A former professional lacrosse player and college football and lacrosse standout who struggled with alcohol and substance abuse. He is now a motivational speaker who talks to high school athletes about the dangers of substance abuse.

BHS speaker recounts roller coaster of relapse, recovery

By Joanne Beck

BATAVIA – Ken Bartolo’s story titled “There and Back” could be expanded to add “there and back” a few more times.

That’s because the former two-time all-county and collegiate sports star traversed from relapse to recovery a number of times. He shared his story to student athletes and their families Tuesday at Batavia High School.

He started by asking how many of the kids planned to go on to college. Hands sprang up from about half the auditorium. He would have though the same when in school.

“I’m here to share my nightmare, a nightmare I had been in for 25 years.” he said. “You always hear about the end of addiction and never how it starts.”

He admitted that when his coaches brought in a motivational speaker on the topic of addiction, a smug Bartolo would sit in the back and laugh. He would “never be that guy,” he said. Little did he know that all addictions begin with the notion that “all I do is drink and smoke weed.”

By ninth grade, Bartolo was the best athlete in his class. His future was “as bright as it could be” and he was on his way to be a football and lacrosse leader. Then some kids – the cool kids – offered him pot. He had never smoked before, but caved in to the pressure and took one hit. He was caught by his varsity coach and was kicked off the team and out of school.

His talent earned him a chance to continue playing lacrosse, but he broke his back. Doctors put him on the prescription tranquilizer Percocet. Prescription drugs kill more people than alcohol and illegal drugs do, he said.

With two broken vertebrae he went on to play at Liverpool High School near Syracuse while living on Percocet. His father got him transferred to Jamesville-Dewitt, where he had “the best two years, and the worst two years.” While his athletic career flourished, he partied and drank heavily. He wondered how the kids who didn’t drink could just be themselves as he struggled with self-hate.

He won athletic awards and, due to excessive partying, earned a cumulative grade point average of 2.3. Scholarship opportunities vanished, so he went on to junior college with intentions to go onto another school. He was enticed to do cocaine.

“I did one line. I had no idea it would take me 10 years to put that dollar (used to snort) down,” he said. “That whole season was a nightmare. I failed out of junior college.”

His friends were collegiate all-stars as he was making a living by loading trucks at UPS. His coach got him into Nazareth College, where he experienced more athletic highs and substance abuse lows. After a weekend binge, his coach forced him to attend practice and run sprints. It was the third time that he puked when the coach said he needed help. Bartolo still denied that he had a problem.

As his status was edging near a first round draft pick, he left for Atlanta, Georgia. By then he was doing heavy duty drugs and resisted friends who tried to help. He ended up being arrested and going through withdrawal. He woke up to learn that his heart had stopped for 30 seconds.

Through an agreement to attend St. John Fisher College, he agreed to go through detox and make a clean start. He stopped drinking and drugging and played well for the season. After the last game he figured that he had fulfilled his promise, so he could go back to alcohol and drugs.

By the age of 25, the two things that he loved the most “meant nothing to me.” All he cared about was drinking, popping pills and doing cocaine. He eventually added steroids to the mix, but that ended after he was kicked out of a gym he operated with friends.

Enter crack cocaine, which lured him for seven straight days at a cost of $11,000.

“Mr. All-American boy was homeless and panhandling,” he said.

He’d collect enough money to buy drugs and booze. It all caught up to him – again – after he was driving while impaired. He blew a 1.8, which is double the legal blood alcohol limit, and was arrested and sentenced to three years. Since the only drug one can get in prison is heroin, that’s what he moved onto.

His story includes a suicide attempt and other close calls. He survived even though at times he wanted to die.

For once, when he was at the bottom of his life, he prayed and asked for help. They were the most important words he’d ever spoken, he said.

He then learned about spirituality, how to contribute to life and help others. He learned that only through looking outward did he gain a sense of his own worth.

“I had to learn to like myself with all my faults and imperfections,” he said. “If you take one thing away, if you ever get involved with drugs and alcohol, there’s a way out.”

Batavia Athletic Director Mike Bromley said he invited Bartolo because there has been a lot of talk about kids using vaporizers and other smoking tools.

“All those things are gateway drugs,” Bromley said. “If it’s going on, talk to your parents, talk to your administrators.”

Retrieved from: The Daily News, Dec. 2014,

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