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Alema Harrington finds strength and his mission in helping other addicts

SHARE Alema Harrington finds strength and his mission in helping other addicts
There are counselors who are OK, and some not so good — Alema is great. He inspires hope in others. He’s got a huge heart. – Tyson Dixon, the executive director of Renaissance Ranch

For many people Alema Harrington was the former BYU football player, or the son of a legendary Hawaiian athlete/TV actor, or the genial KSL-TV weekend sports anchor or the host of sports talk radio or the elder’s quorum president of his Mormon ward or a father and husband.

But he was/is one more thing they didn’t know about: A drug addict.

He led a double life.

He fooled almost everyone.

Affable, conversant, well-groomed and handsome, he has maintained a presence in Salt Lake City’s sports media for years. But behind the big smile, behind the direct gaze into the camera and the polished delivery, there has been an internal war raging. It began decades ago with painkillers, which enabled him to endure back pain and play football at BYU (he would not be the only Cougar to be similarly ensnared during that time). Eventually, he turned to heroin and the underground world that came with it. For some two decades he was in and out of rehab programs — eight in all — and who knows if he is done with them, but ...

… Today is good because, in the one-day-at-a-time survivors’ mantra, he isn’t using. Today he is sitting in the offices of the Renaissance Ranch outpatient treatment center — “offering healing for the addicted and afflicted through gospel-centered solutions.” He is not here as a patient. He is here as a licensed drug abuse counselor. This is his day job. His night job is TV. Sports fans will recognize Harrington as host of the Utah Jazz pre- and post-game shows on the Root Sports Network and high school football games on KJZZ.

Ironically, he turned to counseling for his own therapy several years ago. After repeatedly failing to maintain sobriety, he reflected on the 100 or so people with whom he had gone through treatment in a Hawaii inpatient program and realized only five of them had remained sober. “I wanted to know what they were doing that I wasn’t,” he says. “Why they had made it.” He discovered that those five were working with other addicts to help them remain sober, which is Step 12 of the 12-step program — to carry the message to other addicts.

“Going to church wasn’t enough for me,” says Harrington. “I needed to be around others who had the same disease.”

So he volunteered to teach 12-step groups at the Wasatch Youth Center, a juvenile correctional facility. Then he decided to take it further. He returned to school in 2013 to study counseling. He studied on the set between shows. After completing the Jazz pre-game show, he did course work on his laptop, and after doing the post-game show he finished school assignments at home. It took two years to earn a counseling certificate. He received his license last September.

“There are counselors who are OK, and some not so good — Alema is great,” says Tyson Dixon, the executive director of Renaissance Ranch. “He inspires hope in others. He’s got a huge heart.” According to Dixon, Renaissance counselors are recovering addicts and they must pass random drug tests (in late May, Harrington also passed a hair follicle drug test, which can detect drug use as far back as the length of the hair, typically about 90 days).

Harrington has been in recovery since 2002, when he completed his last inpatient program, but there have been what he calls “hiccups.” He returned to outpatient treatment twice since then, the last time in 2012.

“This is the best 2½ years of my life in recovery,” he says. “I feel blessed. But this shouldn’t come off as if I’m perfect. I’m not. This is about continuing the fight.”

Harrington makes this point several times during a lengthy interview. It would be tidier to write that he is “cured,” that he has moved beyond the temptations and setbacks and old habits, but the life of a recovering addict, the hold of narcotic addiction and Harrington’s own history complicate such neat declarations.

To understand the genesis of Harrington’s addiction, you have to go back more than 30 years to when he was playing football at BYU. In the '80s, narcotics — specifically, prescription painkillers such as Percodan and Percocet — were readily available in the BYU training room. Too available. Several players became addicted, most of them beginning drug use innocently to treat football injuries. In 1986, four players were caught forging or altering prescriptions for painkillers. It might be more a reflection of the ignorance of the time than an indictment of BYU, given the recent revelations about narcotics abuse among NFL teams in those days. The school responded. Training room policies were overhauled and new trainers and medical staff were hired, but by then the damage was done.

The players who were caught were sent to rehab, but others — and who knows how many there were — escaped detection and were left to deal with addiction on their own. Craig Garrick, the captain of the 1984 national championship team who had suffered a horrible knee injury, died at 41 after a lifetime of drug abuse. Harrington also slipped through the net, leading him to decades of misery. He knows of former teammates who are still struggling with addiction.

Harrington’s path to narcotic addiction was typical. “It begins with people treating chronic pain issues — that’s 90-95 percent of them,” says Glen Hanson, director of the Utah Addiction Center and a professor of pharmacology at the University of Utah. “They have an injury, recovery is slow or never happens, so they take these drugs to try to control the pain.” Using them for an extended period — months and years — leads to physical dependence and then addiction. “They find out the drug does other things,” says Hanson. “It creates euphoria for a lot of people. It helps them deal with anxiety and stress and self-image issues. Eventually it occupies their thoughts all the time. They plan their lives around it. It becomes the No. 1 thing in their lives. Their lives start to go down the toilet.”

Hanson could easily have been talking about Harrington.

He grew up in Hawaii, the son of Al and Heather Harrington. Al was a legend in the Islands. In high school, he starred on the athletic field — football, basketball and track — and on stage — he appeared in several theatrical productions. At 6 feet, 215 pounds, he became the state’s first high school all-American football player. He went on to play running back at Stanford and played well enough that the Baltimore Colts tried to sign him in 1958.

He turned down the Colts, completed a degree in history and served a Mormon Church mission in Samoa. He returned to the Bay Area and entered law school while selling cars for a living. His plans changed when he met Heather McKinlay, a Utah girl who was visiting her aunt, in a Sunday school class he was teaching. They began a courtship and married.

Al left law school and the newlyweds settled in Hawaii. Al taught at Punahou High and the University of Hawaii, while moonlighting as a native knife dancer/MC for local luaus. When the TV show "Hawaii Five-O" came to Honolulu, Al auditioned and won several guest roles and finally a regular role as detective Ben Kokua. After a three-year run on the show, Al started a nightclub show on Waikiki, two shows a night, five days a week. He also played roles in Mormon movie productions, including “The Testaments,” which played on Temple Square, and “Light of the World, A Celebration of Life,” which played during the Olympics.

Like their father, Alema and his identical twin, Tau, were star athletes in track, football and basketball. With Tau playing fullback and throwing lead blocks for him, Alema led Hawaii in rushing and was named to the all-state team. The brothers both signed to play for BYU. Tau set football aside and served a mission; Alema chose to remain in Provo, a decision he would regret.

He played special teams for a couple of seasons, and when Lakei Heimuli graduated in 1986, Harrington had an opportunity for playing time at running back — until a back injury forced him to undergo surgery during Christmas break. Doctors wouldn’t clear him to play football that fall, so he redshirted the season. He returned for his junior year in 1988, playing goal-line back and special teams.

“I never got back to my abilities,” he says. “I was good enough to play, but not a star.”

Harrington says he never took a painkiller before he came to BYU. The pills were provided by the BYU athletic department medical staff. In the beginning, Harrington took painkillers strictly to dull the back pain, but eventually there was another reason.

“I started taking them recreationally, too,” he says. “From my perspective now as a recovering addict and from everything I’ve learned, those who become addicted are addicted the first time the chemicals hit their system. I still remember the first time I had a Percocet. I remember where I was — Helaman Halls. I took it for the injury. As soon as I took it I had this overwhelming feeling of euphoria. I was unaware of the addiction that was slowly overtaking me.”

He was also dealing with internal conflicts that he believes contributed to his drug use. “I was feeling like I was not doing what I should be doing (a mission), plus I was not reaching my potential as a football player,” he says. “There was a lot of self-doubt and an identity crisis. Even in high school, I felt inferior. I was the bad twin. My brother was the straight arrow. Then there was the Helaman Hall moment and all of that disappeared. The thing about pain meds is they numb emotional and physical pain.”

The Cougars traveled to Florida for the 1988 season finale against Miami. At halftime Harrington experienced intense pain — “My legs felt like they were on fire,” he says. He quit football on the spot. “I’m done,” he told the team doctor in the locker room. He was given a pain killing injection and spent the second half watching from the sideline. He never played again. The Cougars still had a bowl game to play in a few weeks, and Harrington had another year of eligibility, but he had had enough. He flew home to Hawaii to undergo another back surgery.

He graduated in 1991 with a sociology degree and a wife, Vanessa Hoag. He was still battling his drug demons. He was taking 10-12 Percocet or Vicodin daily, getting them from assorted doctors who didn’t know they were being played (in those days, pharmacies did not have the computerized tracking systems that are in place today). Shortly after graduation, he presented a forged prescription at a Provo pharmacy. The pharmacist raised questions about it. Harrington fled the store, but the experience — and the realization that he had been willing to risk criminal behavior to feed his habit — scared and awakened him to the severity of his problem.

He called George Curtis, the kindly, long-time BYU trainer who became a father figure for so many BYU athletes. “I need help,” he told him. “I have a problem.” Curtis helped him get into a treatment center, but ultimately the treatment failed. During the next couple of years he returned to treatment three times and still couldn’t stop.

“I really didn’t think I was an addict,” he says. “I would hear other people’s stories and think, ‘I’m not like that.’”

Vanessa left Harrington and moved from Utah to Hawaii with their young daughter. Al flew the other way, from Hawaii to Provo, to try to rescue his son. They drove to Las Vegas to visit his grandparents. Harrington stole his grandparents’ meds. Father and son returned to Hawaii and Alema entered an inpatient treatment center for six months.

“I was hopeless,” he says, “I didn’t think I’d ever get sober. I’d given up.”

After completing rehab, Harrington found a job as a waiter at the Polynesian Cultural Center and began to consider what he would do with his life. Inspired by former teammate Vai Sikahema, who had begun a successful career as a broadcast journalist in Philadelphia after he ended his professional football career, he decided to pursue the same path.

He landed a job with a local radio station selling commercial airtime and doing halftime and post-game shows for the University of Hawaii football team, which led to a weekend sports anchor job with Channel 8 in Honolulu. Eighteen months later, Sikahema told him that KSL-TV was looking for a weekend sports anchor. Actually, the station had completed interviews and settled on two finalists, but Harrington convinced General Manager Steve Lindsley, a former BYU quarterback, to look at his tape. Two days later, KSL sent him a plane ticket. The job was his.

Reconciled with Vanessa, Harrington and his growing family (now two children) moved to Salt Lake City in 1996. His life was good for the next few years. He was four years into sobriety, he had two young children, he was president of the elder's quorum in his church ward, and the world of sports journalism was falling into his lap. Shortly after Harrington arrived, the Jazz went to the NBA Finals, twice, BYU went to the Cotton Bowl, and Utah advanced to the Final Four.

When sports anchor Craig Bolerjack took a network job with CBS, Harrington believed he would be his replacement. Instead, KSL hired Tom Kirkland and offered Harrington another three-year contract as a weekend anchor.

“I was resentful and disappointed,” he recalls. “In recovery you learn that that destroys alcoholics more than anything.”

His life began to unravel in 2000. His old back injury flared up. He rationalized that it would be OK to take a little pain medication. It wasn’t long before he was again using regularly. He and Vanessa separated once more (they would divorce three years later). He went to a pain clinic for the back problems and was prescribed large amounts of narcotics, the clinic unaware of his history.

“They offered alternative treatment, but I wasn’t interested,” he says. “It’s not their fault. Their objective is to treat pain.”

He developed such a tolerance for narcotics that he had to take “ridiculous” amounts to get any effect. “It would have killed a normal person,” he says. As is often the pattern, he turned to heroin when narcotics became too expensive and difficult to obtain. He took heroin for the last six months of 2002, seeking the drug in seedy motels and back lots. “I would ask myself, what am I doing here?” he says. “It didn’t take long for that to come to a head.”

When his second three-year contract with KSL expired, he was informed it would not be renewed.

“My issues were never mentioned,” he says. “A lot of people were let go. It was like a salary dump after the Olympics. But certainly, I was in a horrible place.”

He tried a detox program at the University of Utah, but it didn’t take. His mother, who had urged him to seek inpatient treatment, called a man named Charles Kahalehoe, who had gone through treatment with her son years earlier and was now a drug-abuse counselor. Kahalehoe called Harrington and told him, “If you don’t get on a plane and come to Hawaii for treatment, I’m gonna come up there and kick your ----.” Harrington was torn. He didn’t want to leave his children behind in Utah, but knew he needed help.

“I was still spending time with the kids when I wasn’t chasing drugs,” he says.

He sat down with his children — there were three of them now — and explained why he had to leave. They were well aware of his drug problem. Ask Harrington about the nadir of his long drug addiction, he describes an incident in which his children followed him to the bathroom, suspecting that he was seeking a fix. They tried to push the door open, but their father leaned into it to hold them out while he was crushing Oxycontin so he could snort it.

“It still makes me cry when I think about it,” he says, wiping away tears.

So, he left his children behind in September 2002 and returned to Hawaii for another six-month inpatient treatment. He used heroin in the bathroom of the Honolulu airport before he checked into the facility. He went through three days of withdrawal — diarrhea, cold sweat, nausea, crawling skin. “Every day I wake up not sick, I’m giving people high fives,” he says. “If I wake up with the flu, I’m fine with that because I’m not dope sick. Praise God.” Then there was the agony of the separation from his children — Teinei, Durant and Aidan. Harrington wasn’t even allowed to talk to them (or anyone else) by phone. At night he knelt by his bed and asked God to hug his children for him.

He says he has been mostly drug free since that treatment in 2002. The last time he took a narcotic was to dull the pain of a broken arm in 2011, but somehow this time he didn’t spiral out of control. Still, if faced with such a situation again, he doesn’t think he would take such a risk.

“There’s nothing today that would be enough to make me use narcotics again,” he says. “If I have to have surgery again or have some medical condition that requires treatment, I will never leave the hospital with a prescription, even if I have to stay an extra day in the hospital. I have a game plan to deal with the physical pain.”

After leaving treatment in 2002, he was hired by a TV station in Hawaii, but two years later he decided that he needed to be near his wife and kids in Utah. Bolerjack, one of the few people in whom he had confided his drug problems, tipped him off about a job and he was hired as co-host of a BYU-Utah radio talk show. This led to other broadcast jobs, including stints with the Utah Blaze arena football team, BYU Sports and KJZZ.

Harrington, now 50, hit the reset button a few years ago. He remarried in 2009 and then returned to school and started a new career and a family (two children). He also maintains a relationship with the three children from his first marriage.

“I’m still making amends with my kids for the lost years,” he says. “I’ll always be making amends for that. What I was putting my kids through, seeing their father strung out — they went through hell. I never was loud or abusive with them, but certainly it was abusive to see their father like that.”

Teinei, a dancer for the Denver Nuggets, worked for a time as a counselor in youth addiction recovery programs because of her experiences with her father. Durant is serving a church mission in New Zealand. Aidan is a high school junior.

“My daughter has been the most vocal (about drugs),” he says. “She’s worked in treatment and sees the miracles that happen and can appreciate what I’ve been through.”

He was thrilled three years ago when he could attend a ceremony honoring the seniors on Jordan High’s football team, which included Durant. “It was cool for the other parents, too, but it had a different significance for me,” he says. “It was a miracle that I could be there and hug him. If I hadn’t left when he was 8, I don’t know that I would have been there for him when he was 18.”

In recent years, Harrington acts like a man who is trying to pay off debts. Any conversation about his drug problems includes references to his religious convictions, which he believes played a big role in his recovery. “I am totally incapable of staying sober,” he says. “The fact that I am has nothing to do with me except my willingness to let God run the show. Addiction is a disease; I will always have it. So it needs to be treated on a daily basis just like any other diseases. My daily medication is a connection with my Heavenly Father … I spent 20 years trying to fix it so I could be presentable to God.”

Part of his amends, he believes, is speaking frequently on addiction and working at Renaissance Ranch, which is an LDS-based recovery program. His counseling work includes group sessions at night when the Jazz aren’t playing, and he prays that God will bless his family when he leaves them to help others. There is no shortage of people who need help. According to a CNN report last fall, Utah ranks eighth among the 50 states in death by prescription overdose.

“Clearly, we have a high percentage of our population that gets into trouble with these drugs,” says Hanson.

Harrington says, “As a faith-based community we really struggle with this disease because there’s so much shame associated with it. We want to hide it. That wouldn’t be your Heavenly Father’s desire, to be ashamed. We talk in groups about the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is Godly remorse and shame is the tool of the adversary. Guilt would motivate me to make a change and shame would cause me to hide it, and that prevents me from getting help and choosing to stop. It’s a disease. It’s the same as if someone had cancer. There shouldn’t be shame.”

Harrington sometimes reflects on a moment in the mid-80s when his Mormon bishop, as well as his BYU coach, LaVell Edwards, told him he needed to serve a mission. They didn’t know it, but Harrington was in no condition to serve, given his drug issues. “I prayed about it, and I had a strong confirmation I should go,” he says. “But I went back and told the bishop I had no confirmation. Talk about a conflict. When you deny a calling like that, you’re going to have problems. I was in no shape to go, but that added to my conflict, not doing what you believe is right. And the good twin was already on his mission.”

He thinks about this a moment and then says, “I feel like I’m serving that mission today. Helping people to come back and to overcome drugs. I hope that is acceptable to my Heavenly Father.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com