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Ainge gets his life back on track

On Sports
by: NICK LAHAM Erik Ainge calls signals for the New York Jets in a 2009 preseason game against the St. Louis Rams.

In March, Erik Ainge took a courageous step in his recovery process. Through a first-person narrative published on ESPN.com, the former Glencoe High standout revealed to the world his long battle with drugs and alcohol, which began at age 11.

The account shocked acquaintances, friends and even family members of Ainge, 25, the nephew of Danny Ainge, the Oregon native who is director of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics.

I've known Erik since his high-school years and have observed him on the ball fields since my son, Nick, faced him in the state Junior Baseball tournament when the boys were 10.

We have done several interviews during the years, extending through the quarterback's successful run at Tennessee, where he broke Peyton Manning's freshman record for touchdown passes and ended his career as the 2008 Outback Bowl MVP.

I have always found him bright, communicative and the kind of young man any father would be proud to call a son.

Ainge has never displayed those traits more clearly than in recent months as he has owned up to his battle with addiction.

On Sunday, Ainge observed his one-year anniversary of sobriety.

Two days earlier, in a phone interview from the Woodbine, Md., home of his girlfriend, Amanda Wilburn, Ainge spoke at length about his life and his future.

A few weeks ago, Ainge moved out of the home of his uncle Danny in Boston, with whom he had lived since he checked himself into the Fernside Rehab Center in Princeton, Mass., on July 17, 2010.

Soon, the Tennessee grad - he owns a degree in political science, with a minor in adolescent health - will move back to Knoxville and look for employment.

'The main reason I'm moving back there, I know a lot of the right kind of people to help find me a job,' Ainge told me. 'It's never a bad idea to go back to the city where you played college football.

'I'm not sure what I want to do. I'm open to suggestions. I'm bored. Whatever opportunity presents itself, I'm going to jump on it.'

The 6-5, 220-pound Ainge has been property of the New York Jets since being taken in the fifth round of the 2008 NFL draft, but he has never played in a regular-season game. He announced last month that, because of injuries, he will retire and look toward a future outside of playing football.

'I have two screws in my foot as result of a stress fracture that wouldn't heal correctly, and a torn rotator cuff in my throwing shoulder,' Ainge said. 'It's time for me to try something else.'

After the lockout ends, Ainge said he will fly to Florham Park, N.J., to meet with Jets General Manager Mike Tannenbaum and coach Rex Ryan and officially sign his retirement papers.

'It's the relationships with them and the other coaches that I want to continue,' Ainge said. 'They have been so good to me throughout this entire process.

'I was in and out of rehab or addicted to drugs during my entire time with the Jets, except for about a three-month period. Last year, when I didn't report to training camp because I had started rehab, they could have cut me and got rid of me. Instead, they said, 'We're going to let him work through this.'

'Considering I've never taken a snap in the regular season, that says a lot about what they think about me as a person and player. I'm grateful, and I want to make sure they know that.'

It all began during his childhood in Hillsboro for the son of Doug, a teacher at Banks High, and Diane, a dental hygienist.

'I started drinking to get drunk at 11,' Erik said. 'I started doing drugs when I was 12. I've done every drug you can do, but the first time I was addicted was my senior year in college, when I had a pinky injury and got hooked on painkillers.'

Before going further, Ainge said, he wanted to clear up a misconception.

'After reading my (ESPN.com) article, some people thought I was blaming the Tennessee training staff for getting me hooked on the pills,' he said. 'It couldn't be further from the truth. I was the reason that happened. They'd give me a prescription that should last a week, and by the next morning, it was gone. That's nobody's fault but mine.'

Ainge's parents had no idea he was using as a teen.

'I was very secretive,' he explained. 'There were a select few people I would ever do anything with. I did socially acceptable drugs with more people. I'd drink and take some pills or smoke some weed. If I was going to do something crazy, there were a select group of people I'd do it with.

'Having the last name Ainge in Oregon and being a good athlete, people always knew who I was, even in eighth grade. I'd walk into The Hoop in Beaverton, and everybody knew who I was.'

In 2009, Ainge was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, characterized by mood swings.

'That's one of the main reasons I started doing drugs,' he said. 'I'd be depressed or unhappy, and my manic-energy would be out of control. I didn't know to tell anyone.

'I didn't like how I was never in control of how I felt. By doing drugs, I knew it was going to make me feel a certain way. When my mood was unstable, I was able to control how I felt. That was not a good lesson to learn at a young age. Self-medicating leads to addiction. It was a matter of time before it caught up to me.'

Ainge understands his revelations cast aspersions on Doug and Diane. How could they not know?

'I have great parents,' he said. 'My dad helped teach me just about everything I know from playing sports. My mom is the most compassionate person I know.

'I wouldn't do anything around them. When I was 14, I wouldn't come home if I'd gotten messed up; I'd stay at a friend's house. If (my parents) ever had a clue what was going on, they'd have addressed that.'

Doug and Diane knew part of the story as their son went through a pair of rehab stints. When they read the full account on ESPN.com, they were floored.

Erik had been a three-sport star at Glencoe, a 3.97 student, a leader among his peers.

'He was on such a short leash,' Doug says now. 'When Diane and I read the article, we looked at each other and said, 'No way.'

'When your kid is not getting in trouble at school, when teachers and principals love him, when coaches adore him … I had no idea, man.'

'They had a hard time with it,' Erik acknowledged. 'I could see how this would look embarrassing for them. I've been doing drugs forever, and my parents didn't know about it.

'But it's not like they could have done something. I didn't have the warning signs. I never had any repercussions - a DUI or possessions charge. I never got in trouble. The same thing happened in college. I broke the law a lot, but when I did get caught, the cops would take care of me. I felt invincible, but that eventually caught up to me, too.'

As a rookie with the Jets, Ainge flunked a drug test and was suspended four games for taking Adderall, an amphetamine that he had started using in high school 'to stay awake.' The inference was he was caught using steroids.

'I was doing a lot of drugs at that point,' Ainge said. 'When I failed the test, in addition to Adderall, there were nine different illegal street drugs in my urine specimen.

'When I think back, if I hadn't taken Adderall, would they have seen all that other stuff and just not done anything? It's a little bit of a flawed system.'

By then, Ainge was popping painkillers like candy. He was under the influence of drugs 'pretty much ever day.' He overdosed and was admitted to the hospital several times. From late 2007 until the spring of 2009, when he entered rehab for the first time, Ainge was taking heroin.

'When you are an opiate addict, eventually that stops working, and you have to try a different drug,' he said. 'I went into rehab for heroin, along with a lot of other stuff.'

After a six-week stint at the MacLean Detox Center in Belmont, Mass., Ainge said he was clean from drugs from April 2009 through July 2010. But he was drinking regularly.

'I didn't believe people when they said just because you're a drug addict, you can't drink, either,' he said. 'I thought, 'I've never had an alcohol problem.' It took about three months, and I was drinking five days a week. In six months, I was drinking every day.

'I developed a serious problem with alcohol, which eventually led me back to drugs. That's a very important message for people. You may think, 'I have problems with cocaine, but not with pain pills, so I'm just going to do pain pills.' If you're an addict, you're an addict.'

Bipolar disorder and drug and alcohol use contributed to a tattoo across his back that reads, 'Crazy White Boy.' He doesn't recall getting it done.

'I have tattoos all over my body,' Ainge said. 'Every tattoo I've gotten, I've been sober. I would be manic and I would get a tattoo. I only remember getting about two of them. I just wasn't in a good place.'

His second stint in rehab began on July 17, 2010. He went from Fernwood to two months at a halfway house in Belmont. Then he moved in with Danny Ainge and his wife, Michelle.

'It was so good for me to be there,' Erik said. 'Uncle Danny is the bishop of his church, has a great job, works his butt off - what a great role model. You look at his life, his family - he's happy and successful. That's what I want when I'm his age.

'It was really good for me to be around him. I saw what it takes to have that. If I'm going to be successful in the working world, I'm going to have to start at the bottom and work my way up and be competitive just like I was in athletics.'

Ainge sees a therapist regularly.

'When you're doing those kind of drugs, and you have a mental health issue but are not medicating properly, you need to have someone to talk to,' he said. 'I used to think a psychiatrist was lame and for pansies. Now, I'll have one the rest of my life.

'It's nice to have someone to talk to. I always felt like this big tough football player who did crazy stuff and everyone liked to hang out with. Now, I look forward to my meetings with my therapist. They help a lot.'

For about two years, Ainge has taken medication to control his bipolar disorder.

'It's a process,' he said. 'It causes you to be more patient than you've ever been in your life. You try this, add a little of this, take a little less of this. Now I have it where it is helping me so much.'

Ainge has thought about a career in counseling.

'Whether it's a job working with kids or just doing speaking engagements, I'm going to do that,' he said. 'I'll do my part to help young people in Tennessee who are struggling with the same sort of things I was. I'm going to make that a priority.'

He knows the message he will deliver.

'They need to know there's nothing wrong with them,' Ainge said. 'Addiction has no prejudice. It can happen to anybody - rich kid, poor kid, black or white. I'd have been the last person a lot of people thought would have issues like this.

'If something feels off, if you can't sleep at night, if you can't get out of bed for a week, don't be afraid to ask for help. If you're a strong-willed person like me, the hardest thing to do in life is to be vulnerable and ask people for help. Once I figured that out, I've been able to accept the help from others. I'm doing great now.'

His parents couldn't be more proud.

'We're supportive in every possible way,' Doug Ainge said. 'Erik is an addict. He needs to spend the rest of his life, one day at a time, taking responsibility for the burden of that affliction that happens to people. It runs in our family, especially on my side. I don't drink, but three of my four biological grandparents were alcoholics.'

It's a sad story, but one that portends an uplifting ending. I'm betting Erik Ainge will be throwing touchdowns again very soon. Not on the football field, but in life.