What does a heroin addict look like?
Sunken, vacant eyes. An emaciated, skeletal frame. These are traits of an addict. But when former NBA player Chris Herren began the substance abuse habit that would take his basketball career and nearly end his life, he was just a bright-eyed teen a year shy of high school.
On May 22, Herren told his story to students at Fernwood Avenue Middle School and Egg Harbor Township High School in Egg Harbor Township, in hopes of keeping them off the path where he found himself when he was their age.
As much as many don't want to admit, Fernwood Principal Jim Battersby said, kids are drinking and doing drugs - and schools have to do everything in their power to curb this trend.
"Drug use is here, alcohol use is here," Battersby said. "It's what 14-year-olds, 13-year-olds, start to do. And anything we can do to help the kids, prevent, help speak out, we'll do it."
Herren took the students through his first forays in substance abuse as an eighth-grader sneaking out to the woods to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana to his eventual four-figure-a-day heroin habit and his young son's tearful pleas for his father to kick the habit. Herren said he has been sober since Aug. 1, 2008.
Following his talks, Herren opened the floor for questions. Herren encouraged students to be blunt, and they were, asking him why he took drugs in the first place and why he persisted.
After the Fernwood presentation, several kids approached Herren to shake his hand, give him a hug or tell their story. Fouad Nammour, 14, an eighth-grader from the English Creek section of the township, was one of those who thanked Herren. He said Herren's testimony will help keep him on the straight and narrow.
"It'll help me when I grow up," Nammour said. "If I ever get tempted, I'll just walk away from it."
Herren, who is well-known on the school speaker circuit, was brought to the school thanks to the efforts of township schools Director of Development Ellen Gregory and with financial assistance from Ocean City Home Bank and the Community Partnership for Education.
While Herren is often contracted by professional sports teams and corporations to speak, he said he most enjoys visiting students. The father of a 14-year-old and 9-year-old, Herren said he believes reaching kids with this message is of the utmost importance.
"No matter where they come from, the kids are always great," Herren said. "I think they're great because they understand it a lot better than most people want to think. That's the scary thing, but it's the reality."
While middle school students aren't known for their attention spans, the students hung, silently, on Herren's every word, and many broke down in tears.
It was clear to the administrators in the audience that Herren's lesson was one well taken - and that was exactly the district's hope, said Fernwood assistant principal Dr. Bruce Singer.
"If this affected one kid, then it was worth it," Singer said. "That's the bottom line."
Contact Braden Campbell: