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.

Former athlete speaks about drug addiction, recovery

By Stephanie Sorrell-White

Herkimer, N.Y.

HERKIMER — Ken Bartolo asked a theater full of college students to take a few seconds to “focus on your dreams.”

He then spoke about how his addiction to drugs and alcohol ruined his own dreams.

Bartolo delivered his “There and Back” speech at Herkimer College on Tuesday. The speech covered his 27 years of substance abuse and his road to recovery.

Bartolo was a two-time All-County athlete in football and lacrosse at Jamesville-Dewitt High School, and was receiving scholarship offers from colleges and universities. By that time, however, drugs were starting to take over his life. He said he was suspended from school and kicked off the football team after he was caught doing marijuana.

“That was my first hit of marijuana and I had lost my first dream,” he said.

Bartolo said he became addicted to prescribed medicine, including Percocet and Xanax. Later, he would start abusing cocaine, though he said he thought he would only do it once.

“I had no idea it would take me 10 years to put that dollar bill down,” he said.

Even when he found himself playing professional lacrosse in Rochester, another dream of his, Bartolo said he turned to drugs instead.

“My dreams took a backseat to doing cocaine, popping pills and drinking,” he said.

Bartolo said he ended up panhandling at bus stations and on the streets in Syracuse. He said his addiction damaged his relationship with his family, including his son who he passed up a visit with because he wanted to feed his drug habit instead.

Bartolo said his addiction caught up to him and he ended up in state prison for three years. After prison, Bartolo said he had made the decision to get off drugs.

“I didn’t know what I was up against,” he said. “The drugs had complete control over my body.”

One day, when Bartolo was at the Rescue Mission, he decided to pray.

“Something told me to pray,” he said. “I said ‘Please, I need help.’”

Bartolo thought of a friend who was also recovering from drug abuse who helped him with his own recovery. He got in touch with the friend and told him he had lost his family from his drug abuse.

“He said, ‘Of course you did, son. That’s what addiction does to families,” he said.

Bartolo said he participated in various recovery programs — including a 12-step program — and he said it took about six months before he started to “feel good” again.

Through his rehabilitation, Bartolo said he learned to start helping people, doing things for others and to be a good example.

“My life is more wonderful now than it ever was as a teenager,” he said.

Bartolo’s There and Back organization is “dedicated to reducing drug and alcohol abuse among students from elementary school to college, with an emphasis on student athletes,” according to its website at

Bartolo said he’s been giving his motivational speeches for about a year.

“I believe in it,” he said, of doing the speeches. “I believe its necessary to hear about addiction.”

Herkimer College athletes attended the event, along with students in other classes and members of the public. The college’s departments of admissions, athletics, counseling and the Center for Student Leadership and Involvement sponsored the event.

At the end, time was made for questions from the audience, which included his current relationship with family members and when he knew he hit bottom. One woman spoke up and said, “It’s not a question, but I just want to say thank you. It really did hit home.”

High school students from the Central Valley, Herkimer, Herkimer BOCES, Little Falls, Mount Markham, Owen D. Young, Remsen, Sauquoit and Whitesboro school districts attended Bartolo’s speech Tuesday morning, where they had a chance to ask questions regarding his addiction and recovery.

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