SPANISH FORK — You could certainly call Nick Van Wagoner the Comeback Kid.
But his is no ordinary comeback. And this is no ordinary kid.
Indeed, after all the tough, terrible times he's put himself through over the last couple of years — and he blames nobody but himself — he's finally found his way back to playing the game he loves.
Van Wagoner is a Maple Mountain High senior who's a star pitcher on its first-place baseball team. He currently carries a grade-point average of about 3.4 and is eager to serve a mission for the LDS Church.
With all that going for him, you'd never know that, at this time last year, he was living at a substance abuse treatment center in Salt Lake City, trying to put his life back together. Or that two years ago, this tormented teenage boy was a lost soul spinning out of control due to a drug problem that threatened to destroy him.
It's been a long, difficult journey back from those days and nights spent at Odyssey House, the treatment facility that Nick's dad, Mark Van Wagoner, credits for finally getting his son back on the right path and saving his life. There was that time he spent at the Provo Detention Center, a lockdown facility with tall fences topped by barbed wire, and all those days and nights spent in a drug-induced stupor when the only thing that seemed to matter to him was the next high. He wound up wasting more than two years of his life, and now Nick Van Wagoner is doing his best to make up for all that lost time.
"One of my best friends got me introduced to it," said Nick, now 18, of his first experience with smoking marijuana when he was around 15 years old. "At first I was a little iffy about it. I didn't think it was OK and I was worried about it because of what it would do to you. I'd always been told when I was younger that drugs were bad and to stay away from them.
"But my friend kept doing it, and I kept telling him to stop. Then one day I wondered what it was like. And that curiosity is what got me. And once I started, I kept doing it for a long time. I liked how it felt, and I kept telling myself that it was harmless. "But that eventually led to harder, more dangerous drugs. I tried pretty much everything except meth over a two- to three-year period," Nick admitted. "You keep telling yourself this isn't going to hurt me. But pretty soon it catches up with you and you're done for. You become curious about other drugs and your friends are doing it, so you say 'I want to try it, too.' "The worst part is all the bad habits I created — lying to people, wasting so much of my time and not getting anywhere in life, feeling unhappy and depressed. So I kept going back to it and it only made it worse."
"As a parent, when something like this happens to your child, you're in denial," Nick's father, Mark Van Wagoner, said. "You can't believe it's happening to you and you try to deny it.
"You always think it's gonna be somebody else's kid, not yours. But when it comes right down to it, you find out that your kids are just as vulnerable as any other kid. You've been in denial all this time, and by the time you accept it, it's almost too late."
Nick had never been in trouble before. The third child born to Mark and Lynnette Van Wagoner, he loved to play baseball and was a gifted left-handed pitcher who, like many young boys, dreamed of playing in the big leagues someday.
Then everything started to change — and soon those high hopes and glorious dreams seemed shattered.
"We knew he'd had some challenges in school," his dad said. "He'd been caught doing some things a couple of times, nothing too big, and we thought we had handle on it.
"But then he started pulling away from the family, missing more school, and his grades started dropping. Anything we tried to get him to do, he didn't want to do it. His friends were more important to him that anything else."
Of course, it was Nick's "friends" who turned him on to trying drugs in the first place. He'd been raised and educated to know that drug use was dangerous and wrong, and for a while he resisted his temptations and the offers from his friends to join them.
But once he gave in, the downward spiral began. After a while, he was getting high quite often, and it all came to a head when his younger brother, Alex, smelled marijuana on Nick and called the police.
That's when it began impacting the Van Wagoners' lives. There was drug court, the ICT camp in Orem and his stint in the Provo Detention Center — each steps along the way that are designed to help straighten someone out, but don't always work — before a caring counselor wisely suggested the Odyssey House.
"You can't believe it's happening to your child," Mark Van Wagoner said. "You want to get a hold of those kids that introduced him to this stuff and just shake 'em.
"It's gut-wrenching to realize that your boy is in such a sorry state of mind and his body doesn't have control over what he's doing. Drugs affect your mind and your brain so much you're just going from one high to the next.
"When his therapist called us and said she'd found him a place at Odyssey House, we wanted to sit down and cry," his father said. "We knew he wouldn't have any (drug) access to anything any more. It was a great weight taken off our shoulders. It was such a relief to know that he's going to a facility that was going to help him and he could be healed. "We knew from what we'd heard about this place that they'd give him the things he needed to help him when he got out, things he needed to cope with life and avoid those things that got him in this mess in the first place."
At first, Nick couldn't wait to get out of Odyssey House, trying to fake his way through the program. What's more, the facility's doors are not locked, so patients can leave should they decide to go. But the consequences they'll suffer for walking away — a return to drugs and self-destruction, being sent back to a detention center or some other type of incarceration — aren't work that risk.
"I didn't like it there at first — I don't think anyone one does — and I thought about leaving a lot," Nick admitted. "I kept thinking 'I don't want to be here any more,' but for some reason I felt I needed to be there even though I wanted to leave. And I was seriously scared of where they would send me if I didn't stay. "It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made to stay there."
Nick spent almost 11 months in the Salt Lake City treatment program, gradually earning more privileges as far as having his family visit, leaving the facility to spend time with them, eventually getting the freedom to talk to friends and even getting to spend some time at the ballpark — where he saw one of his teammates in a joyful reunion, and his love for baseball quickly returned.
He was inspired and determined to graduate from the drug-treatment program, and he did it in considerably less time than is customary.
"He wanted out of there," Mark said. "He wanted to finish his senior year at Maple Mountain, he wanted to play baseball again, he wanted to be with his family and friends."
And there was also a young lady, BreAnn Hansen, who Nick had met and wanted to spend more time with, too.
"She was there for him when nobody else was," Mark said. "When he got back to high school at first, nobody wanted to associate with him and he really struggled the first month or two. He was feeling left out; he was expecting a great reception, but a lot of people shunned him."
"I guess my personality changed," Nick said. "I wondered why people wouldn't accept me, and it was hard at first. I felt like people were judging me, and I felt like there wasn't anything wrong with me.
"But I've been able to push that aside. I'm able to be myself, and all of us on the baseball team are good friends and they give me a lot of support."
Yes, the baseball diamond had always been Nick's sanctuary, and it came to his rescue again.
"Thank goodness for the coach," Mark Van Wagoner said of Maple Mountain's baseball boss. "Coach (Gary) Miner is an amazing person and he really rallied the team around Nick. They pulled him into their circle and really supported him.
"Now he's doing so well and having so much success in school and on the baseball field," Mark said. "He's received so much support from everybody everywhere he goes. … There's something special in Nick that a lot of people either don't have or they don't recognize it. It's some spirit type of deal to be where he's at today. He wanted to be somewhere and didn't know how to get there, and Odyssey House provided the tools for him to get there."
Nick set three lofty goals for himself upon his return to the "real" world: 1) He wanted to achieve a 3.5 GPA; right now he's nearly there with a 3.4; 2) He wanted to play baseball, work hard and get recognized by a college, and hopefully one day play in the big leagues; and 3) He wants to serve an LDS mission, and he has already submitted his mission papers and is awaiting his call.
Yes, right now, the Comeback Kid is right on track to accomplish all three.
After missing so much time at school over a two-year period, it took Nick a ton of time and hard work to get caught up on his academics — which he finally achieved.
As for baseball, he missed two high school seasons and was worried whether he still had the right stuff to compete. He soon found out he did.
"I wanted to play baseball so badly, that was my dream," he said. "Baseball was a big motivation for me. Every day I always thinking about baseball. … I got a chance to go out and throw on my visits home, and I decided that's what I wanted to do — stay clean, work hard and play baseball again."
Thus far this season, the slender senior southpaw is off to a sparkling 6-0 start with an ERA of less than 1.00, and the Golden Eagles have soared to a 15-2 record thus far.
"I'm sort of shocked," Nick said of his success. "I really didn't think I was going to be too good. I'm super excited about how we're doing."
Coach Miner looks at the scenario as a great win-win situation for Nick, the Golden Eagles' baseball team, the school and the community.
"We knew where he was going and what he was doing, and I'm just grateful that he has this opportunity," Miner said. "We can help him through his recovery process and he can certainly help us.
"He's a great kid and he's got a great arm, and we can throw him in our rotation so all the pressure doesn't have to be on one kid. We have three kids who can pitch and they've been able to help each other out and it's been fantastic."
Coach Miner knows this is about much, much more than winning baseball games, though — it's about winning in the bigger game of life.
"It took Nick some growing up to do, and we were all trying to support him," the Maple Mountain coach said. "He found himself in some difficult situations. It cost him his entire junior year, when he was in school but was ineligible because of grades.
"I think part of the recovery and the maturity he's shown is not hiding it and acknowledging the problem. It is was it is, and he's moving forward and doing what he needs to do. … Those substances are pretty darned addictive, and thankfully he's got a great support network in his family, neighbors and teammates. He had all those resources and yet it still took determination and Nick had to march through their (treatment) program.
"When he came back last October, his first day back I had the opportunity to talk to him and I could see it in his eyes," Miner said. "He's got a lot different perspective and it shows in what he's doing on the field and in the classroom. I told him he'd already had strike one and strike two, and this was going to be strike three. The world changes pretty dramatically and if he was going to accomplish those goals he set for himself, he had to have some opportunity to showcase what he could do. Well, he's certainly done his part and we're glad to have him back with us."
Yes, it appears this gritty Comeback Kid has, gratefully, made it all the way back.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company