Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness

“Look at the first day, and not the worst day.”

The first principle of my blog is “Creating Ecosystems of Success” of which health and wellness are major aspects.  Personal stories also fall under this principle as they are one of the most powerful means of teaching individuals about success and failure.  Recently, three high schools in Northern Virginia hosted a very special guest who shared his life journey starting from his days as a high school basketball standout, to his college basketball stardom, to his ascension to the National Basketball Association (NBA), and then his personal struggles with drug addiction and substance abuse along the way.

On Oct. 2 Chris Herren visited Northern Virginia to talk to students and families about his basketball journey and his lifelong struggle with drug addiction and substance abuse.  In the first of many local stops, Herren spoke at Fairfax High School to an audience of all students in the morning, and then to adults, families and the general public in the evening.  I first heard part of Chris’s story years ago on the Jim Rome Show, and then I watched ESPN’s powerful documentary on his life and journey, Unguarded.  I learned about his visit a couple of weeks ago by chance after Tweeting to Chris’s foundation ‘The Herren Project’.  I told them that I would’ve definitely attended one of his talks in Massachusetts if I lived there.  They shared that he would be making an appearance in early October in the DC area, and as a lover of sports stories, I knew that I had to attend.

Chris Herren was one of the top 20 high school basketball players coming out of Durfee High School in 1994 with multiple offers to some of the nation’s top college basketball programs.  It was in high school where he first experimented with alcohol – something he had seen his father do growing up.  After playing just a little bit for Boston College, he failed a drug test which almost ended his career.  He received a second chance from a legendary coach who had given numerous young men second chances throughout his career – legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian also known as “Tark the Shark”, who had taken over as head coach at Fresno State University where I first saw Chris play on television.  There he played his way into being the 33rd overall pick for the Denver Nuggets in the 1999 NBA Draft.  He was later traded to the Boston Celtics where his drug problems escalated, and then went on to play overseas in Italy where his life further spiraled downwards before setting off on his road to recovery years later.

“The kids across the room who didn’t do anything, they had something I didn’t have,” Chris said in his strong New England accent, describing one of the high school parties he attended where he and his friends consumed alcohol underage, while another set of kids across the room didn’t consume anything and were fine with it.  During his talk, Chris told many stories about his journey which involved experimentation and addiction to Cocaine, OxyContin, and finally Heroin – all while becoming a father and a professional basketball player.  This particular story was significant because it touched on something many young people struggle with well into adulthood; personal contentment and self-esteem.

The significance of Chris’s opening quote of this post is to get people to note where our personals problems start and their root causes, as opposed to focusing solely on the end results – substance abuse, drug overdoses, suicides, and many others.  His just happened to be his father’s struggle with alcoholism, his mother’s resulting pain, and then the experimentation with drugs and alcohol amongst his peers early on as teens.  Chris’s other over-arching message was about “Wellness”, and how both parents and schools need to be more vigilant and aware of the struggles of young people which can lead to any number of injurious outcomes later in life if not caught early and addressed.

“Over the last seven years I’ve had the responsibility of sharing my story in front of a million kids.  I truly believe in my heart that I’ve made a difference for some, and I do this for many reasons,” Chris Herren said opening up his talk.  “When it comes to addiction, I think we’ve gone horribly wrong.  I think we put way too much focus on the worst day, and we forget about the first day.

“It’s safe as parents to show our children pictures of drug addicts and how to watch a movie and at the end explain to them what happened.  It’s hard to sit them down at 15 years old and say honestly, ‘Please tell me why you’re letting this begin.’

After telling his story, Chris took questions from the audience – parents and teens, whom he also makes himself available to through email.  Afterwards he graciously took pictures with those of us in the audience and took further questions individually.  I seized the opportunity to ask him one to two more.

“He’s one of the people that I will unconditionally love for the rest of my life.  I did the eulogy at his funeral at the Thomas and Mack Center in front of 12,000 people.  What I told everyone that night is that he meant the world to me.  He changed me,” Chris reflected afterwards when I asked him to say a few words on Jerry Tarkanian.  “I do what I do today because he did that for me.”

“He gave me a second chance and I truly believe people are worth second chances.  If we didn’t give second chances to people in recovery, we’d be much worse off.  He instilled that in me and it continues in my life today.”

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Hill Harper discusses Honor Your Future Now campaign part two

This article is the continuation of my interview with Hill Harper discussing the National Honor Society’s Honor Your Future Now campaign.

Anwar Dunbar- Tell me about the Honor Your Future Now Campaign, and why you decided to get involved?

Hill Harper- I eagerly came together with the National Honor Society and National Junior Honor Society to help with this campaign.  It’s really a call to action for students titled Honor Your Future Now.  They’re providing resources, they’re providing advice to prepare for college and careers, and hopefully lifetime success.  I got involved because I was a member of the National Honor Society when I was in school, and they reached out to see if it was something I would help them talk about.

There are five pillars of the National Honor Society:

  • Scholarship- Performing well in school, doing your best and preparing for college;
  • Character- This one is huge for me and actually goes back to what we just talked about: making choices in your life which are character based choices, demonstrating high standards of honesty and integrity, courtesy and being a high character person;
  • Leadership- Stepping up and embracing the fact that as a young person, saying I can make a difference in my school, in my family’s life and in my own life;
  • Citizenship- Being a good steward and a good citizen, understanding what your rights are in this country, understanding that you are just as in control of your community as anyone else and;
  • Service- Volunteering in community service projects and getting involved.

So if you think about it, these all create a well-rounded person, and I love touting those pillars and those ideals, and they really underlie a lot of what I believe.

Right now we want to talk about how to pay for college.  If you go online to Honor Your Future Now, there are lots of resources.  There are a lot of misnomers that students walk around with.  I talk with students all over the country and they’ll tell me, “Yeah, I want to go to college, but I can’t afford it.”  The simple fact is they can’t afford not to go school, and there are different ways to pay for college.  The National Honor Society has a college funding graphic on the site.  It’s like an infographic and there’s also a link for the Free Application for Federal Student Loans which is a link to the government student loans.

Often these students are coming from schools where their college counselors aren’t up to speed on all of this information about how to pay for school.  You have: scholarships, grants, work study programs, and loans, so many different ways to pay for school.  Students have to understand that you may have to combine these things, and it’s not just going to be one thing fixes all.  It’s not necessarily going to be a full ride scholarship, and it’s not that you’ll necessarily have to take out loans for the whole thing.   You’re going to go and learn about all of the things that are offered and then cobble together how to pay for your education.  You’ll get a little scholarship money here.  You’ll get a grant here, and some work study there.  You’ll get a federal loan as well, and doing all of this, you’ll be able to cobble together the money to pay for school.

AD- In addition to the rising costs of school leading to exorbitant amounts of student debt, what other challenges do you see today’s college students facing?  In general, are there qualities and values that you see today’s students (i.e. the millennials) missing that were more prevalent when you were in college?

HH- I think being a critical thinker, and an innovator, are some of the things that will help you get ahead.  At the same time understanding technology and really digging in, in terms of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) will really help.  I hear so many students say, “I’m no good at math, and I’m no good at science.”  When someone says that to me, they’re really expressing a fear more so than the truth because it’s all relative.  It’s not about being good.  You have a proficiency in something to a certain degree that other people may not have.  Proficiencies aren’t good or bad.  It’s just where you are at that particular time, and you can improve those skill sets.  If students have these blocks saying, “I’m no good at this, I’m no good at that”, they’ll block it out and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that their proficiency level won’t rise.  So the biggest thing to me is conquering the students’ fears.  There’s a lot of fear about future jobs and job growth.  There’s a lot of fear about technology, engineering and math and science, and there’s a lot of fear about where we’re headed.

Here’s the deal, an educated person who is a critical thinker, who is educated and a good communicator, and actually embodies the five pillars of the National Honor Society is someone who will be able to work in the future, be gainfully employed, and by the way, happy with their career choice.  The person who allows fear to stop them from pursuing their higher education, to stop them from even going onto the Honor Your Future Now, and the National Honor Society websites, that’s what I’m most concerned about and that’s what a lot of people do.

AD- Okay Hill, I have one last question.  Do you have any closing words or advice for students or parents who may read this interview?

HH- Absolutely.  Think boldly and creatively about your future.  Think globally and not locally.  So many students I talk to think that they have to stay within their relatively small geographic circle, and that they can in no way afford to go anywhere else.  And again, that’s misinformation.  Fear for me stands for: False Evidence Appearing Real.  So much false information is passed down amongst students, teachers, and parents.

The number one place that the students go to for advice around paying for college is their parents.  So if parents are actually reading this article, I need parents to go to the National Honor Society and Honor Your Future Now websites, and look at what’s there, because you are going to be the most instrumental person giving your student advice, and if you don’t have the right information, they’re going to get misinformation, so don’t be afraid of what’s out there.  Don’t be afraid to learn as much as possible and don’t be afraid to apply to as many different types of scholarships, grant programs, and other loan opportunities to find the best place for your student to go.  And if you’re a parent, don’t be afraid to let your student go away.  I’ve heard many parents say, “Well they aren’t ready to go out of state.  They’re not ready to go there.”  Don’t let your fears hold back the opportunities for your student.

I have a quick story of a young man who was from Mississippi who had the opportunity to go to Alaska to get some higher education and some vocational training.  His parents initially didn’t want him to go but he went, and his whole life and world have changed.  He has all of these different job offers at this point in different fields in energy and oil production.  These are opportunities that have been given to him, where he is going to become two to three times the highest earner in the history of his family, and that’s coming right out of school.  That’s because he looked for opportunities that were further away from where he was where the opportunities didn’t exist, but they figured out how to make it work.  So those types of things do exist.  It’s just a matter of the individual and the parents of the students doing the work and not being afraid to take a risk.

AD- Okay Hill, those are all of my questions.  Thank you again for this interview.  Your messages about the National Honor Society and Honor Your Future Now will really benefit a lot of students and families.

HH- Thank you, Anwar.

To learn more about the resources for college planning discussed by Hill Harper in this interview, visit the National Honor Society, and Honor Your Future Now.

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