Steven Herndon readily admits, “My first addiction was football.”
Growing up in pigskin-obsessed LaGrange, Ga., not knowing his biological father and adjusting early on to a household with the new man in his mother's life, Herndon found that on a football field, “If I hit somebody hard enough, I got validated. The coach would give me an 'Attaboy!'”
Herndon would play college ball at the University of Georgia and go on to have a six-year National Football League (NFL) career as an offensive lineman, starting 13 games. But alcohol and drugs would cloud his dream, once leaving him on the field of play with his thoughts focused only on chasing the next high once he returned home.
Now 38 and having worked 12-Step recovery as fiercely as he once tried to flatten defenders at the line of scrimmage, Herndon serves as president and executive director of Safety Net Recovery, a men's recovery residence organization based in Atlanta. Safety Net Recovery offers an intensive sober-living experience to young adults, adults and health professionals, employing many of the lessons that Herndon learned on his journey—all classified under the theme of “getting out of oneself.”
When Herndon richly tells his story, he is proud that it can resonate with a wide audience. He recalls attending a chip ceremony in which a woman got up after Herndon had stopped talking and said, “When I first heard 'football,' I shut down. But then he ended up having me in the palm of his hand.”
Herndon says, “I realized how powerful the impact could be on others.”
He talks of a childood riddled with fear, as he worked through a mild form of Tourette syndrome. By his sophomore year of high school, his 6-foot-2, 240-pound frame began to signal what lay ahead. It was a time when Herndon was beginning to realize an ability to overcome obstacles, which he now concludes probably fueled the denial that served to sustain his addiction.
On college recruiting visits, Herndon experienced the “wine and dine” courting, where he realized that drinking gave him the same validation as football. Binge drinking in college eventually would evolve into experiencing the highs and lows of numerous recreational drugs. As a professional offensive lineman, he played first at NFL Europe sites where prescription drugs could be bought like candy.
His substance use became so pervasive that when the ex-Denver Bronco received an opportunity to continue his career in his home state, his wife told him the move to Atlanta would be conditional on his getting clean. When with the Falcons, he would soon break that contract, failing a league-mandated drug test during preseason workouts.
“I denied the admission to inpatient treatment that they offered,” says Herndon (he now tries to advise the NFL to be more proactive in working with players with substance use problems). But shortly after a longtime friend in the music business went into treatment, he did too, taking the advice of the person overseeing him in the league's drug program and entering Ridgeview Institute.
His outlook on the 12 Steps: “I gave it all I had,” he says. The attitude was, “I'm all in.”
At that point in Herndon's story, he transitions from how dark life got to what taking action looks like. For him, it was about working the Steps, bringing a spiritual experience to life, and breaking codependency—even having to have that tough conversation with Mom about why he no longer would be able to call daily.
He even proceeded to find his biological Dad, realizing that he could no longer pass judgment on him when he had done some of the same things he vowed he'd never do.
Now a father of three and a certified addiction counselor, Herndon and business partner Taylor Hagin, an ex-Marine whom he met in treatment, were able to purchase Safety Net Recovery last year and are looking to grow the operation. There are currently 60 sober-living beds in the Atlanta location, and the organization operates a Greenville, S.C., site. Further expansion in the Carolinas is being considered.
“We want to stay in our lane as a [Level 3] recovery residence,” says Herndon, referring to the National Alliance for Recovery Residences' (NARR's) four-tier structure for describing sober home programming. “We're not an IOP.”
Off the gridiron, then, Herndon has found validation anew. He'll tell anyone within earshot that he has never felt so blessed.
Steven Herndon will deliver a keynote address on “Taking Action—The Simple Way” Aug. 20 at the National Conference on Addiction Disorders in Denver. Click here for more information.