Sunday, May 19, 2024

Former NFL Quarterback shares addiction recovery

The Plattsburgh State Field House played host to a former NFL quarterback Wednesday evening, as 1998 first-round draft pick Ryan Leaf visited the Plattsburgh community to spark conversation about the prescription opiate abuse crisis and mental health treatment.

In front of a crowd of well over 500 people, including PSUC students, as well as the general community, Leaf shared his experiences growing up as a talented athlete, entering the NFL as the No. 2 draft pick behind record-setting quarterback Peyton Manning, subsequently quitting football, becoming addicted to prescription opiates and ultimately becoming incarcerated on March 30, 2012. Before speaking, Leaf was welcomed by New York State Assemblyman Billy Jones and John Bernardi, CEO of the United Way of the Adirondacks.

Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie, whose office sponsored this event on behalf of the Substance Abuse Prevention and Recovery of Clinton County Coalition (SPARCC), said that the Field House was selected due principally to its large capacity, after previous events, such as the showing of the documentary Chasing the Dragon, had filled downtown Plattsburgh’s Strand Theater to capacity.

Bringing Leaf to Plattsburgh was Wylie’s personal brainchild.

“Earlier this year, while I was watching ESPN on a Sunday morning, I watched an episode of ESPN’s 30-30, that featured Ryan Leaf,” Wylie said. “I was very impressed and moved by Ryan’s message. Because of my involvement with the community and the impact opioid addiction and overdose deaths have had locally and directly to myself and my family, I started researching how I could contact Ryan Leaf to identify whether it would be possible to bring him to Plattsburgh.”

Wylie said that one of the primary goals of this event was to increase awareness “that the disorder or addiction does not select a specific profile, but that it affects every part of society and walk of life.”

Wylie said this issue is important to the Plattsburgh community because as crime increases across Clinton, Essex and Franklin Counties, more than half of the crimes prosecuted in Clinton County are related to substance abuse or mental health disorders.

Leaf’s story followed his personal character progression from being given $31,000,000 at the age of 21, before he was emotionally mature enough to handle that responsibility, to being happy to make $15 per hour after leaving prison. For Leaf, this event was an opportunity to share his story and try to touch at least one life.

“When it’s stigmatized so much, you hide from it and don’t actually ask for help,” Leaf said. “You don’t see the star quarterback or valedictorian stand in front of their peers and say ‘Hey everybody, I’m in trouble and need help.’ Hopefully, by me doing it, it will give them some courage to go to their parents or a guidance counselor, or somebody they feel can help them.

Leaf hoped to stress that his experience is evidence that addiction and mental health disorders can affect anybody and stressed the statement “I’m Ryan Leaf, and I’m just like you.”

“My story is a lot like anybody who has gone through any kind of struggle with addiction or mental health issues,” Leaf said. “I think there’s a spotlight shone on it a little bit more because what happened to me happened in such a public way.”

Leaf, who is proud to have just become a father on Oct. 2, stressed the use of treatment programs to strengthen support networks for those in recovery from drug addiction. For Leaf, this was in the form of Alcoholics Anonymous. Among other treatment options in the local community are Champlain Valley Family Center (CVFC), Clinton County Mental Health and Addiction Services (CCMH/CCAS), and Behavioral Health Services North (BHSN).

Leaf also stressed that seeking treatment is not the last step to recovery.

“Once you ask for help, you need to be willing to accept what they offer,” Leaf said.

In attendance at the event was PSUC senior Vern Witherbee. Witherbee felt a strong sense of familiarity as Leaf recounted his story, being a recovering opiate addict himself. For Witherbee, whose story began with the loss of two siblings at a young age due to death and incarceration and continued through the use of marijuana, cocaine, prescription opiates and ultimately heroin, bringing Leaf to Plattsburgh is a step toward reducing the stigma in the community about substance abuse disorder.

Witherbee was incarcerated in 2004 for possession with intent to distribute at a time of his life when he was using cocaine on a regular basis. Fear of going back to prison helped him stay clean for about three years. That changed when he was prescribed an opiate painkiller by an oral surgeon.

“At first, it made my stomach very queasy,” Witherbee said. “I just used them simply to get rid of the pain. After a couple of days, I began to love that feeling. It go to the point, within that month, that I absolutely needed them. I felt I performed my job better.”

Witherbee was soon buying opiates illegally, spending “hundreds of dollars per day” on them. Witherbee said that he began to grow marijuana to fund the habit.

This continued until one day when a friend gave Witherbee a bag of heroin instead of pills. Witherbee said that the one bag of heroin, which cost him $30 at that time, lasted him three days, but “that spiralled out of control mega-fast,” and within three months, he was spending between $600 and $900 per day to use 20 to 30 bags of heroin. Witherbee began to sell heroin at this stage.

A rollover car accident, a loss of employment, and a loss of custody of his child put Witherbee at a low point and allowed him to begin recovery. On Sunday, Witherbee and friends gathered to celebrate his fourth anniversary of sobriety. Witherbee credits participation in Family Treatment Court and the fight to regain custody of his son, in which he was successful, with motivating him to stay clean.

Witherbee, who now works as a recovery counselor at CVFC, offered some advice for anybody in the community who is struggling with substance abuse or mental health.

“Go to one of our local outpatient facilities and get an assessment,” Witherbee said. “And if they recommend treatment, follow the suggestions. Fight like your life depends on it, because it does.”

Also in attendance was PSUC student Melissa Laks, who is currently an intern at the Clinton County Department of Social Services. Laks said that she has a family friend who is currently incarcerated for drug-related crimes and hopes that this friend’s story can end similarly to Leaf’s.

“It helps me have hope to help others,” Laks said. “It helps to know that we are making a difference in people’s lives.”

Laks hopes that this event will allow for more success stories in the local community. With several PSUC athletics teams and other students in attendance, Laks also hopes that the college community can get an important message from Leaf.

“I think college students in general put a front on that they’re strong people and are invincible,” Laks said. “But deep down there might be more to them that they’re not sharing with everyone that might just explode. I think it’s important to realize to be comfortable with themselves and find their identity and not have to hide it.”

Email Nathanael LePage at

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