Editor’s note: The following chapter is from Chester Marcol’s autobiography, “Alive and Kicking: My Journey Through Football, Addiction and Life,” written with Gary D’Amato of the Journal Sentinel. The book is due to be published Sept. 28, 2011
By 1981, my football career was over and I was back to drinking – only now it was worse than ever – and using drugs. Barbara Jean and I were separated, and I felt I had no purpose in life other than to get high.
I was embarrassed about the way my career ended, but alcoholism is such a powerful disease that all the shame, guilt, and humiliation in the world are not enough to stop you from reaching for the next drink.
I was out of control much of the time, drunk or whacked out on something, but on March 9, 1981, I reached a new low. The day started innocently enough. I picked up my daughter, Julie, and took her ice skating. I had good intentions for daddy-daughter day, but things took a horrible turn.
Hours later, I was in handcuffs, arrested for reckless use of a firearm.
While Julie skated, I got good and drunk. The fact that I drove her home while intoxicated was bad enough, but it was what happened when I dropped her off that led to mistakes I wish with all my heart I could take back.
Barbara Jean could tell immediately that I was smashed, and we argued. She was irate, for good reason, and I was defensive and combative in my boozed-up state. Still, I was in the doorway and on my way out when she bitterly called after me, “You’re just like your father.”
It was the last thing I wanted to hear on the seventeenth anniversary of my alcoholic father’s suicide. I’d kept the pain and anger bottled up inside me all those years and when she said that, I just snapped. I stormed back into the house, went into the room where I stored my guns and came stumbling out with a loaded rifle.
What happened after that is pretty much a blur, and I only remember bits and pieces. I’m not by nature a violent person and I didn’t want to hurt Barbara Jean, but the combination of alcohol and blind rage can make a man do something he’ll regret for the rest of his life.
Screaming obscenities and shaking with anger, I raised the rifle and pointed it at her. As messed up as I was, it was only by God’s grace that I didn’t pull the trigger. Julie, who was only five years old, witnessed the whole thing and to this day my heart aches for what I put her through.
I don’t know exactly what I said, but I’m sure I called Barbara Jean every name in the book, and then some. Eventually, she was able to calm me down enough to get to a phone and call the police, and they came and hauled me away. It was absolute insanity, but thank God it ended with me in handcuffs and Barbara Jean and Julie physically unharmed.
My counselor somehow obtained from the police the bullet that was in the chamber that day. Every time I went to see him, he took out the bullet, stood it on his desk, pointed to it, and said, “Chester, you were one bullet away from being locked up for life.” I’ve dealt with a great deal of remorse and sorrow over what I did that day because nobody deserves to be put in that situation.
How did things get so bad? How could I have thrown away my career, my marriage, my family and my dignity? How could I have gone from being a passive, fun-loving kid who excelled at kicking a football to being a drunk who pointed a loaded weapon at the mother of his children?
The answer lies in the insidious and progressive nature of alcoholism. No one aspires to become an out-of-control drunk. Every alcoholic starts out being able to control his or her drinking, but over time the roles reverse and the alcohol winds up controlling the alcoholic.
Like most diseases, there’s a genetic component to alcoholism. If heart disease runs in your family, the odds increase that you’ll have heart problems. The same is true for diabetes, cancer, arthritis, hypertension, and alcoholism. My father was an alcoholic, as were other members of my family. The probability is strong that my children would have problems if they started drinking because alcoholism is in their genes, waiting to be triggered. Unfortunately, they’ll pass on those genes to their kids, too.
Where I grew up, there also was a cultural component to alcohol. In post-war Communist Poland, drinking was considered a manly thing, a kind of rite of passage. There were no minimum-age drinking laws in Opole in the 1960s, and nobody looked sideways at a young boy with a beer in his hand. When I was barely ten years old, my father would give me money to run down the block and buy his beer or vodka. The guy who sold it to me never asked to see my I.D.
The first time I ever got drunk was New Year’s Eve in 1964; I had just turned fifteen that October. A friend and I bought a bottle of vodka and polished it off. The next day, I had a massive hangover with all the classic symptoms – the pounding headache, the cotton mouth, the nausea. I was so thirsty I raided my friend’s refrigerator and drank all his family’s milk. I thought to myself, “I swear to Christ, never again. Absolutely never again will I drink.”
Never is a long time. But in all honesty, alcohol didn’t become a problem for me until the late 1970s, when I was nearly thirty years old.
At Hillsdale College, my athletic scholarship prohibited me from drinking alcohol during the season, and I loved playing football so I didn’t drink. I wasn’t even tempted. In the off-season, sure, I’d sometimes get drunk at fraternity parties, the kind of thing many kids do at that age.
My first few years with the Packers, I drank mostly in moderation. On Sunday nights after games, I’d go out and have a few beers – and occasionally a few too many – with my teammates. I wasn’t the only guy on the team who liked to cut loose once in a while. What’s wrong with that, right? We were grown men, playing a rough, tough game. Peer pressure was a factor, too. If you weren’t “one of the boys,” some guys looked at you funny.
Beer was available on the team plane and a lot of guys either celebrated a victory or drowned their sorrows on the way home from road games. The 1974 season finale was Dan Devine’s last game as our coach and we all knew he was on his way out. We lost, 10-3, in a miserable downpour in Atlanta, and quite a few players didn’t even fly home with the team. Jim Carter and I piled a bunch of beers in the empty seat between us and drank all the way back to Green Bay.
But for the most part, I had my drinking under control. Even as late as the 1976 season, when we played in Milwaukee, I’d go out for dinner the night before the game with Lynn Dickey and David Beverly and we’d split a bottle of wine. When the bottle was empty, I stopped drinking.
I can’t pinpoint the exact time it dawned on me that I might have a problem with alcohol – for sure, other people recognized the telltale signs before I did – but I do vividly remember the first time I wanted to drink in the morning. I went duck hunting with a friend in 1977. We got an early start and were in our blind by five o’clock. The sun was just coming up when I turned to him and said, “Boy, I sure could go for a beer.” He asked me not to drink until we were done hunting, so I didn’t (once again, guns and booze don’t mix).
I actually quit drinking on my own for a year in the late 1970s because I wanted to see if beer caused some of my behavior, if it caused me to do things that were against my values and my beliefs. I quit for six months and liked the way I felt, so I kept going and stayed sober for a year. But then I drank a six-pack and didn’t feel like quitting anymore.
By 1979, I had less control over alcohol and pills, and I was spending more time in bars, hanging out with the wrong kind of people. Instead of coming home for dinner at six o’clock, I wouldn’t get home until midnight. I’d see an ad for a beer I hadn’t tried and say, “I wonder how that tastes?” But my desire to try the beer had nothing to do with the taste. Most people with a drinking problem don’t care how it tastes, they just want the effect.
I started hiding bottles in the sump pump in my basement. A person who doesn’t have a drinking problem doesn’t hide bottles. I wasn’t going down there to hide cans of green beans. Once, Domenic Gentile, the Packers’ trainer, and his wife, Peggy, came into a bar where I was drinking. I was loud and belligerent and making a fool of myself. The next day Dom approached me and said Peggy was concerned about me. I just blew him off.
Other people saw what I was incapable of seeing. Shirley Leonard, the team’s public relations secretary and a woman I loved dearly, saw the changes in me when she asked what had happened to that “mild-mannered, down-to-earth Polish kid” she knew. Slowly but surely, I was becoming a person I didn’t want to be. I was irritable and moody and turned angry quickly, sometimes for no reason. As a rookie, I’d walked around with a perpetual smile on my face, but now I was walking around with a dark cloud over my head.
So there were plenty of warning signs and, sure, I thought about them. Maybe I had a little “problem,” but I didn’t consider myself an alcoholic. I thought alcoholics were homeless people who huddled on street corners and drank cheap wine out of brown paper bags. When I thought of an alcoholic, I pictured a disheveled man wearing half-gloves, warming his hands over a fire in a barrel.
I never realized an alcoholic or a drug addict can be a person who is respected in his community. A lot of alcoholics have good jobs and manage to function well enough to fool people. But then they go home and beat their kids or their wives. Or the kids have nothing to eat because mommy spent all the money on drugs. The father of one of my friends got paid on Friday and wouldn’t come home until Saturday, and he’d have blown his entire paycheck. So how are the kids going to eat for the next week? It’s a huge problem that isn’t talked about enough, and I don’t see it being fixed any time soon.
Why do alcoholics drive drunk again and again and again? Why be so selfish, so self-centered to put other lives at risk by driving a car after getting drunk or high? There is no answer. It’s a disease. It’s a disease of denial, and alcoholics have a hard time coming to grips with the fact that they can’t get sober alone. That’s why New Year’s resolutions fail. An alcoholic doesn’t want to drink, but he doesn’t want to pay the price for sobriety.
I could have quit drinking before I became physically addicted, but I didn’t know how to do it. I had a chance to get off the elevator on the ground floor instead of crashing to the basement, but I didn’t know what a twelve-step program was. Eventually, I became physically addicted and had to drink to live. For people who don’t have a drinking problem, the concept is hard to understand. Drink to live? Trust me, it’s true. As a chronic alcoholic, I literally had to have alcohol in my system to stay alive.
There is no cure for alcoholism, but thankfully it’s treatable. Left untreated, the disease progresses – every single time, without fail. It never gets better; it always gets worse. As strange as it sounds, alcoholism progresses even in the absence of alcohol. That’s hard for some people to comprehend, but don’t question it. Just believe it. If an alcoholic is sober for twenty years and takes one drink, he is at that moment worse off than he was twenty years earlier.
That’s why alcoholics say it’s not the caboose that kills you, it’s the locomotive. It’s not the fiftieth drink, it’s the first. One drink is too many and one thousand is not enough.
People who don’t have a problem with alcohol say, “Why don’t you just use your willpower and stop?” I always answer by saying, “The next time you have diarrhea try using your willpower and see how far it gets you.”
If we could conquer diseases with willpower alone, we wouldn’t need doctors or hospitals. For an alcoholic, it’s about getting out of denial and working a twelve-step program. If all there was to it was to quit, ninety-nine percent of addicts and alcoholics would never go back to using. But booze and drugs are just symptoms of the disease. Quitting is not recovery, and recovery is not quitting.
You sometimes hear drinkers say, “I’m going on the wagon.” Well, if you go on the wagon, at some point you’re going to get off. I went on the wagon dozens of times over a twenty-five year period. I was sober once for twenty-six months, from July, 1994, to September, 1996. I know what you’re thinking: “Chester, if you could stay sober that long, why did you go back to drinking?”
The simple answer is that I’m an alcoholic. Birds fly, fish swim and alcoholics drink. Drinking is what we do best. Without the right tools, we can’t deal with life sober and so we relapse.
When an alcoholic relapses, people who don’t know any better say, “He slipped.” But a slip means sobriety lost its priority. You slip on a banana peel, but you don’t slip on a fifth of scotch. It has nothing to do with slipping. When I set my mind to drinking, I was going to drink. It was an intentional act, not an accidental one, and there was no stopping me. An alcoholic drinks when sobriety is not a priority.
Some problem drinkers never cross the line to the dark side of chronic alcoholism. They realize that alcohol is not conducive to the kind of life they want to live, and they’re able to quit on their own. That’s wonderful. But when people do cross that line, their chances of recovery are almost nonexistent without help.
I’m not saying awareness is not a great thing. “Just Say No” is a wonderful program and I’m glad schools teach kids about the dangers of drugs. But for me, “Just Say No” is not enough. If recovery depended solely on knowledge, I would have stopped using thirty years ago.
The twelve-step program is the key to success. The people who become spiritually fit and go to twelve-step meetings and work the steps are the people who sober up. Most people who don’t do those things never get sober.
I know from personal experience that the spiritual side is critical to recovery. Without it, there’s not a twelve-step program or a therapist in the world that’s going to keep a person sober. The only way to sobriety is to submit to a higher power. You have to get to the point where you say, “Okay, I’m done. I’m beat. I can’t do this on my own. I’ve tried all these absurd ways to quit and I’ve gotten nowhere but worse.”
I’ve seen it hundreds of times. I’ve lived it. People who stay sober have a good relationship with their higher power. People who go back to drinking and drugging have no relationship with their higher power.
It took many years of pain, suffering and heartache before I turned my life over to God. I first went to a long-term treatment center in 1983, twenty years before I stopped using. From 1980 to 2007, I was in and out of treatment dozens of times. That’s not even counting detoxes. I couldn’t even guess how many times I detoxed. Sometimes it was five times in two months. What was missing in my life? It was a strong relationship with God. It wasn’t until I became spiritually fit that I got sober.
In the meantime, I kept making the same mistakes over and over and over.
I got arrested three times for driving under the influence and two other times, once for disorderly conduct and once for reckless use of a firearm. Not coincidentally, I never got arrested without alcohol in my system. I’m not a bad person, but the alcoholic brain is not rational.
In March, 1990, I got arrested for the first time for drunk driving. How I made it that long without getting caught, I have no idea. I got my license back on September 3, 1991, and six days later I got arrested again for – you guessed it – drunk driving. The last time it happened was in October, 2002. I swerved off the road and smashed into a tree head-on at sixty-five miles per hour. I wasn’t wearing my seat belt and my head went through the windshield. I was out in the country and staggered up to some house full of blood. The cops came, and I blew .375 on the breathalyzer.
Not that I’m proud of it, but I blew .52 once. The highest blood alcohol content I’ve seen is .68. That’s dead for you.
I once watched a tiny girl walk into the hospital carrying a suitcase and blow .42. An alcoholic can do that. A normal person with a .42 blood alcohol content would pass out and maybe not wake up again. Alcoholics can go on binges in which their blood alcohol content stays above .30 for days; if it drops below .20 they start shaking and unless they get to a hospital to detox, they can and do die.
It’s no wonder people don’t live long on the streets. It’s survival of the fittest out there, and I don’t know too many alcoholics and addicts who are fit. They stop caring about themselves. They’re resigned to the fact that life isn’t ever going to get better.
In order for your thinking and your life to change, you absolutely must do things differently. You can’t think yourself into a lifestyle; you’ve got to live yourself into thinking differently. You need a support team, too. Let others who have been through it teach you the steps to wellness.
It takes a lot of work and constant vigilance to maintain sobriety. It takes effort, it takes sponsors, it takes spirituality, it takes fellowship and it takes staying away from people who use.
My drinking and pill use were bad enough in 1980, but when I discovered cocaine one week before the season opener, everything just went to hell. I loved coke instantly. It was my favorite drug. It gave me an incredible high, the best I ever had. I wanted to feel like that for the rest of my life.
I fell in love with the lifestyle, too. The women and the sex and the power were almost as intoxicating as the drug itself. If you have an ounce of cocaine on you, I guarantee within an hour I can deliver a limo full of women who will trade sex for coke. We called them “coke whores.” They’re everywhere, even in little towns where you’d never expect to find them.
But the glamour wears off in a hurry. Everyone who does a lot of coke eventually starts “chasing the ghost.” The price goes up because you need more and more and more. You see these pretty women who sell their bodies go downhill fast. They start losing their teeth and their hair, they lose weight. They wind up looking like scarecrows.
It wasn’t long after I discovered coke that I started drinking very heavily. My pill use was out of control, too. Until I got hurt in 1975, I didn’t know you could take a pill that would change your moods. For me, pills were a gateway to a lot of other drugs because pills, after awhile, weren’t enough.
I went into treatment after the Packers cut me in 1980, but by the end of the year, after my brief stint with the Houston Oilers, I was back into all my old favorite drugs and I was experimenting with new ones. I tried crystal meth, heroin, marijuana, LSD, Ritalin, mescaline. I took every kind of prescribed narcotic you can name.
I hated marijuana; it did nothing but make me tired, and I liked to take stuff that revved me up, like speed and coke. A lot of people think marijuana is fairly harmless, but the active ingredient, THC, is a mind-altering drug, and it can be abused like any other drug. Similarly, I’ve seen hard-core street people, heroin addicts, who believe they don’t have a problem with drinking. For sure, they do. But in their minds, they think heroin is the problem and drinking is no big deal. It’s all related. They’re addicts, trading seats on the Titanic.
For me, the biggest issue was my love of cocaine. At first, I just snorted it, and I don’t say that lightly. Eventually, I graduated to needles, injecting cocaine, heroin, and sometimes a combination of the two, known as a speedball. It’s a different high, very intense.
Needles are the love of my life. I don’t want to use anymore, but the attraction is so great that even today I cannot watch needle use on television. I no longer have an urge to stop for a drink when I drive past a bar, but I get a euphoric high when I watch people shoot up. Just the visual is enough to make my body feel a rush, as if the drug is coming in. I can feel it going into my vein, feel my arm go numb. That’s how powerful it is.
Almost everyone I know who is addicted to needles has the same reaction. The key is to stop and think before you inject for the first time because it’s not going to be good in the long run. Once you start shooting cocaine and heroin, only bad things can happen.
I shot up anywhere I could shoot up. Dope houses. Seedy motels. Nice homes in affluent suburbs. Filthy gas station bathrooms. Wherever. It didn’t matter. Sometimes in dope houses there were shooting galleries; the dealers didn’t want you to walk out with their dope and get them busted, so whatever you bought in the house, you had to use there.
It’s a dangerous lifestyle. You knock on metal doors and walk into rooms full of strung-out addicts. You stare into the business end of loaded shotguns. You get robbed, ripped off. You share needles. You get tainted drugs, stuff cut with household products, stuff that can kill you.
And you go back for more.
I remember shooting up once, then losing my balance when I tried to stand up. I was very close to overdosing. I fell back on the bed and as soon as I calmed down, I said, “Man, I’ve got to have some more of that stuff.”
It sounds sick, and it is. Yet, addicts subject themselves to that nightmare day after day after day. Young men and women prostitute themselves because they need the drugs to keep living. This goes on right under our noses, all across America, not only in big cities but in small towns.
I didn’t use constantly all those years. I had periods of lucidity and sometimes stayed sober for months at a time. In 1982, I went back to Hillsdale College and finished my degree. I only needed eighteen hours to graduate. The athletic director called me and said, “We’ll help you. We’ll pay for this and that. We’ll get you a job. The only thing you have to pay for is your room.” So I worked in a group home and finished college. I stayed in a dormitory with a bunch of eighteen- and nineteen-year-old kids. I’m pretty sure I was the only former two-time N.F.L. scoring champion on my wing.
In the fall of 1983, I worked for the Starr Commonwealth School for Boys in Albion, Michigan. The kids who attended that school came out of juvenile prisons. I was a residential counselor and loved my job. We had thousands of acres, a lake, a rope course, a church. We took the kids to White Sox games in Chicago. They were tough kids, mean and disrespectful at first. Within a few weeks they were running to the car and giving me hugs.
It was rewarding work, but I couldn’t stay on the straight and narrow. There’s nothing worse than the guy who knows he has a problem, stays sober for awhile and then goes back to using. That was me for many years. I’ve known people who have relapsed after fifteen years. Some of them wind up taking their lives. The loneliness and the self-pity, it’s unimaginably depressing. You come to after a binge and say, “How did I do this again?” For some people, it’s too much to handle and they kill themselves.
I remember getting on my knees many times and begging God to remove my desire for drugs and alcohol. Every time I relapsed, I hated myself a little bit more. It got so I couldn’t stand to look at my own reflection in the mirror.
Looking back, there’s no question I was self-medicating serious mental health problems. I finally got better when I started honestly taking prescribed medications for my bipolar disorder. I couldn’t understand why I would relapse when things were going so good. I had a lot of excuses but the bottom line was that for whatever reason I just didn’t care for myself. I would rationalize and say, “Because of this or that, sobriety wasn’t meant to be.”
Sometimes I would go to the airport and buy a ticket for the next plane taking off. The destination was unimportant. I was off to no good and I didn’t want anybody to see me. I wanted to be alone with my booze or drugs. Quite often in those days, I wound up in Minneapolis.
By the mid-1980s, I was in a very dark place (and it wasn’t Minneapolis). I was terribly sick, living a crazy lifestyle. I woke up once in a motel and had no idea where I was. I went down to the lobby to find out what town I was in and what day it was. I found out I was in some small town in Iowa and it was Sunday. My car wasn’t in the parking lot. How did I get there? Who knew?
During Thanksgiving Week in 1987, twenty months after my own suicide attempt, I was homeless and living in my car in a grocery store parking lot in Lansing, Michigan. I had no food or money. I eventually ran out of gas, and then my car battery died, so I’d go into the grocery store to warm up and eat a grape or two. I didn’t like to steal but I was desperate and ate whatever I could open easily in the store, including tins of cat food. The last couple days I didn’t have fifty cents to my name, but I couldn’t bring myself to panhandle. That’s one of the few things I haven’t done.
Somebody must have found out about my situation because a guy I didn’t know picked me up and took me to his house. I can’t tell you how many times the kindness of strangers kept me going.
My last big hurrah was in April, 2004. I was smoking crack cocaine off aluminum foil and injecting cocaine. For a while, I shot dope with one hand and drank vodka with the other because I have a defibrillator implanted in my chest and I didn’t want it to go off. How’s that for warped logic? I didn’t want my diseased heart to explode, so I countered the effect of crack cocaine with vodka. Only if you’re an addict does that make sense.
My brother, Bogdan, is a doctor and has said many times he doesn’t know how I’m still alive. Scientifically speaking, I probably should have died years ago, but I believe God has kept me alive for a reason.
A lot of people get turned off by religion, so in the twelve-step program we claim spirituality. We tell people religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell; spirituality is for people who have already been there.
I’ve been to hell, and I don’t want to go back.