“When we talk about addiction,” former all-star high school and college athlete Ken Bartolo observed, “we always know how the story ends.
“But no one tells you how it starts. That’s what I’m here to do today.”
Bartolo, founder of “There & Back,” dedicated to reducing drug and alcohol abuse among students from elementary school through college — with an emphasis on student athletes — addressed Brunswick Upper Schoolers on Thursday, September 26.
A former professional lacrosse player and college football and lacrosse standout, Bartolo had been an all-star athlete at Jamesville-DeWitt High School, in Syracuse, N.Y., and later at St. John Fisher College and then Nazareth College, both in Rochester, N.Y.
His long and devastating struggle with drugs began when he was just a sophomore in high school.
“I wanted to fit in with the cool kids,” he said, “so I took one hit of weed and I got caught.” As a result, he was suspended from school and kicked off the football team.
“When you make just one significantly bad decision,” he said, “the world you’re in ends and a new one begins.
He pointed out that “90 percent of addictions begin before you’re 19 years old.”
“I know,” he said. “It happened to me.”
Bartolo became hooked on Percoset and other painkillers during high school, he noted, as a result of prescriptions for sports-related injuries.
“Where does addiction start?” he asked. “Often, it can start right in a doctor’s office.”
Although Bartolo continued his drug use, he went on to star in college football and lacrosse, and later even played lacrosse professionally.
During a long and harrowing downward spiral that spanned 27 years, he eventually became addicted to heroin, crack cocaine, and a host of other prescription medications.
“Addiction destroys families,” he said flatly. “And it destroyed mine.”
At one point, having alienated relatives and friends, he became homeless. “There I was,” he recalled, “the All-American boy, living and sleeping behind a dumpster at a community center.”
Later, in Fulton County, Ga., he spent three years in state prison, wracked and ravaged by withdrawal, his large and once-powerful body wasted down to just 140 pounds. And when, due to delinquencies and drug-related infractions, prison officials refused to release him on schedule — consumed by shame and unable to tell his family the devastating news — Bartolo returned to his cell and attempted suicide.
His long climb back to sanity and sobriety began there, he said.
Gradually, Bartolo determined that his drug use was related to self-esteem issues and persistent feelings that “I’m not good enough.”
He found his own self-worth, he said, by committing himself to helping others.
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you what your value is,” he advised students. “Just be you! You’re perfect just the way you are.”
Today, he considers himself fortunate in his experience and “wouldn’t change a thing” about the twists and turns in the life he has led.
“I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” he said.
“My story is my gift to you,” he concluded. “Now, it’s up to you to use it. It’s up to you to stand up for who you are.”