Walking off the Center Grove High School basketball court Wednesday morning, Chris Herren, his eyes moistened by emotion, let out a massive exhale.
Herren’s 53-minute talk to students from Grade 8 through 12, teachers and administrators had taken a toll on the one-time basketball prodigy whose career was ultimately derailed by years of alcohol and drug abuse.
The 39-year-old, who on Aug. 1 celebrated seven years clean, will be the Massachusetts-accented voice behind approximately 250 such speeches this year.
Wednesday’s was different.
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“I’m a little nervous today because it’s not so much about the crowd, but I’ve been in a different space. (Tuesday) night I was with the NBA rookies, that morning I was with Florida State Seminoles football and Alabama the day before,” Herren said moments before being introduced to the 3,100 spectators.
“What I’ve learned over the past five years of doing this is that someone’s story … that’s not enough. You need to dig a little deeper. You need to ask some tough questions and you need to get down to the core of why these kids can’t be themselves on a Friday night.”
So Herren did. Eventually.
The audience quietly clung to every word as Herren shared basics of his story — high school hoops phenomenon with the world at his feet becomes poster boy for both failed drug tests and wasted God-given athletics potential.
“I remember this day like it was yesterday. I remember sitting with my teammates way up in the bleachers looking at the guy talking about drugs and alcohol and laughing,” he said.
“I remember saying, ‘We’ll never be that guy.’ I remember saying, ‘My daddy, he’s a politician, my mommy, she’s in corporate America. We own three homes. Me, I’m ranked in the top 20 basketball players in America. All I do is drink and smoke on weekends, man. Get off my back.'”
Which, according to Herren, is exactly how addiction starts in many cases.
“I remember drinking in basements where parents told us we were safe down there. Don’t believe it. There’s nothing safe about it,” Herren said.
“At the end of the night down in those basements drinking and thinking we’re cool, it got close to curfew, so I was worried about my mom and dad, so I’m spraying my clothes, putting gum in my mouth and washing my face.”
Now married and father to a 16-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter, Herren is more mindful of the potential pitfalls of peer pressure than ever before.
Herren through public speaking engagements encourages teenagers — and anyone else possibly influenced — to have the courage to say no. To go against the grain of what’s perceived to be socially fashionable for your own good.
He shared the story of once speaking at a high school where a girl had been bullied to the point of self-harming herself with razor blades so that both lower arms were scarred.
One day she mustered the courage to confront those who had bullied her, rolled up her sleeves and showed the scars as to say, “Look what you did to me.”
No one at the girl’s high school bullied her again, which is why one day not long after she called Herren and thanked him for speaking at her school.
“There are kids in here who have self-harmed. There’s nothing weird about you, man. There’s nothing different. It just needs to be addressed. And I pray one of you walks out of here today and faces it,” Herren said.
The most emotional segments of Herren’s presentation came near the end when Center Grove students were invited to ask him questions.
They knew Herren’s story; now he wanted theirs.
Voices cracked and tears were shed as one girl told of how she’s been bullied most of her high school career. A boy spoke of how substance abuse by his parents ultimately fragmented his family while subjecting him to physical and emotional abuse.
Not surprisingly, the courage it took for both to stand up and speak about their past into a microphone for all to hear prompted applause from everyone present.
Herren’s messages throughout were direct and from the heart, but not loud. At times the man who has had all but one of his seven tattoos removed (only the green Shamrock on his left forearm remains) paused to collect himself before proceeding.
“I think the most important issue that he raised was not necessarily the last day (of addiction), but the first day because I know every high school student that gets involved in these sort of activities doesn’t think it’s going to be them,” Center Grove senior Lauren Ralph said.
“Everyone thinks they’re just drinking or just smoking. He said that every drug addiction story starts with a first day. I thought that was very powerful.”
Junior Parker Ferguson found himself moved by witnessing fellow students sharing the hardships they’ve faced.
“I think the most impactful part was seeing the question-and-answer section. To see my classmates stand up and talk about their struggles in front of 3,000 people. I’ve never been part of something like this, especially this grand of a scale,” he said.
“It’s a testament to the job Mr. Herren did today.”
THE HERREN FILE
Name: Chris Herren
Born: Fall River, Massachusetts
High school: Durfee (1994)
College: Fresno State University (1999)
Draft status: Taken by Denver in second round of 1999 NBA Draft
Did you know? Herren was a McDonald’s All-American after scoring 2,073 career points in boys basketball … Graduated from same Massachusetts high school that produced Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Brandon Gomes.