AYER -- Former NBA stand-out Chris Herren spoke June 11 to Ayer Shirley Regional High School students on the topic of substance abuse and addiction.
The event was made possible through the efforts of Al Varga, assistant principal, who had been working to bring Herren to the high school for some time. Varga, together with Principal Brian Haas, coordinated the effort funded by the Ayer Shirley Education Foundation.
In his introduction to students, Haas remarked that everyone was about to experience something powerful.
Prior to Herren's lecture, students and faculty watched a 30-minute documentary about his life. With video clips of games, interviews with coaches and friends, and footage of press conferences, the documentary set the stage for a serious look at the progression of Herren's addiction, starting with alcohol and marijuana in high school and escalating to prescription painkillers and heroin as an adult.
When the 30-minute film concluded, Herren approached the stage and began speaking.
Herren said that as a McDonald's All-American basketball player at Durfee High School in Fall River, he scored over 2,000 points during his high school career. Recruited by Boston College to play Division 1 basketball, he was living his childhood dream. Prior to the season, he was featured in "Rolling Stone" magazine and "Sports Illustrated" and hyped as the next phenom.
But after breaking his wrist in his very first game at BC, and failing multiple drug tests for cocaine and marijuana use, he was taken off the team and expelled from the school.
Herren transferred to Fresno State where he played and finished his college career. He was drafted by the Denver Nuggets and later played for the Boston Celtics but by then, his addiction had spiraled out of control.
Released by the Celtics, Herren went on to play for teams in Europe, and by then was using Oxycontin, heroin and crystal meth. He described with a no-holds-barred style how he was found unconscious after crashing his car. The state trooper who found him told him that he had been dead for 30 seconds.
Married with children at this point, he had to hit this devastating low point before he made changes in his life.
The student audience was riveted by Herren's talk. Colin Ford, who will be a 10th-grader in the fall said, "I'd read Chris Herren's book, "Basketball Junkie," last summer so I was familiar with his story. I was amazed with how powerful his words were and the impact that he made on the audience.
"Although his basketball career was cut short as a result of his poor choices," Ford said, "he redeemed himself by becoming an incredible public speaker. By traveling around the country and talking to high school students to help prevent them from making the same mistakes he did, he is an even better role model off the court."
Herren stated that he is grateful to meet with students across the country and hopes to impact at least one person each time he speaks.
Abbey Marceau, also a rising tenth-grader, confirmed this.
"I think that Chris Herren really impacted the kids at my school," said Marceau. "After he finished his talk and left, there was no movement and nobody said a word. We all got dismissed and left the room very quietly. A few of the students in the audience cried because of how serious and real he was. He would say something really impactful and then pause to let it sink in. Everybody was so respectful to him. I believe that he impacted more than just one kid that day. I think he impacted most of us."
At the conclusion of the assembly, Herren encouraged students to be comfortable with who they are and to not mask problems with substance abuse or other forms of self harm.
After Herren walked out of the building, Haas said to the silent, reflective audience, "I think it's safe to say you've just been part of something you won't soon forget."
Drug and alcohol free since 2008, Chris Herren is now an author and lecturer and is founder of The Herren Project, a nonprofit organization that helps individuals and families struggling with addiction.