Introducing former NBA star and recovering heroin addict Chris Herren at my Almost Alma Mater; Feb. 15, 2017
My name is Caleb Daniloff and I’m Class of 1988. Well, technically, I’m Class of Almost 1988. I was kicked out of this school. On my own graduation day. With my father the keynote speaker. That’s probably what a lot of people remember about me. At the time and for years afterward, that’s how I liked it. The center of a story to be told and retold.
I arrived on this campus at 15 years old, insecure and confused, heart always beating a little too fast, terrified of being seen as uncool. So basically like most teenagers, and probably more than a few adults.
But on top of that, I had been living in the former Soviet Union for five-plus years, where my dad was stationed as an American journalist. To connect me to our Russian heritage, my parents put me in Soviet school, Pioneer Camp, and enrolled me in a Soviet gymnastics program. So in many ways, I went native. And back on U.S. soil, I wasn’t sure what it meant to be an American anymore. I was several years behind on music and fashion and lingo. So I felt like this weird, shy, un-American kid with a strange name, who might possibly be a Commie. I was desperate to fit in.
I was assigned to Overton just down the hill. I made friends with some of the guys on my floor. Nice dudes, goofy dudes. I was comfortable with them right off the bat. We laughed and teased each other easily. Until I detected that maybe they might be classified as dorks, a little too straight. I wanted to be with the cool kids, even if it made me uncomfortable, even if it meant trouble.
And that’s how I began wearing a mask. I worked hard to be seen a certain way. Irreverent, anti-authority, special, smart, disturbed, sullen, wounded, tragic. Coming from several years in Russia, I peddled the idea that I could drink anyone under the table. Belly up, cool kids!
So maybe not surprisingly, within my first month on campus, I was busted for drinking and put on Disciplinary Probation, where I stayed almost my entire career here. Drinking, drugs, unexcused absences, more drugs. Trouble defined me. Trouble was my jam. One night after curfew, I broke into this very chapel and drank vodka in the pews and pawed through the chaplain’s robes. Total dipshit move.
Then at the start of junior year, my dad, who was still working in Moscow, was arrested on false espionage charges by the KGB and our family briefly became world-famous. Reporters showed up at my dorm. News helicopters landed on the football field. I was suddenly a celebrity on campus. Everyone knew my name. Kids wanted to party with me. Girls were dedicating songs to me on the school radio. My cool dreams were all coming true. Except I started suffering severe panic and anxiety attacks. I had no idea what was happening to me, it wasn’t in the public consciousness as it is today. I just thought I really was super weird. Which only lead to more drinking and more drugs and pulling that mask on even tighter.
What finally led to my expulsion was leaving my dorm without permission the night before graduation and partying at a motel off campus. It was the last straw. The school had already given me too many chances. Amazingly, after having a good cry in the woods, my dad still took the stage to deliver the commencement address. I listened to his speech from the infirmary and was then banned from school grounds. Everyone was talking about me and would be for years to come. I’d done something unprecedented. I was now part of a club so cool and so exclusive, it only had one member.
In college and beyond, it was more of the same. It took me six years to graduate, with plenty of trouble and squandered opportunities along the way. I cheated on girlfriends, abandoned friendships. I got a C-minus in Russian, a language I used to dream in. My nickname for a while was “Asshole.” And I answered to it. There was retail theft, DWI, drug charges, my name in the crime log of the paper where I worked as reporter. My moral compass was badly off kilter. I crossed a lot of lines. All I cared about was getting messed up. Like it was my job. I’d stopped evolving and was pretty much governed by the ill-formed emotions of a stunted 15-year-old. It wasn’t about trying to be cool anymore. I’d been wearing the mask so long it had become my face.
Eventually, at 30 years old, exhausted and isolated, and on the verge of ruining yet another important relationship, I quit drinking. And I’ve been sober for the past 18 years. But it probably took a good five years to start peeling back the corners of that mask and taking a real hard look at who I had become and who I actually was. And to start being true to that person, and true to the world.
I sometimes wonder how things might have been different had I had the courage to stick with the so-called dorky kids, to stay closer to my authentic self. But I just wasn’t equipped with the right tools. I was scared, lazy, took the easy way, and was way too concerned with what people thought of me. The pressure to fit in, or not stand out, can be overwhelming in high school. And even though I faked it pretty good, it wasn’t long after high school that I lost touch with a lot of those cool kids. By college graduation, almost all of them were off my radar. But I’d still love to catch up with some of those dorky dudes, I just know they’re doing something interesting with their lives.
So one of the great things about getting sober, for me, are the unexpected opportunities. They don’t pass me by anymore because my eyes are wide open. Running was a big part of my recovery and so was writing. The two joined forces and lead to several books and work with Runner’s World magazine. And it was through Runner’s World that I met this morning’s speaker Chris Herren. He was running the Boston Marathon and I was assigned to write about it. I was familiar with his name and his troubles. A high school basketball phenom from Fall River, Mass., who partied just like me in high school, like a lot of us, drinking in basements, in the woods. Chris, too, started going off the rails in college, but his talents were so big he still managed to make it to the NBA and to play in the midst of a mushrooming oxy and heroin addiction. Chris’s tale is one of the darkest AND the most powerful I’ve ever come across and I try and run races for his foundation whenever I can. We’ve traveled different roads, but as he once said to me, “same journey, different cage.” I might put it this way: “same journey, different mask.” Please welcome a friend and inspiration, and someone who just might change your life: CHRIS HERREN.