By ANTHONY SPAULDING
Director of Communications
Pope John XXIII Regional High School
SPARTA — Before he starts any of his presentations, Chris Herren says a prayer.
“I say, ‘Please God, just one kid!” said the 42-year-old ex NBA player who went from playing at the highest level on the hardwood to becoming a substance abuser, a recovering addict and now a motivational speaker.
Fortunately for him, all eyes of each of the 800-plus students at Pope John XXIII Regional High School fixated on the 6-foot-2 man in the black jacket, jeans and white sneakers talking in front of a projector.
For 45 minutes on Wednesday afternoon in Pope John’s gymnasium, these students listened to Herren during his presentation of “Rebound: A Night with Chris Herren” in which he shared his experiences about opioid addiction, bullying, and hope. Herren also talked to parents of Pope John, Pope John XXIII Middle School and Reverend George A. Brown Memorial School on Wednesday night.
For the students, this was unlike any presentation on drugs and bullying that they had ever heard.
“It was really an eye-opening experience,” Pope John senior Nick DeNucci said. “It was real life stuff. Most of time, we hear from educators on the topic, but he had first-hand experience. He had everything in his life and threw it all away. It’s crazy how drugs can affect people, but it makes you think about being careful, staying close to your family and friends so that you don’t let this happen.”
“I thought it was amazing,” Pope John senior Hope Pinsonault said. “We knew his story was pretty crazy. But after hearing him, I really think it hit everybody.”
Herren grew up in Fall River, Mass with his sights set on playing in the NBA for the Boston Celtics. As a senior in high school in 1994, he was named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year and a member of the McDonald’s All-America team while finishing with 2,073 career points.
After high school, he went to nearby Boston College, but he played in only one game before breaking his wrist. Then, he was kicked out of the school after failing multiple drug tests for marijuana and cocaine use.
Herren went on to transfer to Fresno State and played in 86 games, averaging 15.1 points per game, but still had issues with drugs at the school.
After his senior season, Herren was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in the second round in 1999. The next year, Herren played for the Celtics, but then became addicted to OxyContin.
He wound up being released from the Celtics after the season, then played overseas for five seasons. While being overseas, he became addicted to heroin, resulting in him losing everything and forcing himself to check into long-term rehab.
Herren went through a number of rehab stints over the next eight years and has managed to stay sober since Aug. 1, 2008.
A 30-minute video on Harren’s background and story kicked off the presentation. After it was over, Herren took the microphone and gave the students raw and blunt insight into his experiences.
Herren, who before his opioid abuse grew up in a household in which his father was an alcoholic, recalled one time he spoke to a school of 3,500 students. After saying his prayer and giving his presentation, he saw a little girl raise her hand to ask a question, but those sitting nearby laughed and made fun of her.
Herren was then told that the question-and-answer session with the students “was not going to work because at the end of the day, nobody cares anyway.” Herren said he ended the presentation, but he tried to find the little girl afterward and unfortunately could not get to talk to her.
Two months later, though, she emailed him and told him how she had a dysfunctional home life similar to his. Not only that, but she was bullied in school to the point where she physically harmed herself.
But, Herren helped her find the courage to overcome all of this.
“I want you to know that when you walked into our high school that one day, you said, ‘One kid,’” he recalled her saying. “I promise you that your prayer was answered. I will always be that kid. You gave me the confidence to confront (these issues).”
Since then, Herren said she emails him every 30 days to update him on her progress and thank him for all he has done.
“That little girl’s email I receive every 30 days is one of the main reasons I continue to do this,” Herren said. “Seven years ago, I never heard of her.”
Herren also told Pope John students about how he handles his family, especially his three children, and the dangers of drugs considering his past. He said he won’t be like parents who ignore the problem, take away their kids items as punishments or blame anyone else.
“I’m going to walk into their bedrooms and I’m going to hug them and tell them how much I love them,” Herren said. “Then, I’m going to ask one question, ‘Please, tell me why?’ Why do you need to do drugs with kids you have been hanging out with since you were 5 after all that you faced with me early in your childhood?
“We all have why,” Herren said. “Your Mom and Dad won’t ask it because they don’t want to hear it. And as kids, we don’t want to talk about it, so we pretend.”
In addition, Herren told the students about the impact drugs can have on their younger siblings or nieces and nephews who look up to them.
Herren told them a story about how a seventh-grade boy “popped” pills with a group of eighth-grade students alone at one eighth-grader’s house because the eighth grader’s older brother and sister “forgot about them,” the parents weren’t home and wanted to “act tough” like his older siblings. Unfortunately, by the time the siblings got home, the seventh-grader died of a drug overdose.
“That’s a hard casket to carry,” Herren said.
That message hit home with Pinsonault because of how big her family is.
“For sure,” Pinsonault said. “I have a younger sister who goes to school here and she heard this, too, but I wouldn’t want her doing stuff that he went through or others want her to do. I also have little cousins who look up to me and want me to be role models to them. That was really eye-opening.”
However, Herren did leave the students with a challenge that he hopes they will answer.
“I pray that one of you kids goes back to your classroom, sits at your desk and says to yourself, ‘I don’t like the person I am becoming,’” Herren said. “This talk isn’t easy for some of you and it shouldn’t be. But, this isn’t my story. It is your story.”
DeNucci and Pinsonault, among many students, have already taken up on Herren’s challenge.
“You always want to be nice to people and treat them with respect,” said DeNucci, who felt a connection with Herren because Herren went to Boston College and DeNucci is going there after graduation to continue his academic and football careers. “You don’t want to be that bad influence on people.”
“You can turn your life around at any moment,” Pinsonault said. “He said this is your life and you control it. You are responsible for your choices. His whole talk was huge.”
For those who want to reach out to Chris Herren or learn about his mission, you can email him at THP@theherrenproject.org