Recovered Drug Addict and Former Basketball Star Chris Herren Leaves Big Impression on Local Students

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Have you ever asked yourself the question, if I were a kid, would I look up to me?

This is the challenge former basketball star, Chris Herren, launched to nearly 700 adults and teens at a community event during his recent visit to Baltimore.  Over the course of three days, Herren visited six schools, speaking to nearly 3,500 middle and high school students about his harrowing descent into drug addiction.  His goal.  “If, out of the 1,000 students I spoke to [today], I reach just one, I have made a difference.”

If the student and faculty responses are any indication, he did just that.

One headmaster of an area school noted that in his seven year tenure, he has never once had a student thank him for an assembly speaker.  Until this week.  At another school, the counselor reported that several girls have committed to starting a Herren Project “Project Purple” Club at their school to combat substance abuse and promote positive decision making(www.goprojectpurple.com).  Following his community presentation, a student at a local school in Baltimore hugged Herren.  As he leaned in, he whispered, “You scared me.”

This was not unintentional.

Herren’s story, as documented in the ESPN Sports documentary, “Unguarded,” is a terrifying one- of a star high school athlete, a top recruit among Division I basketball superpowers, who fell into a 15-year battle with alcohol, cocaine, prescription drugs, and heroine that nearly cost him his family and his life.  Now, six years sober and a proud father of three children with his wife, whom he met in the seventh grade, Herren can pinpoint the moment his life changed.

He cautions, “It all begins in the basement, in the woods behind a friend’s house.” 

That first illicit sip of alcohol or inhale of marijuana can set a kid, any kid, even a star athlete and a town hero, onto a path of destruction and devastation.  He uses the example of his Durfee High School “dream team,” chronicled in Bill Reynold’s Fall River Dreams.  Of the 15 celebrated basketball stars on that team, many of whom were sons of prominent businessmen, politicians, doctors and teachers, several ended up with a substance abuse problem.

His talks, now a national phenomenon, focus on that first experience.  Herren stresses the importance of the beginning.  This is what he highlights to his audience in his effort to educate them.

He recalls, “ when I first tried pot, I did not think, ‘I want to grow up and shoot heroin.’  But it happened.”

The question Herren begs of himself and his audience is why. 

Why go out on a Friday night with the intent to change yourself?  Why can’t you be you 24/7?  Why pursue illegal substances that change the person you are?  Why engage in activities you know are wrong to change who you are and what you believe?

In their quest to find the who, the what and the where, parents forget to ask the why.  And Herren wants kids to examine the answer.

Hard questions demand a powerful message and Herren possesses the charisma and presence to do just that.  In his Massachusetts accent, he chronicles, in explicit detail, the drugs, the alcohol, the blackouts and the pill-popping.  He does not mince words.  He does not sugar coat it.  He believes the story, from beginning to end, is his best weapon to battle high-school drug and alcohol abuse.

His message is effective and powerful.  Several school administrators noted, “you could have heard a pin drop” at the end of Herren’s speech.  And his words followed students into the lunchroom, through the halls, and onto the fields.  He sparked a dialogue that needs to happen among underage kids.

Herren’s Baltimore visit was made possible by generosity of Tom and Pam ONeil who began the Christopher ONeil Peer Education program in 1992 following the death of their seventeen year old son who died in an accident involving a teenage drunk driver.  Since its inception at Loyola High School, the Peer Education program has expanded to eleven independent schools and impacted thousands of middle and high school students.  Its message aligns with Herren’s- to promote healthy decisions by addressing the attitudes that often lead to unhealthy risks.

Like Herren, Chris was a charismatic, sometimes rascally kid who drew people to him.  His life was tragically ended in a way that could have been prevented.  Like Herren, he loved basketball.  While he may have never achieved the accolades Herren did, he was awarded “The Biggest Little Guy” on the team his freshman year.  He was a silent leader, an enthusiastic cheerleader, and a full-of-life kind of guy. 

He is just the guy Herren seeks to touch. 

Herren also cautions the nay-sayers and the doubters about the pressures today’s kids face.  He draws the following analogy: 

“Imagine being a teacher and having your headmaster sit in the back of your classroom, taking notes on every lecture you ever taught, for four years.”  This is the pressure kids face both academically and athletically.  For Herren, it begins to explain the why- why they turn to illegal substances.  His mission, after all, is to make a difference, to help our kids.

A cursory glance at the bleachers of students listening to him, you immediately saw the engagement- kids perched on the edge of their seats, eyes locked and heads nodding.  But truly, it is the conversation and dialogue Herren’s three-day visit has sparked that suggests he may just have left his mark in Baltimore.



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  1. I was riveted by Chris Herren’s book, which detailed his descent into substance abuse. I was equally riveted by his lecture at Gilman School last week, in which he shared boldly and asked the audience tough questions. Judging by the silence in the bleachers, largely occupied by teenagers during his speech, I think Herren’s message resonated with all ages. For the sake of local teenagers, I certainly hope so.

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