Sports figures, activists warn of rising opioid crisis
Sports figures, community leaders and activists warned Wednesday that heroin and opioid use has reached a crisis stage in suburban Chicagoland and is rising across the country.
At a forum organized by the Orland Fire Protection District (OFPD), the National Football Players Fathers Association (NFPFA), Cook County Commissioners Sean Morrison, Jeff Tobolski and Richard Boykin, and several organizations that address the consequences of drug abuse, speaker after speaker spoke about how easy drug addition has been creeping up on young people, including high school and college students.
Under the banner of “In the Blink of an Eye,” audience members including local and regional high school students and community leaders were told of how easily young men and women found themselves addicted to drugs that eventually led to heroin and other opioid drug uses.
“You are going to hear from a variety of people tonight who will tell you why that statement is very true,” said Morrison who co-sponsored legislation at the Cook County Board giving local police the ability to use the anti-Heroin drug inhaler Narcan to revive overdose patients.
“Remember, no matter how small or big a decision might be, every decision you make has a lasting impact on yourself. So think first, evaluate it and always try to make your decision a positive one.”
Speakers included Super Bowl Denver Bronco’s Offensive Guard Michael Schofield, whose father is the Fire Chief of the Orland Fire District and a co-organizer of the event. Schofield spoke about the pressures many high school and college students face to use drugs, not just for recreational use but in response to sports-related injuries that can often then lead to drug addiction.
“You have to always be conscious of your choices. I knew if I was at a party where drugs was being used, I might lose my chance to go to the pros,” said Schofield, who explained that his career goal was professional sports.
Schofield said while he was in college, there were many students whose athletic careers were derailed because of failing drug tests.
“It was horrible. You are that close to beginning your career and it’s over. You make a stupid mistake,” Schofield said.
Schofield said that he could see the power of drugs in creating addiction when he was injured in the 2015 pre-season before the Bronco’s went to the Super Bowl in February 2016. He said “It was scary” how those drugs would impact you and added, “Eventually I decided not to take them.”
Other speakers shared their stories of how drug and alcohol abuse led to life-changing events in their lives and the lives of their children, friends and relatives.
Tami O’Brien, the mother of Jason O’Brien, spoke about how she was so proud to see her son excel in elementary school and high school and then go on to pursue a career as a police officer in one of Chicago’s suburbs. In 2005, she said, he made the wrong choice to get behind the wheel of his car after having had several drinks, and then striking another vehicle killing two young teenagers.
O’Brien was convicted of manslaughter and was imprisoned, released only recently in 2014.
“This can happen to anyone in any walk of life,” Jason O’Brien later said after his mother addressed the audience. “It was horrible for me and for the families who lost their sons. It doesn’t matter if you are a good person or not. You can destroy your own life and you can destroy the life of someone else.”
Jason’s mother today works with the organization Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists (www.AAIM1.org) which works to educate young people about the dangers of drug and alcohol use.
Curtis Randel El, the president of the NFPFA and the father of Antwaan Randel EL, a former American football player who was a wide receiver in the National Football League for nine seasons.
Randel El told the audience that parents need to be involved in the lives of their children.
“You have to be observant. Young men need strong mentors. As fathers, we have to do what is best for our sons,” Randel El said, also warning that drug use to reduce pain from injuries for athletes often leads to drug addiction and the use of even more drugs “that can destroy your life. Opioid abuse is rampant across the United States. … We have a big problem and we see overdoes almost every week.”
Brian Kirk said that he watched his son excel in hockey and that suddenly, one day, his interest just stopped.
Kirk related how he noticed that his son, Matt, was having problems and issues and that his behavior had changed. And on the day that he was to graduate from High school, he came home early and found his son in a fetal position dead from a drug overdose, “The needle was right under his body.”
“You need to keep an eye on your kids. Keep an eye on your parents and your grandparents, too because of all the prescription drugs that they are using that can easily get into the hands of the young people in our schools,” Kirk warned.
Kirk works with the Hero Foundation (www.TheHeroFoundation.org) with John Roberts who also lost a son, Billy Roberts, to drugs. Roberts, a retired Chicago Police Department captain, said that a lot of drug abuse begins with young students involved ins ports who turn to drugs to off-set the pain they may experience as a result of a sports-related injury.
“Sports injuries oftentimes become the start of drug use and then become drug abuse. It’s that simple and it happens that easily,” Robert said.
Speakers also included local sports activist Joseph Nuzzo who spoke about how drugs overwhelmed his enthusiasm for baseball and how he quickly became addicted to the pain killer Vicodin.
And community activist Andrew Holmes, executive director of the Chicago-based Operation Restoring Innocence, talked about how drugs easily partners with crime to destroy neighborhoods.
Holmes said that young people are easily distracted and fall victim to a wide range of bad habits that could result in death including texting while driving, playing loud music while driving and distracting their attention away from the road.
Holmes said that young people are also taking the prescription medicines of their parents or family members and using them to get cheap highs. And that drugs are used as a tool to confuse young girls who are taken hostage and held as sex slaves and end up victims of human trafficking.
“It starts from one place and it can become very bad quickly,” Holmes said. “You need to monitor your prescriptions and the number of pills that are in the plastic container because once it gets started. It can happen in the blink of an eye.”
The forum was held at the MAX McCook Athletic & Exposition located in the Village of McCook. Officials from School District 230 and other regional schools and sports association attended the forum to learn ways to identify and prevent drug abuse and addiction.
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