TOWNSEND -- Former Boston Celtics player Chris Herren snorted his first line of cocaine three weeks into his freshman year at Boston College.
Fourteen years later, he was still struggling with a drug addiction that had caused him to leave warm-ups before Celtics games to meet drug dealers, relapse on the day of the birth of one of his children, and nearly die after crashing his car into a utility pole.
"I had no idea when I promised myself at 18 that it was just one time, that one line would take me 14 years to walk away from," Herren said.
Now five and a half years sober, Herren uses stories of his low points to show students they don't have to follow the same path.
Herren spoke to seventh- and eighth-grade students at Hawthorne Brook and Nissitissit Middle Schools on Feb. 27, encouraging them to stand up to pressure from friends and find a reason to feel like they don't need to change themselves by doing drugs.
"I'm okay with everything I lost because it has given me the opportunity to do this," Herren said at Hawthorne Brook.
After 15 years of struggling with abuse of Oxycontin, heroin, cocaine and alcohol, Herren founded Hoop Dreams, which trains and mentors young basketball players both on and off the court, and the Herren Project, a nonprofit dedicated to helping those plagued by addiction.
"I share this story to prevent one kid from going down the path I went down, so parents don't have to witness their kids going down that path," Herren said.
Raised in Fall River, Herren said the opportunity to play for Boston College, and eventually the Boston Celtics, was a dream come true.
But before his freshman year of college was over, Herren had failed three drug tests and was kicked out of school.
He was given a second chance by the coach at Fresno State University, where he continued using drugs.
Despite his substance-abuse issues, Herren was drafted in the second round of the NBA draft by the Denver Nuggets in 1999, and traded to his hometown team, the Boston Celtics, the following year.
He played with the Celtics for one season before a knee injury and a growing reliance on Oxycontin had him bouncing from country to country, playing basketball and transitioning his drug preference to heroin.
Herren went through rehab several times and has been sober since 2008. Now, he dedicates his life to helping young people avoid his mistakes.
Although he began his public speaking career focusing on high school students, Herren said he was eventually told that in many communities, by the time you get to high school, it is too late to reach some students.
Since then, he has spoken in middle schools about the decisions that drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana as a teenager can lead to later in life.
"Over the last four years, and a half million kids, I realized there was a need for a sober culture within our schools," he said.
He urged students to tell a parent, teacher or guidance counselor if they have a friend struggling with a drug or alcohol problem.
"If you have a friend in here who struggles, you tell on that friend. I wish I had told on my friends, and I wish my friends had told on me," he said.
The most important thing, Herren said, is liking yourself enough to feel like you don't have to be something you're not.
"To the kids in here who don't have to change, I admire you. I admire you because you accomplished something I couldn't. To be frank, you're my hero. I want my kids to be just like you."
Speaking to others about his challenges and trying to make a difference in others' lives, he said, has made all of his hardships worthwhile.
"Everybody struggles. But what I figured out at 32 years old -- if I could share my struggle, I could find my strength," Herren said.
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