See how this former BYU running back defeated his decades-long battle with opioids

The first time Alema Harrington took a Percocet was in 1984 during his freshman year at Brigham Young University. He was sitting on a bench in a common area in Helaman Halls when he felt the narcotic hit his bloodstream.

“It filled me with a sensation of euphoria and peace, like everything was going to be OK,” he remembers.

The BYU team doctors had provided the pills to control the pain of a football injury.

Harrington, a running back, started taking the drugs recreationally.

“I don’t recall ever having significant physical pain, but I don’t think I realized all of the emotional pain that I had,” he says. “The drugs erased all of that immediately.”

Alema Harrington grew up in Hawaii, the son of Al and Heather Harrington. Al was a legend in the islands. He was the state’s first all-American football player and starred in the original cast of Hawaii 5-0.

Like their father, Alema and his identical twin, Tau, were stand-out athletes in track, football and basketball. Both brothers signed to play for BYU.

“I grew up in the shadow of my father and in competition with my twin brother,” Harrington remembers. “Coming up through high school and playing sports, I had a lot of insecurity, worrying that I wasn’t good enough and I wouldn’t measure up.”

Things took a turn for the worse when a back injury forced him to undergo surgery and his doctors wouldn’t clear him to play. That fall, he was supposed to have been a starting running back — instead, he spent the season on the bench.

“I missed my chance to be a star,” he says ruefully. “I was depressed, and slowly slipped into chronic drug use and physical dependence.”

When Harrington graduated in 1991, he was using prescriptions from different doctors to take up to 12 pain pills a day. He knew he needed help, and checked himself into treatment.

After completing rehab, Alema decided to pursue a career in sports broadcasting. After a few local broadcast jobs, KSL TV hired him in 1996 as their weekend sports anchor.

Harrington, his wife, and his two children moved to Salt Lake City in 1996. In the two years that followed, BYU went to the Cotton Bowl, the University of Utah advanced to the Final Four, and the Jazz went to the NBA Finals. His association with these momentous events catapulted him to broadcasting prominence and he felt destined for greater things.

Former BYU football player and broadcaster Alema Harrington is pictured in Draper on Nov. 30, 2017. Harrington struggled with opioid addiction and is now clean and counseling addicts.
Former BYU football player and broadcaster Alema Harrington is pictured in Draper on Nov. 30, 2017. Harrington struggled with opioid addiction and is now clean and counseling addicts. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

But when the high-status weekday sports anchor job opened up, Harrington was passed over.

“I was resentful and disappointed,” he recalls. “For a recovering addict, that’s a very dangerous emotional state.”

In 2000, his life began to unravel. His old back injury flared up. He was prescribed narcotics, and, after eight years drug free, he again started abusing pain medications.

Two years later, when his contract with KSL expired, he was told that it would not be renewed.

Harrington soon hit rock bottom. He remembers crushing Oxycontin tablets and snorting the powder in his bathroom, holding the door closed as his children, fully aware of what he was doing, banged on it repeatedly.

In September 2002, Harrington admitted himself to a Honolulu rehab facility where he spent the next six months.

After treatment, he tried to return to broadcasting, but felt unfulfilled.

“I realized that what was missing from my recovery process was sharing the message and helping others still struggling,” he says.

Now 51, Harrington works as a licensed substance abuse disorder counselor at Renaissance Ranch, an LDS-based treatment program in Salt Lake City.

He says working with others who are battling addiction keeps him grounded and gives his troubled past a larger meaning. After he and his first wife divorced in 2005, he remarried in 2009 and had two more children. He still maintains a relationship with the three children from his previous marriage.

“Today, what I went through and what my children went through because of me, now has a positive purpose,” he says. “It gives me the unique ability to truly understand the unspeakable things that addiction can drive a person to do and to give others hope that redemption is possible.”

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