My wife and I were at a girls camp fundraiser dinner for the young women in our LDS ward Saturday night when one of my daughter's friends blurted out, "Oh my gosh, Whitney Houston died!" She got the news on her smartphone.
Houston's passing over the weekend, with bottles of prescription drugs allegedly found in her hotel room, was followed by news Wednesday of a drug bust at Texas Christian University that involved 17 students, including four members of the football team.
For most of my life, I've been around addiction.
My grandfather, after whom I'm named and was very close, was an alcoholic.
I had BYU and NFL teammates who were drug addicts. I'll use their names because their addiction is a matter of public record.
After I gave LaVell Edwards a verbal commitment that I'd accept a scholarship to BYU, he asked me to use my influence on a number of fellow Arizonans whom BYU was recruiting who had yet to make a commitment but whom BYU wanted badly. Among them was a speedy wide receiver from Tempe High named Scott Norberg, who ultimately signed with Nebraska. The other was a tall, skinny and very athletic linebacker from Mountain View High named Todd Shell, who became one of BYU's best defensive players in the Edwards era. Norberg would leave Nebraska after his freshman year to serve a mission in Argentina, before transferring to BYU upon his return.
I don't know when and how they developed their drug problems, but they did and it ultimately cost Norberg his life and Shell a promising coaching career. Norberg died in a Phoenix jail in 1996 at the hands of 14 guards — a case Phoenix authorities had to settle out of court for more than $8 million in 1999. Shell resigned as head coach of the Arena Football League's Arizona Rattlers in 2005 after his arrest on a drug charge.
When I was drafted by the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals in 1986, I had no idea the team had one of the worst drug problems in the NFL and, according to some experts, was one reason they were perennial underachievers. The year before I arrived two players, linebacker EJ Junior and fullback Earl Ferrell, were suspended for failing the league's substance abuse program.
Oblivious to any of this, I was assigned to be Ferrell's roommate my rookie year and through my first four years with the Cardinals. I later learned the team had done an extensive search of my background and determined since I was a teetotaling Mormon and conveniently a fellow running back, I was a safe bet to be Ferrell's roommate.
Earl Ferrell and I became extremely close and he tried to teach me of his addiction in ways I might understand. One night as we lay in our beds staring at the ceiling unable to sleep, I asked him what it was like to be addicted to cocaine. I'll never forget his answer.
"Vai," he said. "If you put me in a room with two tables, one had an ounce of coke and the other was stacked with $100 dollar bills to the ceiling, I'd never see the money."
Ferrell's vivid description of his drug habit became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The following season Ferrell failed his third and final drug test, was summarily dismissed from the team and given a lifetime ban from the NFL. It happened mere weeks after he signed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal. He was right. He never saw the money.
Most people in Arizona are familiar with the story of another close Cardinals teammate named Luis Sharpe.
Born in Cuba, Sharpe's parents immigrated to the States just before the Castro regime took power and moved to Detroit where they worked in General Motors' factories. Luis went to UCLA, where he not only played but studied — graduating in political science. He was the Cardinals' first pick in 1982.
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