Leaders on the field develop into leaders in their fields. Team captains become captains of industry. Here, how to use the skills gained through athletics to launch the right career.
He was only a boy when the wound opened.
He had dark, unkempt hair and bright blue eyes that obscured the insecurities that simmer as a boy’s brain and body take the first steps toward becoming a man’s. So he would do what boys do – whatever it took to stand out, to earn pats on the back, to make them say nice job, Mikey. He was more powerful than the other kids, his frame thicker, so he would make the radar gun explode. He would make them remember Mike Devlin.
So one day the 14-year-old gripped his lacrosse stick hard and pulled it back behind his right shoulder. His left arm coiled around his torso and muscles contracted and tendons stretched as his body loaded like a spring. When he unwound and the stick snapped forward, the torque peeled some of the labrum in his left shoulder off the bone. The radar gun registered 87, and the other New England kids vying for the fastest shot on that summer day in 2003 shouted and marveled like he had hoped they would – but he knew something wasn’t right.
Something inside of him was broken.
Nearly eight years later, the boy nestled into a Motel 6 bathtub as the gloom of a Vermont winter night encroached. His lungs labored and his heart lost its rhythm, flittering in his chest. He pondered yellow walls and a moldy ceiling and the end of his life. He wondered if he would die there – alone.
There are countless turns and detours in the eight years between a boy’s innocent moment and a man’s desperate one, but look carefully and see a straight line connecting the two: It is drawn with the black sediment trail that an OxyContin pill leaves behind when it melts and glides on foil held over an open flame.
Mike mastered those black lines after multiple injuries and multiple surgeries and multiple prescriptions for powerful painkillers. He would draw designs or write names or turn an entire square of silver foil dark as he pulled the smoke that poured off the pills into his lungs through a straw or an empty pen cartridge. For years, the opioids wrapped his brain in a feathery cocoon that hid it from the world and coated every nerve in his body in warm, sugary honey that dripped slow and heavy. Oh, that feeling – nothing else mattered.
Not every young athlete who feels a shoulder pop or a knee erupt follows that black line. Not all who have surgery and are given a small orange bottle will crave another once their prescription runs dry. Not all of them will turn to the streets to find more pills or to find heroin when the hunt for Vicodin or Lortab or Percocet or, especially, OxyContin becomes too onerous or too expensive.
A subset, though, are archetypes for risk like Mike: They can’t cope with the loss of their athletic identity and abilities and playing time that often accompany a significant injury; they are among the one-third of people who, instead of pain relief or a gentle buzz, feel euphoria wash over them when the opioids they are prescribed interact with their brain; and they carry a predisposition for addiction, which lies dormant until the pills rouse a monster that will tear the user, his family, his friends – anyone in his path – to pieces.
When those traits align, any young athlete might do what Mike did, and let the pills guide him from curiosity to recreation to obsession. He might get his first prescription and wolf down a few extra painkillers. He might become familiar with their potency, learning they hit harder when chewed, only to graduate to crushing them on a CD case and snorting them through a dollar bill while behind the wheel.
He might willingly risk his life, like Mike did, by cutting open a time-release fentanyl patch and squeezing the gel inside, which is 100 times more potent than morphine and designed to relieve the extraordinary pain some cancer patients experience, onto a piece of foil. He might light that foil and pull the clear vapor into his lungs, then wonder if he was so high that his body would forget to breathe. He might grow weary of his devotion to pills and the damage it had caused and wind up in a motel bathtub wondering if the last things he saw and felt before he died would be mold and fiberglass.
As alcohol, marijuana and cocaine use among college athletes has either fallen or remained relatively steady through the past decade, NCAA survey data indicates prescription painkiller use is rising. The trend is the same among youth at large; according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, more than 2,500 Americans younger than 18 abuse a prescription painkiller for the first time each day, and one of every 30 has abused OxyContin by high school graduation.
The Centers for Disease Control has called prescription opioid abuse an “epidemic,” and athletes are particularly vulnerable: A 2013 University of Michigan study found that adolescent athletes, particularly males, are at greater risk for abuse than their peers because of heightened exposure through sports and injury.
Roughly 17,000 Americans overdose on painkillers annually, often because their brainstems are flooded with so many opioids that the nerves tasked with controlling respiration are too impaired to function. Mike Devlin could have been one of those 17,000, but even when he was snorting and smoking as many as 800 milligrams of OxyContin every day, his lungs somehow never fell dormant. He survived, but not without costs: He thrust his parents into a waking nightmare. He stole thousands of dollars from college roommates and fellow junkies. He was told, several times, by people he betrayed that he should run and hide.
This is the story of Mike Devlin, a lacrosse star and good student from a wealthy family who turned prescription painkiller and heroin addict. Maybe, though, this is the story of a player who has started showing up late for practice. Maybe it’s the story of an athlete who visits the training room, incessantly complaining about pain. Maybe it’s the story of a son or daughter whose grades are inexplicably slipping. Maybe, though you may not yet realize it, this is a story about someone you know.
Maybe, even, it’s a story about you.
Mike and lacrosse met in the fifth grade. The love affair started quickly – by day, his lacrosse stick accompanied him everywhere he went; by night, it joined him in bed. Mike picked up the sport with friend Tim Flynn, and the two spent hours together through middle school firing shots and sprinting through the lush backyard behind the Devlins’ Cape Cod home. There was a pond in front, a pool house in back, dogs roaming the grounds and money to spare. His father, Michael, was a successful bond trader. His mother, Anita, had a burgeoning real estate career.
Even though Michael spent his time during the week working and living in New York, he made a point to venture home – or wherever Mike and his lacrosse stick happened to be working their magic – on the weekends. Normally mild-mannered, Michael was embarrassed when his temper got the best of him while admonishing referees during Mike’s games; it was only a manifestation of badly wanting to see his son succeed, he insists. In middle school, when a coach approached Michael and intimated that Mike had real potential to excel in high school and beyond, fatherly pride swelled inside of him. Gone so often for work, lacrosse proved to be the conduit for Michael’s love.
Anita and her son, however, had fiery arguments that reverberated through the Cape Cod house as he grew older. But when Anita and Mike’s voices started to elevate as she questioned him about the girls he was spending time with, they eventually learned to temper their tempers by calling a cease-fire and writing letters to each other. They placed the handwritten notes on each other’s pillows, those private words helping mother and son form a quiet bond even as the loud arguments persisted.
Mike kept his room spotless, his grades high and a slew of friends by his side. He was the family’s star – the one his sister, despite being nearly two years older, thought of as an older brother. Yes, he may have had too much to drink once during middle school at a friend’s house and threw up on their carpet. But boys will experiment, the Devlins knew. Having to shampoo that carpet with a debilitating hangover would surely be enough of a deterrent, wouldn’t it? And, yes, he is probably smoking a little pot, his parents assumed. But they came of age in the ’70s and turned out OK. What harm could it do?
So, as the kids grew older, Michael and Anita anticipated some house parties, some alcohol, some marijuana, some trips for lacrosse, some bitter fights and some sweet apology letters placed carefully on pillows. That would be the extent of the drama, they thought, no different than what so many other families in their stratum experience. But then, at a tournament during the summer before his freshman year of high school, Mike made a radar gun scream “87” and felt his shoulder rip apart. Soon, he would meet a new love.
After the ensuing surgery, he arrived at Barnstable High School in fall 2003 with his left arm in a sling. On his first day, as he stood at his new locker, an older acquaintance approached like a moth drawn to the sling’s flame. Mike was confused when the boy asked if he received any painkillers for that damaged arm. And, if so, could he have some? Why? Mike thought. Why would he want my medicine?
Mike said no, but the older student’s interest had piqued his own, and the initial “why?” catalyzed more questions. Why was he so eager to get them? What would happen if I took more than I should? Would it feel good?
So, on his first day of high school, he decided to find the answers.
The label on the orange bottle he brought to school indicated the pills inside were Percocet, each tablet containing five milligrams of oxycodone and 325 milligrams of acetaminophen. Take them as prescribed, and they would stifle the surgery’s lingering pain – along with some dizziness, lightheadedness and, maybe, a touch of euphoria. Instead, he went to the bathroom, popped a handful in his mouth, even chewing a few because he correctly assumed that they would do their work faster if he gnawed through the time-release coating. Soon, he was sitting heavy in his desk in Spanish class, gravity seemingly pulling him down at double its normal strength, warmth and joy radiating through every limb and finger and toe.
The oxycodone, an opioid one-and-a-half times more powerful than morphine, ventured to his brain, binding to the receptors responsible for pleasure and emotion. Aside from the body high, he felt elation and confidence; his mounting teenage insecurities melted away. In adolescent brains, the limbic system, which regulates emotion and pleasure, develops much faster than the part of the brain that controls cognition, which doesn’t settle until about age 25. The rush of the high in his limbic system, like a first kiss, overpowered the thinking side, which hadn’t developed enough to tell him to consider the consequences. For Mike, the complex reaction occurring inside of his body manifested quite simply: “This is the best feeling I’ve ever had,” he thought to himself. “I want to feel like this every day.”
That first dalliance was over within weeks, but it wouldn’t be the last. Mike and Flynn made varsity as freshmen, and Mike relished absorbing big hits from older players in games and practice – the pain had its rewards, after all. He separated AC joints in both his shoulders as a sophomore, which earned him a steady stream of Percocet. When he felt his right shoulder pop as a junior – another labrum tear – he was as excited as he was discouraged. Surgery and rehab awaited, but so did more pills.
Mike and his friends smoked marijuana and drank through high school, but he craved the opioid haze more than anything else. Close friends like Greg Couet would take a few pills with Mike on occasion, but Couet didn’t feel the same rush of endorphins that brought Mike back to them, again and again. So, junior year, Mike found another friend whose love for painkillers was notorious within Barnstable’s halls. They sat in the back of a business entrepreneurship class together, and Mike’s new sensei explained what all of those milligram counts on the bottles meant and taught Mike about the different highs he could experience. Crush and snort them, and the rush goes straight to your head, the eager pupil learned. “He spoke my language,” Mike says.
His friend had a connection at a local pharmacy who could get them whatever they needed, so Mike gladly began paying $1 a milligram for 30-milligram Percocet tablets. By that point, most of Mike’s pills didn’t come in bottles bearing his name. They were handed off in tiny Ziploc bags or crumpled napkins; they were hiding throughout the Devlin household, tucked away in jacket pockets inside closets or bundled deep in a sock drawer.
During his junior season, despite the string of injuries and budding addiction, Mike and Flynn were Barnstable’s most formidable offensive weapons. Mike reached his apex when he won a faceoff in overtime against Falmouth, a local rival, sprinted left, spun back right and fired an underhand shot past two defenders and the goalkeeper – a game winner. Michael, there on the sidelines, felt that surge of pride rush back. Alex leapt into the air and screamed. In that moment, she says, her little brother was her hero.
After the frenzy, the hugs, the slaps on the helmet and the shouts of nice job, Mikey, Mike boarded the team bus for the 30-minute trip back to Barnstable. To his dismay, he heard only chatter about the upcoming night’s plans; no more talk of the goal and the win.
The moment’s high had already passed. It was no equal for the steady dose his pills provided.
Letters from interested college teams – Brown, Rutgers, Loyola Maryland, Hartford – began to arrive, asking for game film and for him to stay in touch. But by his senior year, Mike didn’t have enough energy to devote to recruiting; finding connections and money to maintain his addiction had become his life’s central focus.
Any conversations about college lacrosse would devolve into screaming matches, so Michael, who loathed confrontation, didn’t press his son. He even hired someone to help Mike get footage out to interested colleges, but apathy had taken hold, and Mike brushed it aside. He didn’t make regular trips with Flynn to college recruiting showcases. Flynn still insists Mike, a chiseled and quick 190 pounds, was the more talented of the two, but Flynn was the one who accepted an offer to play at Division I Towson University while Mike’s play grew inconsistent.
As a senior, he was high during almost every game. Before one contest, he threw up. But Mike wasn’t scared after the last bits of vomit had dripped off the bars of his face mask. He was simply glad his system had flushed itself clean so he could soon take more. “There were games where Mikey just wasn’t there,” Flynn says.
Away from the field, Mike grew so petulant – perpetually aggrieved amid the search for his next high – that his parents had him tested for steroids. He passed. Something was amiss, but the Devlins couldn’t pinpoint it. Pills prescribed by a doctor never crossed their minds.
Todd Stull, who works in the sports medicine department at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and spent nearly a decade running the school’s opioid treatment program, says oversights like those are understandably common. Together, increased irritability, deterioration in grades, worse performance on the field and shedding old friends for new ones could signal a potential painkiller problem. In Mike, the signs were prominent, but written in a language the Devlins didn’t understand.
During his final high school game, Mike felt another debilitating pop. This time it emanated from a tendon that ran along the outside of his right ankle. He would need another surgery, another rehab, more pills to horde and gobble in bunches. He verbally committed to Division III Springfield College, but with surgery looming and his commitment waning, Mike gave in to his parents’ pleas to consider attending the University of Vermont to focus on academics. He could always try to walk on after he healed, they said.
He worked two jobs during the summer before college, often earning more than $1,000 per week. He needed every cent to support his habit of chewing or snorting five or six or seven 30-milligram Percocet tablets every day. Mike arrived on campus with only 15 pills. They were gone in two days, and he had no connections in Vermont. Maybe it was time to get clean, he thought, to take advantage of the hiking and rafting and skiing around campus. He could remake himself in college.
Doing so, though, was going to hurt like hell.
As other students explored the campus through orientation week, Mike spent his time in bed soaked in sweat yet freezing cold, battling nausea with an aching body and a searing headache. His receptors craved more opioids, so they barked out loud pain signals because he wouldn’t give them what they wanted. The withdrawal lasted nearly a week. It was a feeling he would come to know well – Mike’s habit resumed in force when he returned to Cape Cod the following summer.
With his ankle tendon surgically repaired, Mike decided he needed lacrosse back in his life. As sophomore year began, he contacted Vermont head coach Ryan Curtis, who offered a tryout. Mike earned a walk-on spot on the team, but ran out of the pills he brought with him to Vermont after only a few weeks of practice, and the sweat, the chills, the nausea and the pain returned. He wrote Curtis an email from his bed, hurting so much he was surprised his fingers could hammer out a coherent thought, explaining he needed to quit the team to focus on academics. In college, he never spoke to the coach again.
When he was 17, Mike got lacrosse sticks tattooed on the back of his left calf. But now, Mike Devlin, lacrosse player, was simply Mike Devlin. He needed a new identity to fill the void. The choice was simple: “After lacrosse ended, I got super-depressed. … Lacrosse was the only thing that I was good at,” he says. “Pills were the only other thing I was good at.”
His trips home became more frequent – as soon as he would cross the bridge over the Cape Cod Canal, he would reach for his phone and arrange a purchase. Childhood friend Couet, for one, began ignoring his calls because he knew any time spent with Mike meant time spent hunting for Percocet or OxyContin.
After his sophomore year, Mike and three close friends decided to rent a house together in Vermont for the summer and their junior year. Mike, an environmental studies major, earned and was later fired from a summer internship with a green energy company. He had finally made a connection in Vermont, one that could supply him with a steady stream of powerful – and dangerous – 80-milligram OxyContin tablets, 16 times the strength of the first Percocets he ingested when he was a curious 14-year-old with his arm in a sling.
Rather than take the first steps toward a promising career, he spent much of his summer in his room licking off pills’ coatings, placing them on foil squares and watching them melt and slide over the metal. The pills emitted smoke that smelled like nail polish remover as they left their black char trails. A horrible odor, he says, but one he soon craved.
His roommates, Al Harnisch and Mark Paglierani, had no idea about the pills other than a casual admission Mike once made about using them in high school. He was gregarious and kind, and his behavior didn’t surge past harmless irresponsibility until a stranger carrying a black trash bag filled with bricks of marijuana walked into the house and retreated to Mike’s room that summer. Harnisch and Paglierani were no strangers to weed, but was their roommate dealing drugs from their house?
He was – Mike had to come up with hundreds of dollars every day to support his painkiller habit. Money started disappearing from Harnisch and Paglierani’s rooms, $20 or $40 or $60 at a time. When Harnisch raised it with his roommates, Mike would be the first to spring to action, trying to help him find it. Inside, Harnisch knew it was Mike, but he couldn’t let himself believe it. And he couldn’t kick him out on a hunch.
Harnisch’s solution? A padlock on his door to keep one of his best friends at bay.
His roommates’ frustrations and suspicions were nearing a crescendo when Mike pulled Paglierani aside at a party in November 2009. Mike broke down: He was hooked on pills again. He had to drop out, go home and mend his life. He told his parents the same. For Michael, any anger he may have felt was swallowed by relief – the source of his son’s ugly metamorphosis had finally revealed itself. Now they could fix him.
They were naïve. They were wrong.
Anita’s real estate career imploded along with the housing market in 2008, and Michael was forced to find a new job when the stock market plummeted soon after. Still, the family burned through money for Mike’s outpatient treatment at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York, a personal trainer and even an acupuncturist – anything to ensure their son healed.
The Devlins had good intentions, but Luke Stopper, a clinician who works with young adults at Caron Treatment Centers says that when parents or coaches discover an opioid problem, they should first set up an interview with a substance abuse professional to determine the right course of action, be it outpatient treatment, partial hospitalization or, in extreme cases, residential treatment.
Mike returned to Vermont in the spring, apologized to his roommates and insisted he needed them: They were his support system, and he wasn’t sure what would happen if he had to move in with strangers. They reluctantly agreed to bring him along when they signed a lease for a new house during their senior year.
He called home frequently for money: He had a flat tire; his car got towed; he needed to buy ski equipment. Money was tight, but Anita couldn’t say no to her fragile son, so she even borrowed from friends. What if she deprived him and he turned back to drugs?
He already had – and she was paying for them.
That summer, Mike lived at the family’s apartment in New York. Anita saw Mike was glued to his phone constantly. Calls and texts poured in, and he often wandered away to have conversations – what was he up to? Anita, overwhelmed by the family’s financial problems and her son’s obvious descent back to addiction, suffered a heart attack while making breakfast for Mike and his friends on the Fourth of July.
When Anita returned from the hospital to their home in Cape Cod, she asked Mike to give her and Alex, who had rushed home from her job in California, some time and space to chat. Go back to New York, she said. Mike exploded in front of Anita and family friends, saying he was furious that she didn’t want him to stay and help take care of her. In reality, the tirade was motivated by his desire to linger in Cape Cod, where it was easier for him to get pills.
She was too weak to scream back, but it was the first time she felt pure, unencumbered hate for her son. She was ashamed but couldn’t make the feeling disappear. Who was this monster in front of me? Anita thought. Who would scream at his sick mother like this?
She didn’t know his true reason for the outburst, only that she abhorred hearing his voice.
Simultaneously, Mike’s addiction was approaching its nadir. Heroin was much cheaper than OxyContin and provided the same high, so, after assurances from some of his new friends, he put a needle in his arm. Most who follow the route from OxyContin to heroin don’t come back, but Mike was afraid of needles, so pills remained his preference. Still, he didn’t demur from frequently smoking or snorting heroin. This is the path, Stull says, that he encounters so frequently in his work with opioid addicts. He worries heroin use among athletes will rise as OxyContin grows even more expensive and scarce on the street, thanks to tighter restrictions the Food and Drug Administration has placed on prescription painkillers in recent years.
Fentanyl, Stull notes, is also particularly dangerous and often leads to accidental overdose given its potency. Smoking the gel inside the patch, which Mike got from a friend with cancer, gave him the deepest high of his life. Nearly a dozen times, he took so many OxyContin that his breathing nearly stopped and he had to jump into a cold shower to jolt his body awake. Some nights, he would feel himself drifting away and search for his weak pulse. Others, he would go to sleep breathing slowly and hope he wouldn’t wake up at all. But he always did, so, in the summer of 2010, he wrapped a belt around his neck, gave his weight over to the leather and tried hanging himself in his parents’ basement. His noose took too long to do its work, and his drug-fueled indifference squeezed tighter than the belt ever could. He gave up and drew more black lines.
When Mike returned to Vermont in the fall to begin his senior year, his once-powerful frame had dipped below 150 pounds. His skin was pale; his face gaunt – today, his roommates can’t seem to agree whether he looked more like a skeleton, a ghost or, simply, like death. He subsisted off honey buns, cans of tuna and coffee and told his roommates that a blood sugar problem had caused the weight loss. He insisted they not call his family when they expressed worries about his health. His mom was close to death after her heart attack, he said. Hearing any bad news might kill her.
Anita did wonder who would die first. She wondered if the stress of being Mike’s mother would force her heart to give out again before she got the call saying he was missing, had slipped away in his sleep or had been killed in a drug squabble. She wasn’t alone: “I actually thought that if he died, it would maybe not be the worst thing in the world,” his sister says.
More things began disappearing at the house in Vermont: one roommate’s rent, a guitar, a nice hiking backpack. Nearly 20 times, when he couldn’t get his hands on enough money, he walked into an emergency room, having grown adept at faking the symptoms for severe back pain, and left with a prescription for more pills. Harnisch once found Mike passed out on the toilet, not breathing. For a moment – one of the worst of Harnisch’s life, he says – he was certain he had discovered his roommate’s corpse. A slap to the face jolted Mike awake. He stuttered something about staying up too late studying the night before, but he wasn’t even going to class during his senior year as his parents paid Vermont tens of thousands of dollars for tuition.
When Mike returned home for Christmas that year, his father tried to strike up a conversation about his drug use on Christmas Eve. Mike, on the front end of a withdrawal, responded with an expletive. It found its mark.
Michael finally snapped, leaping from his chair, striding over to his son and punching him in the face. Mike wrestled him to the ground before running up to his room, telling Anita her husband had gone crazy and slamming the door. His sister, Alex, stood in stunned silence in the kitchen as Michael lay on the living room floor. He wept.
Soon after Christmas break, a roommate’s new $1,500 laptop went missing. Paglierani, one of Mike’s roommates, remembers getting the call to come home. Something had gone down with Mike, he was told. There was a stolen laptop, a scuffle when a roommate found him in a park. Mike fled and they were changing the locks. Paglierani played on Barnstable’s lacrosse team with Mike and knew his family, but couldn’t reach Michael or Anita, so he sent Alex a Facebook message. He filled her in on Mike’s descent. He ran away, Paglierani told her, and someone needed to find him before he wound up dead. Strangers started appearing at the door asking for Mike. He owed them money or drugs or both. Harnisch, Paglierani and their two other roommates were on edge – how had college turned into this? Were they safe?
Mike fled to a Motel 6 in Burlington. For $40 a night it would be his sanctuary, his private palace with drab walls, an ugly yellow comforter, a TV mounted in the corner and a pile of pills. Every bridge was singed – text messages poured in from people from whom he had stolen thousands of dollars in cash and goods and drugs in the weeks before. Their collective sentiment was clear: Pray we don’t find you.
So he pounded through eight OxyContin over the course of a few hours and let himself sink down into the hotel’s bathtub. He felt his heart quiver – he had experienced palpitations before, but this time he wondered if they might be a harbinger for the end.
As the world outside that dark motel room hunted for him, one message cut through the numbness and found a nerve. It was from the woman he had bled dry financially and emotionally – the woman who, at her core, hated him. His mother said she needed to know if her boy was safe.
She needed him to know that she loved him.
He had forgotten to love her back. He had given his heart to something else, but he realized his affections had been unrequited all along – the thing he loved most had led him to that dingy room and left him to die.
Though his lungs were stifled by oxycodone, finally, he could breathe. Though his nerves were numbed by the pills, finally, he felt fear shiver through him.
Though he had once welcomed death, finally, he wanted to survive the long night.
A few days after getting his mother’s text message, Mike wasn’t terrified or nervous or eager to flee when he and his parents pulled up to Caron Pennsylvania, a treatment center northwest of Philadelphia, to begin his monthlong stay. The pills he had taken in secret before they arrived ensured his emotions slept soundly as the world shook around him.
He didn’t fight or bicker with counselors like some of the other patients. Having seen his life’s ugly bottom in the shades-drawn gloom of that Vermont motel, he was ready. After a few weeks, the pain that the pills had kept at bay for so long – not his pain, but searing empathy for friends and family – finally rushed in as tears poured out. His sister had been neglected with his family’s focus always on him. He had nearly pulled his parents apart. He had betrayed his friends’ trust.
A counselor approached and asked him what was wrong.
“I’m a terrible person,” is all Mike could muster.
That feeling was reinforced by the “cost” letters he received from his family, which had nothing to do with the $30,000 Anita had to borrow from relatives to give Caron a chance to save her son’s life. Instead, those letters detailed the pieces of each of them that his addiction had slowly chipped away.
Anita went to Vermont to gather what was left of Mike’s things. His roommates had done what they could to clean his room, scraping cocaine powder off the walls and gathering what trash they could, in hopes of easing the blow when she arrived. Still, she vomited when she walked through the door. She found only squalor: foil with black lines and straws and pen cartridges and a torn mattress. This was my son? His lacrosse mementos – his old life – were shoved into a box in the basement. As Anita walked out the door with what was left of Mike, Harnisch didn’t feel anger or relief, only sadness.
Three weeks into Mike’s stay at Caron, Michael, Anita and Alex came to visit for several days. To better the chances of recovery sticking, they needed to learn that addiction was a disease and how their efforts to help only exacerbated Mike’s problem. Stopper, of Caron, says athletes like Mike frequently come to his facility after painkillers awaken their addictions. Their families, like the Devlins, typically are unaware that their children have been seduced by pills and don’t realize the money they send for rent or insurance or books is actually funding a hidden life. During the visit, Alex told Mike she loved him, but that it would be the last time he ever saw her if he spat this chance back in his family’s face.
After a month at Caron, counselors recommended Mike move to a halfway house in Texas. When he arrived at Gaston House, just north of downtown Dallas, he found an old brick home, still stately but weathered by time. Like its residents, the house put on a strong face, but inside the old wooden floors creaked under the feet of the 20 other recovering addicts who roamed its dim halls with hollow, anxious faces. The weight of their collective histories thickened the air, but there were glimmers of earnestness in their eyes and palpable hope in the laughs that occasionally cut through the tension.
In that setting, Mike learned accountability and selflessness. He learned to call out other house members even if they did something as minor as skip work or a chore. Little mistakes, he was taught, often foretell bigger ones. He began to accept criticism, to find lessons in his missteps and, most important, to learn that the only way he would ever stay clean was to devote his life to helping others. If he was going to survive, giving would have to be his new addiction.
So Mike blasted emails detailing his story and offering his services to dozens of lacrosse coaches in the area. Tommy Shuey, who played lacrosse at Hofstra University until he graduated in 2009 and started Sentry Lacrosse – a company that runs club teams and camps in Dallas – agreed to give Mike a chance. Mike’s history didn’t dissuade Shuey; one of his closest former teammates had descended into addiction after injuries.
Shuey was perplexed, though, when he saw Mike emerge from the woods that abutted the field on his first day coaching for Sentry. After practice, Mike explained he didn’t have a car, so he had taken a bus and walked to the field, a three-hour round trip. Shuey was sold. “I don’t want to be the guy that turns him away and all of a sudden, he’s back where he started because he couldn’t get back into lacrosse,” Shuey says.
In the summer of 2011, after nearly six months at Gaston House working two jobs and staying clean, counselors told Mike he was ready to leave. Studies have shown nearly 90 percent of opioid addicts eventually relapse after residential treatment. Mike, though, insists he hasn’t. He saw firsthand what might happen if he does: When close friends at the house relapsed, they perished because their recovering bodies weren’t equipped to handle the massive doses that, just weeks or months earlier at the height of their addictions, they had acclimated to.
Even so, Mike’s usually even demeanor perks up when he talks about his old use, how those pills slid on foil, how the Fentanyl should have killed him – he gesticulates, and his voice rises like a soldier telling war stories. The excitement fades, though, and those blue eyes sink to the floor when the conversation turns to the pain those highs inflicted on everyone else.
While some of Mike’s wounds have healed in the nearly five years since he checked into Caron, pain lingers elsewhere. Paglierani, who vouched for Mike when other roommates lost faith, wants to know why Mike used him. Why take advantage of the one person who admired him most? Flynn, his high school teammate, still wonders if he should have intervened. Anita regrets her constant denial, her fears about what her friends and neighbors would think of the mother who raised an addict.
But happy moments have balanced those misgivings. On Christmas 2012, a year and a day after his father punched him in the face, Mike bought his family presents for the first time in his life. He gave his father an iPod; he got a hug and a new, lasting high in return.
Like they did when he was young, Mike and Anita have mended their relationship through writing. It started with the cost letters at Caron and evolved into something more. Together, they detailed their experiences during Mike’s ordeal in “S.O.B.E.R.*,” a self-published book. Each chapter she read and wrote caused both acute pain and lasting catharsis.
Mike has maintained his connection with Gaston House. He spent more than two years living there as a house manager and is now a recovery advocate and activity coordinator. He sets an example and offers counsel for those familiar with dark lines on foil and other vices; about 10 percent of the men who come through the house were former athletes-turned-opioid addicts.
Today, Mike lives with his fiancée, Teddy Sulliman, and their two dogs in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Dallas. Little bits of evidence detailing his commitment to sobriety reveal themselves every day. His phone still beeps incessantly, like it did when he was arranging his next score. But now the text messages and emails and calls at strange hours come from the addicts he sponsors or men who need him at Gaston House or from their worried parents who hope he can assuage their fears. He keeps the apartment tidy, like his room was when he was a child. He juggles two jobs and shows up on time. He is inching closer to earning a degree from the University of Phoenix.
“I don’t think that he will relapse – maybe I’m being naïve,” Sulliman says. “I have a lot of faith in him.”
Mike and Sulliman built wooden shelves, knotty and coarse, that are bolted into the wall in the corner of their small living room. They’re not works of art, but are sturdy. They support the weight of framed photos of Mike and his fiancée together, smiling.
The rain has passed on a Dallas afternoon in May. Mike walks onto the grass at a park north of downtown where dogs run without leashes and the hum of a nearby highway sounds like a distant ocean. He and fellow Sentry coach Dan Groot are about to put more than a dozen fourth-graders through an hour and a half of practice in the Texas humidity. Mike looks the part: thick-chested and broad shouldered; whistle dangling from his neck; chiseled calves peeking out of baggy basketball shorts.
While Groot guides the team through basic passing drills, Mike works alone with a young goalkeeper a few yards away. Lacrosse stick in his hands, Mike doesn’t need to impress like he did when the radar gun beckoned. Now, he fires shots with precision and purpose, testing his small understudy, forcing him to dive left, dive right, raise his stick, hit the ground. The child smiles with every save. A few shots sneak into the net, and Mike warns of the dangers of not moving your feet, of losing focus.
So, together, they will keep practicing.
They are getting better.