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It’s rare these days that an assembly speaker is so riveting that they can hold the attention span of students, more than cellphones, to the point that administrators afterward report it was so quiet in the room that “you could hear a pin drop. But that, in fact was the case May 16th after the afternoon assembly at Newark Middle School and the two morning assemblies May 17th at Newark High School at which basketball legend Chris Herren, in his thick, Massachusetts accent stood directly in front of students and without a microphone shared his gut-wrenching, nightmarish, in-your-face story of addiction to drugs and alcohol, his 14-year-long long battle to overcome it and how he’s helping others now.
Since 2012, Herren has shared his message with over nearly 2 million people in audiences that include middle and high schools, colleges, athletes, professional sport teams, corporations, communities and nonprofit groups with the hope of reaching one person and making a difference in their life.
He inspires honest discussions on the topics of substance use disorder and the disease of addiction with a focus on wellness. Chris and wife, Heather Herren, have also established two organizations designed to support the Herren Talks platform and provide recovery resources and navigation to all people in need of assistance. Learn lots more here: https://chrisherren.com
Herren’s impact with Newark students was evident and remarkable.
Before the second assembly with NHS students May 17th, this one for juniors and seniors, two students who attended the freshmen and sophomore assembly appeared at the back of the NHS auditorium a few minutes before Herren was to speak again and quietly spoke with him. Seconds later, Herren, clearly moved with by what he was hearing, embraced one of the students.
Similar scenes are found on Herren’s impact page on his website that also soberly reveal middle and high school student drug and alcohol use survey statistics.
Suffice it to say, the three school assemblies were powerful. Each opened with a gripping video chronicling Herren’s incredible story similar to his bestselling memoir “Basketball Junkie” that explains how his basketball dreams began as a 6’2” guard at Durfee High School in Fall River, Massachusetts where he so excelled on the court that he became one of the top Division 1 prospects in the country.
An Amazon.com book profile further explains: “Herren’s basketball success concealed a darker side, and his dream soon became a nightmare of addiction—first alcohol, then cocaine, finally heroin. A chaotic and often uncertain college career plagued by drugs and rehab led to the NBA. In 1999 he was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the NBA Draft as the 33rd pick overall. After a year with the Nuggets, Chris was traded to the Boston Celtics where he suffered a season ending injury.
“Trying to work his way back to the NBA, Herren played overseas until 2003 when he came back to the States. His alcohol and drug use escalated until he was found unconscious with a heroin needle hanging from his arm in the driver’s seat of his car. After extensive rehabilitation stays, Chris has been drug-free since June 4, 2008, and alcohol-free since August 1, 2008. Herren has refocused his life and dreams to put his sobriety and family above all else.
After the video at each Newark student assembly, Herren began speaking by imploring students to take his message seriously and shared how he desperately wished he’d really have listened and heeded the messages about drug addiction he heard in assemblies when he was at Durfee High School. “I was one of those kids, laughing with my home
“I was one of those kids, laughing with my home boys. But the joke was on me. Today I would give anything to go back to 1994 and listen Take this seriously. I didn’t.”
More than anything else, he strongly encouraged students struggling with substance abuse issues pertaining to themselves, parents, or others they know to talk about it and seek help and not be afraid to just be themselves 24/7 without drugs or alcohol.
“This is a talk about self-esteem and not settling for less than you can be,’’ he said.
And while it obviously wasn’t always that way before Herren became sober and when his children were younger, he and his three children now ages 24, 21, and 14 have ongoing honest, healthy dialogue and he said he finds it “incredibly sad” parents don’t do likewise. If they did, so many serious problems could be averted.
He said if there was anything he wished he could change about his past life, more than anything it would be that he could “erase his kids’ memories.”
“They didn’t deserve to feel that way,’’ he said.
After his talks with students, various administrators and other staff shared thoughts about the impact of Herren’s assemblies.
• “Chris Herren’s talk with students was fantastic. Very impactful. A great message for our kids. You could hear a pin drop. You could see the emotion on the kids faces. You could feel that they kids were not just listening, but soaking in the message,” - NMS Principal John
• The presentations were amazing, and I was so proud of our students. Before Chris spoke I shared with students that the presentations were ‘impactful and important’ and would be something that ‘maybe doesn’t speak to them today, but may impact them in the future.’ I also shared that this may speak to them personally or may help them relate to someone they know. Students were engaged, respectful and showed vulnerability during such an important discussion. I was honored to meet Chris and feel grateful to be included in the student presentations and the community event. I want to thank the district for bringing this important event to our community” - NHS Principal Kelly A. Zielke.
• "Today's guest speaker Chris Herren provided our students at NHS with a deep and impactful message to be better for those who love and look up to you. His words brought many students to tears as they reflected on their own personal lives and journeys . Now the choice is up to our students to make a change to better themselves, their families, their friends, and the community." - Joseph Canori, NHS Assistant Principal
•Chris Herren's message was powerful, emotional and important. His message to students was really to check on one another and listen to each other. Our students were engaged and emotional as he spoke. You could hear a pin drop. We had lessons leading up to his talk to prepare our youth. In the end, we hope this helps our students realize that they are not alone with whatever it is they are fighting, and we are here to support them.” - Sandra Ordan, Newark CSD Director of Innovation and Grants Services. Ordan said the district used COVID funding to bring Herren here.
• Chris Herren's presentation to our students, faculty, and community was beyond powerful and extremely moving. His message was to show and speak to the impact of substance abuse, not only to himself, but his family, his career, and friendships. Herren mentioned in the beginning of his talk, his goal was to not share his hopes and dreams for those listening, but to share his nightmare in hopes they would recognize that it's not the path to walk down. His courage and vulnerability was strong and raw for those listening. It allowed many to be reflective and understand the reality of drug and alcohol addiction. I was truly grateful to meet him and listen to his talk over the past two days, I know that his conversation has impacted our students, staff, and community members in ways we may never see. You could hear a pin drop in both the MS & HS assemblies. The students were captivated by Chris Herren's message and many left wanting to connect with him more. Students lined up to meet him and to say ‘thank you’ for being courageous and vulnerable to share his story. The most powerful thing I witnessed was the connection he made by sharing his story with our students.” - Julia Solan, UPK-12 Family Outreach Coordinator and Safe Zone Facilitator.
“As a district we try very hard to provide opportunities for our school community that impact our students. Last year, we identified two issues that seemed to be the root cause of many difficulties for our students. They included the inappropriate use of social media and substance abuse. As part of our comprehensive approach to creating a safe, learning environment, we decided to have guest speaker Chris Herren speak to our students through a personal lens, and he did just that. His compelling story from addict to recovery demonstrated how alcohol and drug abuse can tear families apart and transform loving and successful individuals into despair. At the same time, he showed there is a light at the end of the tunnel when we believe in ourselves and understand our "why". He connected with our students at a profound level and I truly believe his message was heard and made a significant difference in the lives of our students.” - Superintendent Susan Hasenauer
At an evening presentation May 16th that sadly, though widely publicized, was sparsely attended by only a few parents and community members, Herren revealed, in much more graphic detail, his frightening struggle with addiction that he said was largely attributable to growing up with an alcoholic father and dysfunctional home.
While he vowed to his mom she would never have to “worry about him,” Herren sadly began drinking with friends in his mid-teens including in so-called “safe homes” where parents allowed, he and his friends to drink downstairs in their basements.
He said parents who allow that are making a huge mistake because so many addicts get started on the wrong path in such so-called “safe homes.”
Herren also told the few individuals at the evening meeting it was an honor to speak to them and it didn’t matter to him whether there were five or 5,000 people.
And he encouraged them, near the end of his sobering talk, by saying sobriety has made him better at everything in his life.
“I’m unbelievably grateful. I have to pinch myself for the life it’s given me.”