and marijuana in high school. As he got older and entered college, he was snorting cocaine. It led to pills, as he often abused Vicodin and Percocet, and then OxyContin during his time with the Celtics. It wasn’t long before he began shooting heroin.
As noted, he also played for the Nuggets, often going back and forth between getting high and staying clean. But a knee injury ended his basketball career in 2001, and he turned to drugs again, often putting his need for drugs before his family.
On one occasion, he left his wife, two children and newborn at the hospital because he couldn’t fight the urge to abuse drugs.
“Heroin took over my life,” he said.
Seeing the pain he caused them eventually motivated him to get help and change his life. It wasn’t easy, he said, but he did it.
Still, knowing he can help children overcome substance abuse issues, or avoid it all together, holds a special place in his heart. He’s happy that children frequently tell him his story inspires them to stay sober.
“We get hundreds of emails from kids every day,” he said. “For instance, in Philadelphia last week, a girl stood up in front of 1,000 people and told me she’s a heroin addict and that she’s been using since she was 10. We’ve had kids email us and say they were going home to kill themselves the day of the presentation.”
Before ending the presentation at Vets, he left the children with words of encouragement.
“Don’t ever change who you are,” he said. “You’re perfect just the way you are.”
These days, he operates The Herren Project, a recovery program he funds for addicts. The mission is to provide assistance in taking the first steps toward recovery and a life of sobriety, including treatment, educational programs and resources to increase awareness on the signs of addiction and bring hope for the future. Learn more at theherrenproject.org.
Also, he is lives in Portsmouth with his wife and their four children. His family motives him to stay sober.
“It’s a struggle to get high; it’s not a struggle to stay sober,” he said. “The struggle was when I was on street corners.”
Herren also gave a second presentation later that evening, which was open to students from nearby schools, and parents were encouraged to attend. For Vets Principal Gerry Habershaw and Mayor Scott Avedisian, the presentation is necessary for children.
“They were listening and I think it hit home to many kids,” said Habershaw, while Avedisian said, “It is vital that young people see that addictions can affect anyone – even celebrities and sports legends. This program allows our students to see what happens when the glamour of drug use outweighs common sense.”
The appearance of Herren at Warwick Veterans was a joint effort by the school department and the mayor’s office, as coordinated through the Youth Programs Advisory and Prevention Task Force. For more information about Herren, visit www.ahoopdream.com, or check out his book, “Basketball Junkie: A Memoir.”