Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on Feb. 15, 2017.
NORTH ATTLEBORO — When Chris Sullivan was a North Attleboro High School student he never expected to become a professional football player. Nor did he expect to become a drug addict.
Somehow, he became both.
In 2002, Sullivan found himself in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans celebrating — as a player — the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl victory over the St. Louis Rams; yet aching — as an addict — for the 300 pills of Percocet stashed away in his hotel room a few miles away.
“I remember being on the sidelines with the confetti coming down, and I remember being mad that I didn’t bring any pills to the game,” Sullivan said.
Security had been ramped up following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and Sullivan knew the stadium would be flush with police — and worse, drug-sniffing dogs.
“I didn’t want to get in trouble,” he said. “After the game, I went to the team party for 10 minutes, saw my family, went back to my room and drank and took pills for the rest of the night.”
Four months later, Sullivan’s football career came to a crashing end when he was arrested for drunken driving just hours after receiving his first and only championship ring.
From there, he spiraled into the life of a full-blown addict.
But now, eight years sober, Sullivan, 43, works to spread awareness to the perils of drug and alcohol use with his wife and Plainville resident Kathi Meyer.
Meyer joined Sullivan Wednesday at North Attleboro High to share the story of her daughter, Taylor, a King Philip Regional High School senior who died face down in 2 feet of water in a swamp near the abandoned Norfolk airport after a night of underage partying in 2008.
Sullivan’s message to students Wednesday was clear: Addiction doesn’t discriminate. But, the presentation was closer to home than any other he’s given.
Sullivan found his start right on Mason and Community fields in North Attleboro.
“I once sat in those same exact seats and sat through these same exact talks,” said the 1991 NAHS graduate. “I sat here polite, like you guys will be. And I took it in, but I couldn’t relate.
“I saw these people up here and I thought they must be weak — they had no willpower. I looked at them and thought I could never become that person.”
Sullivan described his life in North Attleboro as only supportive.
He and his friends watched out for each other, sports kept him in check at school, and a team of coaches helped send him to college ball at Boston College, where he started 48 games.
In 1996, he was drafted as a fourth-round pick for the Patriots — and his world changed.
Crippling social anxiety left him feeling vulnerable around his teammates — and it only worsened in 2000, when Sullivan was picked up by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Looking to fit in with a new crowd, Sullivan started drinking more than he ever had. On the second day of training camp, he suffered a back injury. But, not wanting to miss practice and fall behind on a new team, Sullivan hid it from the team’s trainers.
“I was having an awful year, and started to drink every night,” he said. “My anxiety got so bad during the day and I had no coping skills. I thought only weak people ask for help.”
A drunken driving motorcycle accident just weeks later left him with a broken wrist, and Sullivan was let go from the team. He came back to North Attleboro, where he found only pills would ease the pain.
But then, a 2001 call from the Patriots came: They wanted him back. Still, the drugs continued.
“Percocet and Vicodin seemed harmless to me,” he said. “Opioids weren’t all over the news back then.”
After he retired from the league in 2002, his life became a laundry list of failed recoveries: He enrolled in 15 rehabilitation programs, required six trips to the emergency room, totalled five cars, was arrested eight times and charged with five OUIs.
At one point, he was admitted to hospital intensive care, and almost died. But that didn’t stop him from searching for his next hit the very next night.
Finally, on Dec. 15, 2008, Sullivan got clean.
Just two days earlier, his mom laid over his drugged body and begged God to take him.
“Not because she wanted me dead, but because she didn’t want to see me suffering anymore,” Sullivan said. “She had lost hope.”
Since that day, his obsession with the next hit has disappeared.
What Sullivan hoped kids would take away from the presentation was a sense that they, too, are not immune to addiction, as he once believed sitting in their very seats.
“Every town has an issue,” Sullivan said. “We get kids from North Attleboro coming into my AA and NA meetings every week. For a long time I struggled because I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I was becoming that person.”
He urged them to recognize the severity of the disease.
“If you know someone struggling, your parent, your friend, you — stick by them,” he said. “You don’t know when they are going to get it. And if you’re struggling, get help.
“Getting clean and staying clean were the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Sullivan said. “But it’s the thing I’m most proud of. I’d give away that Super Bowl ring to keep this chip — my eight-year chip. It’s the only thing I carry around with me every day.”