GILFORD — When former Celtics basketball player Chris Herren spoke to about 4,000 high school students from Laconia, Winnisquam, Moultonborough, Wolfeboro, Inter-Lakes, Belmont, Tilton, Farmington and Gilford at the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion yesterday for a program presented by Stand Up Laconia, his message was about self-esteem, peer pressure and to be themselves.
Herren is a heroin addict. Sober for the past eight years, he has spent the past five traveling across the country talking about drugs, but with a delivery that focuses more the decisions he wished he had made when he was their age.
He told them he knows that 85 percent of them made jokes about the assembly on the bus ride to the pavilion like he did in 1994 when he went to his first high school assembly drug lecture. He said he already knew then that he was never going to be "that guy."
"All I do is drink and smoke on Friday and Saturday nights," he said. "I'll never be that guy. I'm a MacDonald's All-American."
"Four ODs, seven arrests," he said. "No, I'll never be that guy."
He said he wished he could go back to 1994 and to when he could hang around with the friends he'd known all his life, just be himself and not have to drink and take drugs to hang out with them.
In a clip prepared about Herren that he played before his speech, it's noted that Herren played basketball for Durfee High School in Fall River, Massachusetts; that he was heavily recruited by many colleges and coaches including Rick Pitino; that he played for Fresno State and that he was drafted by the Denver Nuggets, later playing for the Celtics.
He told the assembly they need to feel comfortable enough in their own skins to enjoy themselves with all of their friends without drinking or taking drugs.
Herren told them stories about some of the students he's met throughout the past five years, mainly focusing on the ones who stayed sober and who were ostracized and bullied for not being "cool."
He said he calls his outreach the Purple Project because it is named for four young girls who dressed in purple T-shirts at one of his lectures, who thanked him for validating who they were because they said they were the only sober ones in a class of 180. They told him they were made fun of by the other students, which brought Herren back to self-esteem without drugs and alcohol.
"I liked it. It was an impactful message," said Gilford Police Chief Anthony Bean Burpee, saying Herren touched on a key issue when he posed the question to them by asking "Why aren't I good enough to be me today?"
"There were 4,000 students and you couldn't hear a pin drop," said Bean Burpee.
Bean Burpee and Belmont High School Principal Dan Clary said they both appreciated how Herren told them stories about other students he had met and then brought his message through their stories back to the audience at hand.
"He gave students some tools they can use to help themselves and their friends," Clary said.
Herren told the students that if they feel like they can't be themselves without drinking and smoking or if they have struggles at home with alcoholic or drug-addicted parents or siblings, then they can reach out to a teacher. He told them to say something to a friend if the friend is using alcohol and drugs and to let them know someone cares.
Herren said for him it was the fact his father was an alcoholic, and as a small child he would lie in bed and listen to his parents fighting. When he turned 13, he said he drank his father's beer, describing it as the very thing that was tearing his family apart. As he grew older, it was alcoholism at home plus the pressure of an entire town having high expectations for him as a basketball player. An injury led to painkillers and he became hooked on heroin while playing in Italy.
But Herren said it isn't about him. It's about them and how they see their role in the world.
He told the students that the next time their friends are sitting outside of the house in a car on a Friday or Saturday night, to take a minute and go in and see their younger siblings and think about how important is it for them to have a role model. He challenged them to be someone their parents could be proud of and someone who their siblings will look up to.
Belmont High School prevention coordinator Jen Gagnon said her students thought it was "awesome." She said some of them stayed behind so they could get Herren's email, as he promised all of them.
She said she's already had lots of conversations with her students about being comfortable in their own skins.
Gagnon said she was impressed by him saying that if one of his three children came to him with an alcohol problem he would ask why they felt they couldn't be themselves without alcohol and drugs.
Gagnon said that some students get caught up in their own worlds like Herren did as a teen and that people like him are trying to shift to cultural norms against alcohol and drugs being a rite of passage.
"I loved his message," she said.
"He said he wanted to reach one student, yesterday," Gagnon said. "I know he got what he wanted a few times over in Belmont."
Social worker and School Prevention Coordinator Laurie Maheu at Prospect Mountain High School said he students loved it.
"They really liked that he made it about them and others and not about himself," she said.
Maheu said Herren got to the humanity and his message in her eyes is to think about who they are in the world and how things can be right when they don't use alcohol or drugs.
For Laconia Principal Jim McCollum, it was how Herren focused on where kids are now and not where he is. He liked that he didn't glorify his own travails but focused on how he wished he could go back to where today's students are now.
"He shifted it to, 'Hey, can you love yourself, your family, your friends,'" he said. "It was an excellent presentation and we're fortunate to have been able to see it."
Stand Up Laconia received a $6,000 donation from Meredith Village Savings Bank to secure the Stand Up Laconia Lakes Region program.
Former Celtics basketball player Chris Herren spoke to about 4,000 high school students from Laconia, Winnisquam, Moultonborough, Wolfeboro, Inter-Lakes, Belmont, Tilton, Farmington and Gilford at the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion yesterday for a program presented by Stand Up Laconia. (Gail Ober photo/Laconia Daily Sun)