By Scott O’Connell/Daily News staff
The MetroWest Daily News
Chris Sullivan, a former New England Patriot and member the ’01/’02 Super Bowl-winning team, speaks to students at Keefe Technical High School about his struggles with substance abuse.
It was a moment that should have been the pinnacle of his career. But after winning Super Bowl XXXVI, New England Patriot Chris Sullivan instead faced a dark reality.
“I go back to my hotel room … and I remember thinking I should be happy,” he said. “And I wasn’t.”
Already tormented by his anxiety and burgeoning substance abuse, Sullivan proceeded to fall into a downward spiral of alcoholism and addiction, an 8-year struggle that would land him in jail, emergency rooms and very nearly an early grave.
Now sober for close to four years, Sullivan told his story to sophomores and seniors at Keefe Technical School on Monday morning.
“I remember being in those seats,” he said, back when he was a standout scholar and athlete at North Attleborough High School.
Thanks to a supportive family and his own efforts to stay away from the party scene, Sullivan had a promising future ahead of him. After being recruited by several national programs, he chose to play at Boston College under former coach Tom Coughlin, where he excelled as a defensive end.
But in secret, Sullivan was grappling with severe social anxiety.
“It crippled me,” he said. “I would avoid people in public, I couldn’t speak in class.”
The issue continued to gnaw at Sullivan even after he was selected by the Patriots as a fourth-round draft pick in 1996, when he would play in a Super Bowl his first year as a pro. Several years later, after signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers, his struggles began to bubble to the surface.
“I was starting to become a full-blown addict at the time,” he said, as he gradually relied more and more on alcohol and Percocets to deal with his problems, which were exacerbated by his declining play on the field.
His second go-round with the Patriots in 2001-02 would end up being his last season in the NFL.
“Alcohol and drugs were taking over my life. I hadn’t dealt with problems I had in the past. And I wasn’t very good at football anymore,” he said. “I made a decision. I changed professions – I gave up football to be an alcoholic and a drug addict.”
Over the next eight years, substance abuse consumed Sullivan’s life. Rattling off his low points like they were on a grocery list, he said he went through 15 stints in rehab, required six ambulance trips to the emergency room, was arrested eight times, and was charged five times with drinking and driving.
“That’s just the stuff I can remember,” he said.
Over that period, Sullivan lost all of his money, blowing through the millions he made as a pro on a $26,000-a-month heroin habit. He also lost his health, falling from his playing weight of over 300 pounds to a sickly 160.
“I thought I could stop,” he said. “(As a football player) I could play with a bone sticking out of my hand for three hours. But I couldn’t quit heroin.”
Worst of all, Sullivan said he hurt his family. On one occasion, as he lay close to death, he recalled his mother standing over him, “begging me to die.”
“She didn’t want me dead,” he said. “But she didn’t want me to deal with what I was going through anymore.”
After hitting rock bottom, Sullivan said his turnaround came when he finally admitted he had given up, and that he needed help. He became sober on Dec. 15, 2008, and began surrounding himself with the supportive people he needed, including his wife, Kathi Meyer, whom he married last year.
He also met Bill Phillips, founder and director of the New Beginnings program at Keefe Tech. Phillips encouraged Sullivan to become a public speaker, and accompanied him to his first engagement at his old North Attleborough High School.
“He was sweating his brains out – he was nervous,” Phillips said. “But what he said struck a chord.”
Sullivan has spoken at many other schools since then, telling students about his story and how substance abuse nearly destroyed his life.
“It’s extremely difficult for me because of my anxiety,” he said. “But I wanted to do it. I feel great after speaking to the kids – it gives you a sense of purpose.”
By Scott O’Connell/Daily News staff