BECKLEY, W.V. – The 15-year-old wrestler thought it was strange when one of his grandparents picked him up from school early that day. The car ride was quiet. He got home and he saw his relatives gathered and whispering to each other. Something was wrong.
The boy’s grandfather came over and told him as plainly as he could: “Your dad’s body was found.”
Sitting in a school office, the boy re-tells the story – an all-too frequent one in this old coal town in southern West Virginia – of how opiates invaded his life. Of his father’s decline into addiction. Of taking care of him, watching him go through hot and cold sweats in the middle of the night. Of the vomiting on the floor. Of the time Dad pawned his video game console to finance a fix. And eventually, of the day he found out his father had died.
“You lose a parent you expect to be there for a long time,” he says, “and they get taken away from you because of something as pointless and meaningless as opiates.”
If opioid addiction is a growing national catastrophe, then West Virginia is ground zero and Raleigh County is near the epicenter. According to the Associated Press, nearly 800 million opioid pills were shipped to the state over a six-year period. In 2015, the national overdose rate was 16.3 deaths per 100,000. In Raleigh County, it was 78.3.
One doctor who practiced here in Beckley, the county seat of Raleigh County, was recently jailed for illegally prescribing 11,000 pills. The epidemic is so severe that the town’s needle exchange program was temporarily closed because of drug use in the parking lot.
The effects have been felt economically, psychologically and socially. Families have been ripped apart, with 24 percent more children in foster care in 2016 than four years prior. Here in coal country, hours from major metropolises, there is fear about the next day and the next decade.
“We’re in a real fight to make sure we don’t lose another generation to opioids,” says state attorney general Patrick Morrisey.
In this town, many of the leading lieutenants of this fight are the men and women coaching high school sports.
“Depressed” is not a word that readily comes to mind at first glance when driving into Beckley. Interstate 64 weaves south from Charleston through gorgeous valleys and low-slung clouds, leaving you in a typical American realm of restaurant chains, nail salons and grocery stores. The town of just over 17,000 is busy if not bustling.
The main high school, Woodrow Wilson, is clean and bright and lively. On a Thursday in May, a production of the Little Mermaid is going on in the auditorium and kids from other schools are being bussed in for the show. It feels hopeful in the unique way schools often do.
But a lot of the pain is hidden.
“I almost feel like the frog in the boiling pot,” says Ron Cantley, the school principal. “We’ve been taking care of business as it presents itself to us. We just woke up and realized the pot was boiling.”
Stoking it are opioids.
One coach estimates more than 20 percent of the school’s athletes have been impacted by the opioid crisis in some way. But as English teacher Travis Doyle noted, “even if the opioid crisis stopped tomorrow, these kids have been put in an impossible situation.”
He tells a story of a student who opened his backpack one day and cockroaches crawled out. The child had been hoarding every scrap of food he could find.
This is why when Chad “Street” Sarrett took over as head football coach at Woodrow Wilson, he knew success would not be measured on the field.
Sarrett has spent more time studying his players than any game film. He looks to see which kids might need laundry done, or need a ride, or need a meal. He walks around the lunchroom and notices which students stuff food into napkins and pockets on Fridays.
“This may be the last meal they eat before Monday,” he says.
He once took a student out to a local chain restaurant and was saddened to see the teen’s confusion as to why someone was coming over to ask what he wanted and then brought it to him. The student hadn’t been to that kind of restaurant before. Another time he went to visit a student’s house and noticed immediately how cold it was inside. The heat had been turned off.
“You build a relationship,” he explains, “because coming to school might be the best part of a kid’s day.”
Recently, Sarrett started something called “Commitment Days.” At 7 a.m. every Saturday morning, he holds a workout for all school athletes who wanted to attend. Then the coaches cook a big breakfast for everyone. The goal is not only exercise, but to give kids a reason to get to sleep early on Friday night, and wake up Saturday with a place to go.
“We had 37 show up this last Saturday,” says Dale Stafford, a football assistant. “It doesn’t matter what sport. I stop and pick up about four on the way. I opened it up to middle school kids as well.”
That’s only the beginning. Sarrett stays late into the evening on school nights, offering up his desk to kids to do their homework. “A lot of kids don’t have access to the web to do research at home,” he explains.
The weight room has been completely revamped – a gift from NFL free agent and Woodrow Wilson alum Doug Legursky – and that’s another haven. Sometimes kids will watch movies, or play basketball late into the night. The coaches quietly admit to buying everything from shoes to glasses for the kids, even though their own salaries are hardly exorbitant. He’s even held fundraisers so the community can chip in.
“When you think about the connection between the opioid addiction and helping kids, there’s a lot of explicit lessons parents teach that we take totally for granted,” says Cantley, the school principal. “Look both ways when crossing the street. How to interact with a lady or gentleman. How to get a drivers’ license. A lot of things are gone.”
“I try to give them a base that they can come to,” says Bernard Bostick, a tennis coach at the school. “An anchor. Somebody they can talk to. Just talk to them, let them know they can talk to me.”
Sarrett teaches athletes the dangers of social media, and how to treat a woman with respect. He’s visited more than half of the athletes at home, and some students send him cellphone pictures of good grades on tests.
He’s also the wrestling coach here, and he’s brought in “student assistants” simply to be a part of the program. If they can practice or keep stats or take video, they’re involved and going on trips. “They never see the mat,” the coach says.
The result? Sarrett says the GPA for the student-athletes under him has jumped from 2.0 to 2.89 in one year.
“They don’t have to accept being average,” he says. “They can be above average. I tell them that all the time.”
The boy who lost his father to opioids has felt support that he didn’t know he could find at school. “If you ever need anything …” two of his coaches told him at his father’s wake.
He says his sport is “a backbone.”
“It’s been something to rely on,” he says. “Something to keep my focus, keep me from doing things I could have been doing. Sports are great because it’s important for some kids to have people in their lives who will put effort into them and show them they can become something they don’t think they can become.”
At the state level, the attorney general has used high school sports as a way of communicating his message to families all over West Virginia. He and his staffers attended more than 60 football games last fall with flyers about opioid dangers and alternatives. Morrisey plans to do it again this fall.
“Coaches spend so much time with kids,” he says. “Children really look up to them as role models. It’s critical to get involved in schools, but also with people the kids respect.”
Across the nation, the priority placed on winning games continues to grow. More money flows into high school football stadiums, and more attention is paid to who is developing five-star talent. Here in this part of West Virginia, however, there are more important things to think about.
“A lot of people will want to bottom-line sports with wins and losses,” says Cantley. “That’s still relevant. But they don’t have a clue about what we do for children who play sports in an area like this. They are clueless.”
Recently, in a Woodrow Wilson hallway, Doyle found a crumpled up piece of paper on his way to teaching his English class. He picked it up, smoothed it out, and read the scrawl inside. There were two blocks of handwriting; it was a note that had been passed back and forth, probably between a boy and a girl.
“It was about getting high,” Doyle remembers. “One kid invited the other and she said she’d love to, but she has practice after school.
“That practice protected that kid.”
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