SALT LAKE CITY — Early on the morning of Monday, February 26, 2018, Spence Checketts was pulled over by a Utah Highway Patrol trooper. He’d been clocked driving 120 mph on the I-15 freeway in the middle of Salt Lake County. The officer spotted an empty beer can on the floorboard in the back seat, smelled alcohol in the vehicle and noticed during a field sobriety test that Checketts had “relaxed facial features” and a “lack of smooth pursuit in both eyes.”
Checketts — a popular sports radio show host with Utah’s 1280 The Zone, a game day analyst for the Utah Jazz’s broadcast team and son of business mogul Dave Checketts — has since lost his dream job, had to sell his home and car to pay for legal fees and rehab, and suffered a blow to his professional reputation all because of his decision to sit behind the wheel and drive while under the influence of alcohol that winter night.
It was the fourth time he'd been charged with a DUI, and the punishment for this most recent crime cost him the successful life he’d made for himself.
It might have also saved his life.
“When I got pulled over, one of my first reactions was, ‘Thank God,’” Checketts said. “Because I needed to find a way out, man. I needed to find a way out. Nobody knew what a bad spot I was in."
There were a lot of other reactions and consequences, of course, but he felt a sense of relief while being arrested. He needed to find a way out, and this was it. The 40-year-old acknowledges that that concept might be hard to understand for anyone who hasn't dealt with an addiction, but there is gratitude mixed in with the regret.
"Obviously, I would prefer a different route," he added, "but part of my thought was, ‘Thank God.’”
Checketts, who grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut, was raised in a household that adhered to standards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His father is currently serving as a mission president in England for the church with his wife, Deb. While the younger Checketts respected his family's religion, he took a different path. He first tried alcohol in high school and continued drinking socially in college at the University of Utah. It wasn’t until his mid-20s when alcohol became a major problem in his life after a series of major setbacks and difficult challenges.
The trying time in began while Checketts was shooting baskets with his brother at his parents’ house in Connecticut when he was 25 years old. The young father and husband took a jump shot and crashed down awkwardly on his left ankle. His family was set to travel back to Utah to be there when his grandfather received a father of the year award. Checketts planned on staying back East for work. His ankle felt “really, really strange” after he sprained it, and, as the day approached for his family to leave, he began noticing weakness in the left side of his body.
Checketts couldn’t tie his shoes. He couldn’t floss his teeth. When he drove to work one day, he put his left hand on the wheel, but it ignored his brain and the car didn't turn.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “When something’s really wrong with you, you know it, but you want to push it away. You deny it. You try and come up with any sort of justification to just be in denial. I knew something was really wrong."
The connection between a left ankle sprain and the left side of his body not functioning properly didn't make any sense to him. He decided to travel with his family to have their support. On the flight to Salt Lake City, he even struggled to stand up on the plane. As he stood to allow a woman seated in the middle seat to go by him en route to the lavatory, Checketts collapsed into the aisle. His brothers had to help him get up. He tried to walk it off and tough it out in the airport, but his grandpa noticed that he was dragging his left leg behind him and saw that the left side of his face was drooping and his left arm was limp.
“You’ve had a stroke,” his grandpa told him.
Checketts hadn’t passed out and didn’t have chest pain, so he wasn’t sure about that assessment. His mother woke him up at 2 a.m. She thought she'd figured out the source of his medical issues.
“We need to get you to the hospital," she said.
The family drove him to Lakeview Hospital in Bountiful where he underwent an emergency MRI. Checketts remembers sitting in a wheelchair when the doctor, Jan Freeman, broke the bad news.
“There’s really no easy way to say this,” the doctor said. “You have a gigantic brain mass on the right side of your motor strip. That’s why your left side has shut down.”
“Brain mass?” Checketts replied. “Like a brain tumor? Is it cancerous?”
“It might be. I don’t know.”
“Am I going to die?”
His thoughts immediately went to the most important person in his life. Checketts told the doctor, “I have a son.” Connor, now a senior in high school, was only 2 years old.
Checketts was rushed from the Bountiful hospital to the Huntsman Cancer Center in Salt Lake City. The prognosis was as bad as it gets. The first diagnosis was that the tumor was inoperable and that he only had a couple of weeks to live.
His mom called family and friends to visit him, and within four hours his hospital room filled with loved ones from his childhood and life — from cousins to his college buddies. Checketts hadn’t been informed about how dire his situation was, but he quickly figured it out.
"This is obviously a goodbye," he told himself.
Dave and Deb Checketts knew the head neurosurgeon at the U., Bill Caldwell, and they asked him to return home from Virginia to evaluate their son. After he traveled back and studied the MRI, the brain surgeon admitted that trying to remove the cancerous mass successfully would be “tricky,” but he wanted to try.
“It was the first glimmer of hope we had,” Checketts said.
In the 12-hour surgery, he underwent a complete resection of the part of the brain that controls a lot of the body's muscle movements. Afterward, Checketts was told he’d probably never walk again and, if he did, it would likely be with a walker or a cane.
Fifteen years later, Checketts can’t ski or jump like he used to, and his balance was affected, but he’ll take those relatively minor inconveniences over the alternative. He's alive — in some ways, more than ever.
“After eight weeks of radiation, by the grace of God, I escaped with my life,” Checketts said. “Whatever miracles may be allowed me to not only walk but gave me a pretty normal life after that.”
Though his life was saved, his marriage didn’t last. Six weeks after Checketts left the hospital, his wife asked for a divorce. He didn’t want to get into a custody battle, so he followed his son and ex-wife back to Utah because she was relocating to Bountiful to live with her parents. He flew back East, packed up a U-Haul, drove cross-country, settled into a one-bedroom downtown apartment and took a job selling advertisements for KFAN. That’s how he got into the radio industry.
Over the next three years, Checketts plummeted into a deep depression. He tried to fill the void in his personal life with alcohol. He went from an occasional drink with friends or while watching a game to depending on that daily mind-numbing buzz. He looks back on that period with the sobering thought, “I have no idea how I was alive.”
He vividly remembers how his ex-mother-in-law dropped off some hospital bills — he’d “stopped paying attention to life” at that point — and remembers waking up on the ground the next day and reaching up to the table to see a stack of bills and a bottle of booze. He reached for the whiskey.
“That was when it really became a problem,” he said.
During that rough patch of life, Checketts was convicted of two DUIs, pleaded guilty to alcohol or drug-related reckless driving, and spent a combined three months in jail and in rehabilitation.
It got him on the right path.
“Once I got sober, I really started to fly,” Checketts said. “Life started to really fall into place.”
After his cancer scare, his divorce and the first three arrests between 2003-08, Checketts remained sober until 2016. His career was soaring. He got engaged again. But then the monster slowly grasped him with its claws again. He found himself in a painful and rough relationship. The engagement was called off. He turned to something he knew would temporarily make him feel better. Alcohol. He told himself, "I've been sober long enough. I can handle this stuff."
Deep down, Checketts knew he was flirting with danger. He'd been well-informed of this scenario while attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
"That's what they teach you in AA and rehab — you will get that message that says, 'A few beers here or there are OK. A few drinks here or there are OK,'" he said. "I really went back to my old pattern, a horribly dysfunctional relationship. Every day, I felt like I was drowning, and, instead of processing in a healthy way, reaching out for help, meditating and being prayerful, I started drinking to start calming my feelings, drinking to calm my anxiety and drinking to ignore life’s problems."
He used alcohol to escape. He used a cocktail of klonopin, an anti-depressant/anxiety drug, and whiskey to sleep every night.
"It got to the point where I started drinking again socially," Checketts said. "The next thing you knew, I was drinking nightly, and then the next thing I knew I was drinking to sleep, and the next thing I knew I was drinking to numb, and I was drinking to escape, and I wasn't putting things back in the river of life. I wasn’t participating, and I wasn’t as present. It spiraled on me, man."
Checketts said that he holds himself accountable. He knows that, by trying to hide from life's problems in this way, he only created more problems — much worse problems.
Though he wasn't actually drinking while driving and didn't know the empty can of beer was even in the car, he knows he consumed too much alcohol before getting behind the wheel. And Checketts knew the reality after being arrested for a DUI. He's a sports media celebrity in the market and the son of a public figure. (His dad, Dave, became the youngest general manager in NBA history when the Jazz hired in him in the 1980s, brought Major League Soccer to Utah by founding Real Salt Lake two decades later, and was owner of the NHL's St. Louis Blues. He also oversaw the New York Knicks and Madison Square Garden, among other high-profile sports ventures.) There was no doubt that Spence Checketts's fourth DUI arrest would go public and rumor would swirl. Even so, it surprised him how big of a news story and social media topic it became. He was very disappointed that the mugshot got out. But mostly, he wondered what the future held for him.
"I had to worry about whether or not this was going to derail me for the rest of my life. I was in survival mode," he said. "I had to find a way to get well."
Checketts tried to shield himself from the backlash, which would only suck him into a deeper pit of despair. He did receive some nasty phone calls and couldn't help but see some of the negative reaction. He also had to endure having his crime reported by media outlets.
"When you're a public figure and you break the law, you give up your right to anonymity, and you have to suffer some consequences that are uncomfortable, but it goes with the territory," he said. "I take complete responsibility for my situation in life. I don’t blame anyone else. It was my selfish actions."
Checketts admits his addiction clouded his judgment. You're so caught up in escaping reality and getting that instant gratification that comes from alcohol — or whatever your addiction might be — that you convince yourself that consequences don't matter. Only the quick fix does.
Though he's extremely grateful that nobody has ever been hurt by his choice to drive under the influence, Checketts understands why he's been vilified and judged. People have suffered injuries and deaths from drunk drivers, so he gets why some have expressed anger toward him, even though he wasn't the one who hurt or killed their loved ones.
"I'm not mad about it. I totally get it. When you're in sports-talk radio, you make a living with opinions, and sometimes scathing opinions about the actions of other people. That’s the job," he said. "You have to have informed, educated opinions, and if somebody else messes up you have to be ready to take them to task. I’ve done it for 15 years so when the shoe's on the other foot, you can’t throw a fit and say, 'Leave me alone.'
"I messed up. It was selfish — selfish actions. I put other people in danger. I thank the Lord every day that I didn't get in an accident, that I didn't hurt somebody else or hurt myself. … I messed up. The consequences are mine, and I own them."
Checketts never wants to go there again.
He doesn't want to hurt himself. He doesn't want to hurt loved ones. He doesn't want to hurt strangers.
More than ever, he wants to heal and help.
On March 3, 2018, the Midvale Justice Court charged Checketts by citation with DUI, a class B misdemeanor; having an open container, a class C misdemeanor; and a speeding infraction. As the Deseret News reported in June, Checketts agreed to a deal with prosecutors, pleading guilty to DUI. A charge of driving on the highway with an open container of alcohol and the speeding infraction were dismissed.
Checketts had already resigned from his popular prime-time radio show, "The Big Show," and he was not given a second chance to resume his position with that station or his analyst duties for Jazz games.
He understood why, but it still broke his heart.
"It’s disappointing. It really was a dream job in a lot of ways, being a child of the Utah Jazz and child of the NBA, hosting the afternoon drive-time show and the pre-, half and postgame coverage is a dream job in a lot of ways," Checketts said. "And here's the thing: I put my heart and soul into that job. I worked hard every day. I wanted to give back to my listeners. I’ve never taken one listener for granted."
With his life in shambles, Checketts took immediate action after his latest run-in with the law. He spent 50 days in inpatient rehab at the Cirque Lodge, a highly regarded drug addiction treatment center at Sundance, Utah County. When Midvale Justice Judge George Vo-Duc sentenced Checketts in June, he considered the aggressive and voluntary rehab Checketts underwent up Provo Canyon. The judge suspended 145 of the 180 days of jail time in Checketts' sentence and allowed 30 days of credit for the rehab time.
Checketts ended up spending almost a week in the Salt Lake County Jail.
"It can get overwhelming like, 'Holy smokes, look at what I gave up in the name of alcohol use.' I sacrificed a lot," Checketts said. "It’s disappointing, certainly, and a lot of people would say it’s really sad, but it’s also something that I've really worked hard to compartmentalize and put in the past where it belongs, so I can stoop in and rebuild with worn-out tools, like it says in the poem by Rudyard Kipling.
"I’ve got to rebuild, man, and that's what I’m working on doing. I’m working on doing it every day — staying positive, staying in the mindfulness, meditation, recovery space, because I still have talent. I’m still driven. I work my tail off and I still have value. But that mistake and that error in judgment and my habit that I picked up with dangerous alcohol abuse cost me a job and a career that I worked for 15 years to build. It’s sad."
Checketts's rebuild began at the Cirque Lodge and continued while incarcerated. It wasn't the first time he'd had an extended stay in rehab or in jail, but he made a point of soaking in all he could to get his life back on track. That happened among people who've made horrible mistakes and might be considered the dregs of society. Checketts said he saw them for who they are — mostly good people who have bad habits and lost their way in life.
"They want to be better," he said. "They just don't know how."
Checketts will never forget one of those men — a 28-year-old guy he humorously refers to as "my celly."
"They called him 'Russia' in jail because he looks just like Ivan Drago from Rocky IV — a big white supremacist, tattoos from head to toe," Checketts said of his cellmate. "He’s the type of guy, if you saw him, you’d walk across the street because he's such an intimidating-looking guy."
Checketts really wondered what he got himself into when his cell door shut and "this mountain of a man" — who was 6-foot, 225ish — was standing there in front of him in a small, enclosed space.
Within a couple of days, however, Checketts and Russia started to have deep discussions.
"We started to talk about real-life situations," he said. "This is a guy who’s been arrested 28 times for a bunch of different petty crimes mostly related to drugs and alcohol, and I’ll never forget one day before I was about to get out. I don't want to sound like this was Shawshank. It was only a week. But I'll never forget what he said."
Harley, as Checketts knew him, had a father who was in prison, a mother who was absent from his life and brothers who spent time in and out of jail. He'd had a rough, rough life and just became a part of the criminal system. This was not uncommon, as Checketts has discovered. Many repeat offenders just don't know how to break out of the cycle they find themselves in, and they come to accept jail time as an inevitable and acceptable part of their lives. They call it "getting out on paper" because they're still on probation or parole and assume they'll be back sooner or later.
"For a guy like me that’s not part of that system, not a part of that lifestyle, that sounds horrific. For them, it’s just accepted, it’s kind of what they’re about," Checketts said. "They look forward to their freedom but almost anticipate going back. I found that so sad."
The Brookings Institution claims that 77 percent of prisoners are arrested again within five years. And 85 percent of the U.S. prison population is incarcerated because of a crime committed while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, the "Behind Bars II, Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population" report points out.
Russia was stuck in that cycle of hopelessness, drug/alcohol use, crime and incarceration. It made a huge impression on Checketts when his celly looked at him and said, "Spence, I just want to be better. I don't know how."
Knowing how tough it had been for him to overcome his personal demons and addictions, Checketts was touched. He wanted to get his own life in order, of course, but he wanted to reach down and lift others up as well.
The wheels in his head began spinning.
"I started thinking, 'If I can give them a voice. If I can raise awareness. If I can help in any way …'" Checketts explained. "I’m not a doctor, I’m not a social worker, but I do have a voice. I do have loyal listeners, and I have the ability to raise awareness."
That spawned an idea to get his voice back in front of an audience — this time through a podcast. Though he'd angered, disappointed and offended some people, others reached out to support him and wish him well in the process via Twitter, Instagram and email. He even saw videos of young children who asked if he was OK and wondered where he went.
"I just started to think really mindful, really prayerful about how could I help this community that I became a part of with my own struggles with alcohol," Checketts said. "How can I help this community that I am now a part of forever? I’m linked to that community for the rest of my life. How can I help?"
The answer: "Reality Check," a podcast he began with business partners in Los Angeles.
"This is my labor of love," he said. "This is my idea."
Though he doesn't have the built-in audience like his show with Salt Lake Tribune columnist Gordon Monson had on the Utah Jazz's radio station, Checketts was excited to explore the freedom and autonomy available through his own show. Sure, he can share his well-informed and occasionally controversial opinions about the NBA, the NFL or college football, but this format allows him to have talks about real-life situations like he did with his celly at the Salt Lake County Jail if he wants. So far, his guests have included former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, Dave Checketts and former Jazz coach Frank Layden.
Checketts's show debuted at No. 36 in the sports and lifestyle podcast category on iTunes.
"Let's talk about lifestyle. Let's talk about recovery and, really, ultimately, let's help," he said. "Professionally, that's what is taking all my time right now. I’m really enjoying this, and I've got a great business partner. I’ve got a great team. There's a real chance that this could be very, very successful in a lot of different ways."
Don't expect him to go into detail about a 12-2 run in the third quarter of a Jazz game, though he might. Do expect engaging conversation that can entertain, inform and inspire. He knows people connect with sports personalities, and he wants to make the most of that relationship to do good.
"I’m trying to go more in-depth with these people to help people see no matter what the name is — coach, player, athlete — they have their own things they have to get through every single day," Checketts said. "And, in turn, I hope that people will find strength inside of themselves to get through their things when they hear these stories."
In doing so, Checketts believes this can help those suffering from addictions to have a voice — and to hear one. He wants to persuade others to be more understanding and compassionate, and to offer solutions and support. Along with turning up the volume on this conversation, he plans on offering a 30-day scholarship to a drug and rehab facility worth $25,000.
"More than anything else, we have to find a way to change the way we talk about and stigmatize things in society like drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness, because people are dying, and the people that don't lose their lives are trapped in a box of anxiety, depression, shame, fear and guilt," he said. "And I know what it’s like to be in that box, when you’re living in a constant state of fear and a constant state of anxiety and depression and a constant state of your mind attacking you. I know what it's like to reach for the first thing you can — a drink — to make it all go away."
It's not just people in jail or homeless addicts at Pioneer Park he hopes to pay it forward to and help.
"We have to start having real conversations about this because drug and alcohol addicts aren’t people that are in the shadows and alleys," he said. "They’re your brothers, they’re your sisters, they're your ward members. They're your friends and they’re your family. If we can't talk about it, lives will continue to be lost and this war will continue to be fought with no end in sight. …
"It’s all over the place, and it’s a problem in the state, a real problem in the state, the opioid epidemic. It is so terrifying what that's doing to people."
Addiction comes in a lot of shapes and forms, too. For Checketts, it was alcohol. For others, it's heroin, meth or pain pills. And, for some, it could be food, TV, social media, video games or even exercise.
Checketts is hopeful that a listener struggling with his or her own addictions might be empowered to make a life change after hearing that respected people in the sports world also deal with struggles and challenges. If he can get them to reach out for help, he'll consider his podcast a success. All the better if he can make a living off it, too.
"Whatever your weapon of choice is, whatever you reach for to make the voice calm down and make that feeling go away, it’s ultimately from the same place," Checketts said. "And that is the inability we have right now to process our feelings in a healthy way, to be prayerful, to meditate, to be mindful and to be in touch with who we really are. That’s the biggest things I've been able to take away in the past seven months — to process feelings in a healthy way, get in touch with who I really, really am, because the anxiety will still hit, the fear still hits, but, instead of reaching for a drink to quiet it, I reach out to a friend, I reach out to a family member, I sit, I pray, I meditate, I read, I find peace inside. I wish I had those tools 20 years ago, but I didn't. I have them now."
And he wants to share them with others.
"That’s what this platform will be about — let’s come together. Together, we can do what we could never do alone," he said of the 'Reality Check' program. "Of course we’re going to talk sports and the league and have fun and all that, but in this process I truly, sincerely want to help these people. If I can change the conversation, if one person who’s having a rough day sees an Instagram post and says, 'Spence did it, so I can do it,' then this is all worth it, man. I feel like it’s my life calling. Everything I've been through is kind of a conduit to this."
A BRIGHTER FUTURE
Checketts has had tremendous support from those closest to him, including his son Connor — "he's just a little stud" — and his parents, whom he calls "incredible people." They didn't make him feel like he'd let them down. Yeah, they were sad, but they just loved on him. He has multiple conversations a week with his parents in England. Three months after he got sober again, Checketts also found the love of his life, Britta Busche. As he's learned to love himself, he's also learned to be more receptive of love — and she's been an answer to prayers for him. Now his fiancée, she's helping him lift a heavy load of rebuilding his life and starting a career from scratch.
"Often times, it’s on her wings that I’ll fly throughout the day," Checketts said, smiling. "She is kind, she’s good. If there's one thing that I've been able to get out of all this … I would have not been prepared for somebody like this in my life had I been drinking and using. I had to truly prepare myself for this kind of love."
Even though his life is now on an infinitely better path than a year ago, Checketts knows he’s only one drink away from stepping on and possibly sliding down a slippery slope, which could lead him right back to a life of alcohol and turmoil. The challenge, he admitted, is that it’s easy to be proud of progress made and then listen to the voices that say, “Look at what you’ve done! You can have a beer. Look at what you’ve done! You can have some drinks.” It takes being mindful and thinking about all the time he’s spent in jail and in rehab and about the self-improvement, peace, joy and sense of accomplishment he’s gained to keep himself centered, present, connected and focused.
“If,” he said, “you look back at everything I’ve lost as a result of drinking, when I think of that, it makes no sense for me to ever go back down that path again.”
So what makes him confident that this time he won’t venture down that path yet again? It's an important question — maybe the most important one — and the humbled man doesn't hesitate to answer.
Ultimately, it’s all about failing forward. It's about learning from the past, staying present and making one good choice at a time.24 comments on this story
“Really, what you’re taught in rehab is that it is such a day-to-day process," Checketts said. "You can’t get too far down the road in the future and you can’t get lost in the minutiae of the past or else the overwhelming dynamic of what you’ve done and what could happen down the road is this mountain of pressure.
“That could motivate you to pick up a drink to numb your feelings. I try hard to not go down that path. Here’s the ultimate thing: It’s a pragmatic approach to life now. This is how I approach every day: If it’s working for me, I’ll continue. What I say to myself is, ‘Do the next right thing.’ Simply just do the next right thing.”