Former New England Patriots lineman Chris Sullivan and his wife Kathi Meyer Sullivan both have stories that involve powerful realizations.
In the hours and days after Meyer's daughter Taylor went missing and was found drowned near the abandoned Norfolk Airport, she came to newly understand the importance of communication; between friends, between children and adults, and between parents and their kids.
The night Taylor died, before she went to that fateful party in the woods, she was drunk at a homecoming football game. In the stands she spoke to a family friend, an adult who asked if she was driving. Taylor said no and the woman never called her mom.
"You have to make that phone call," Meyer told a crowd gathered at for BASHY's "Making a Difference Evening." "And as a parent, you have to be able to take that phone call."
Middle and high school students and their parents attended the substance abuse prevention seminar on Thursday night, put together by the community and school partnership Braintree Alliance for Safe and Healthy Youth. Also in attendance were Mayor Joseph Sullivan, several local officials and state Sen. John Keenan, D-Quincy, who chairs the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse.
"Just the fact that you're here means you're at less risk than somebody who isn't here," Keenan said.
Kathi Meyers lost her 17-year-old daughter, a senior at King Philip High School, in October 2008. A few months later, she told Taylor's story for the first time. In the audience that day was Chris Sullivan, just a few weeks sober.
Sullivan, who would eventually waste millions of dollars and the last part of an NFL career because of alcohol, prescription drugs and heroin, said he "never listened" during high school and college when people talked about the perils of alcohol and drugs. "I wasn't rude and I didn't blow people off. I said that it would never happen to me."
And it didn't, at least for a while. Sullivan was a standout athlete at North Attleboro, in football, track and basketball, and earned a full scholarship to Boston College. There he drank only rarely, but often until blacking out – what he later learned was a sign of problems to come.
Sullivan was making smart decisions, spending time with friends who would go on to graduate school. "Sports was my life," he said. "I hung out with good people."
In 1996, Sullivan was drafted by the Patriots and played in the Super Bowl that season against the Green Bay Packers. He later signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers when they offered him more money. There he started hanging out with guys who went out every night and in his first year with the team Sullivan blew out his back and was prescribed Oxycontin.
"That's kind of where my life started to spiral," he said. "For the first time in my life I felt like a failure, I started to drink more."
Eventually, after one more Super Bowl with the Patriots in 2002, Sullivan chose drinking and drugs over the NFL, went to rehab 15 different times, got five OUIs and ended up in the ICU twice. Over six years in the NFL he earned about $5 million, and in the six years after he left, Sullivan blew it all. For years he stayed at home, barely changing his clothes and getting heroin delivered.
"I went from playing for the Patriots and going to the Super Bowl to living in my room and throwing up in the bathroom," Sullivan said.
By the end of 2008, he was ready to ask for help. "I always thought I could stop," Sullivan said. "I never thought to ask for help. But if I could go back, I would ask for help 15 years ago."
Contributing to Sullivan's turnaround and his continued sobriety is his wife, who understands more than most what it means to reach out to someone when things go wrong.
There was the boy who used his fake ID to buy beer that Friday afternoon for Taylor and her friends, the 20 kids in the woods who let Taylor try to walk home alone in the dark, the friend who was afraid to call Meyer the next morning, and the parents who saw Taylor's car at their house but didn't pick up the phone.
"These kids live with that every day," Meyer said. "Please let your kids know that they are going to make mistakes, but that they can talk to you about them."