Remembering Tampa Bay and Alabama football great Keith McCants: the heartbreak and hope of recovery

THE PEOPLE WHO LOVED Keith McCants hated every month's first. The NFL would then issue the disability check to Keith McCants, a former Alabama football star and draft pick. The money was enough to pay his bills, live in St. Petersburg, Florida, and buy dangerous amounts of drugs.
McCants died from a suspected drug overdose on Sept. 2. He was 53 years old. He died just hours before National Recovery Month. Actor Michael K. Williams, the man who created "The Wire"'s iconic character Omar, was found dead in his apartment from acute drug intoxication two days later.

The number of overdose deaths in the United States has increased by 56% in the past five year. They have risen from 52,404 in 2015, to 93,331 in last year. The American Medical Association claims that the pandemic is a horrible accelerant to an already severe national epidemic.

McCants tried, just like many others who struggle with alcohol and drug dependency. He tried so hard. He was caught in a vicious circle: He used drugs to alleviate his physical pain and then felt depressed about his addiction. Then he would turn to drugs to soothe his emotional pain. People close to him believed 2021 would be the turning point. He'd recently been doing well, having completed a two-week stint of rehab and then receiving a hip replacement. His movement was like nothing he had seen in 25 years. Robert Blackmon, McCants' friend and best friend of the past decade, said that McCants was doing much better than ever.

McCants didn't believe it, no matter how much his family wanted him to believe. McCants kept repeating to everyone that he didn’t believe he would make it, even for the last decade. After yet another drug possession arrest, Blackmon once released McCants from jail. McCants then plopped down in his car and stated, "I only live 18 months."

Blackmon was confused. McCants' voice sounded like a doctor telling him that he was suffering from a terminal, late-stage illness. McCants just felt it about himself.

McCants stated, "I don’t know how it’s going to happen." "I know it will happen," McCants said.

Although he outlived his prediction by many years, he continued to repeat it. Blackmon was captivated by McCants' stories about his experiences in rehab, with his three children, and being in and outside of prison. He also heard the stories of how he suffered from pain and went back to work. He urged the crowd to get sober. Do it for your friends. Do it for your loved ones. Do it for you.

Blackmon was stunned to see 50 people line up to hug McCants after he finished. One man stated, "You put your pain out there like nothing I have ever done before." "But now I will. "Thank you for your assistance."

McCants later told Blackmon that he doubted he would ever be able practice the things he had preached. McCants said that he believed he could prevent Keith McCants from coming back, but not save the real one. McCants said, "I want my story to be shared and do some good while i am still here on Earth." "That's all I want in my life."

Blackmon is finished telling the story and then he looks at his Zoom screen, where he starts to cry. After five seconds of crying, he then cries for 10 seconds and 20 second, before finally letting out that sad sigh. He wanted to be like that person, and he would do all he could to achieve it. It was so difficult to get him to see himself in this light. He's gone."

McCants is seen here in 2009, fourteen years after he retired as an NFL player. He had just completed a two week stint in rehabilitation and had undergone hip replacement surgery shortly prior to his death. John David Mercer/Press-Register via AP

IT'S AN AGE-OLD, torturous question: How do you help somebody get sober? You can shout at them. Hug them! Arrange an intervention You can cut the person off. Harm reduction treatment? All of the above?

McCants was not the only one who tried the kitchen sink method. It had mixed results. After completing rehab, he would then put together six months of data and disappear or lie about relapsing. Blackmon and McCants ex-wife Gigi had the longest history with McCants. They tried the tough-love approach. Both couldn't take the time to set boundaries and turn him away. They weren't sure if they could bear to live with him alone.

They were so independent that they came to the same conclusion: Love is the best approach. They just had to love Keith and pray for the best. Gigi said that Keith was loved by everyone who met him. Keith was a huge teddy bear who loved everyone he met, and you met him when you met him. This is Keith McCants.

Gigi met him in 1990. McCants walked in on her as she had just arrived from Puerto Rico. McCants had just signed a $7.5 million rookie contract with the Bucs to be the No. 4 overall draft pick. A 6-foot-3, 265-pound defensive linebacker and defensive end, McCants was an amazing athlete. He ran a 4.51 at a combine. Bill Curry, McCants' Alabama coach, once said that McCants was what God would make if He asked God to create a football player. McCants was the first to be allowed by the NFL to draft juniors.

Gigi did not watch football so she didn't know who this huge person was. McCants approached her to help buy electronics and asked if she would go on a date. McCants politely declined to help her buy electronics, and McCants kept coming back, buying stuff, sometimes with Tampa Bay colleagues. She was a top-selling salesperson in Circuit City and had been for about a year. McCants finally invited her on a date.

McCants invited her to help him purchase Christmas gifts for his friends and family. He invited her to spend the night with him at his mansion. She agreed and told her to walk around the house. After wandering through the halls, she found a backroom that had the door shut. She opened the door to be surprised to find piles of unopened stereos, VCRs, VCRs, Walkmans, and stereos. He kept buying Circuit City stuff from her even though he didn’t use it. She says, "Only God knows how many dollars he spent on items he didn’t even know how use."

Soon after, they got married and had a son and daughter. It was not until she realized that Keith was surrounded by a lot of injections and pills that kept him off the field. McCants was not without his moments, but he had six injuries-plagued years before he retired from the NFL. Gigi now says that McCants loved football so much. He would do anything for the game. However, after he was cut in 1995, it was all downhill.

McCants vanished two years later after she asked him to go. He pingponged between Alabama and Florida, becoming more and more addicted to drugs and alcohol. McCants also spent almost all of the money he earned and was featured in the ESPN 30 for 30 "Broke" episode about athletes who have lost their fortunes.

McCants moved in and out of Gigi's and their lives for the next 20 years. He also had a daughter from a different relationship in Alabama. Gigi was unable to resist the temptation of opening her home when McCants called or showed up. She let him live with her and her two children for a few days once, 15 years ago. It was after they had divorced. He was nearly 400 pounds and could barely walk due to his hip pain. From the moment he knocked at the door, he was completely relaxed. His drug use included heroin and crack.

McCants fled the house on the first day and never came back. Gigi filed a missing person report with the police after 48 hours. McCants came to her door on the third day. He was in his bedroom, so she helped him and called the missing persons. She heard him groaning, banging on the wall, and went into his bedroom. He was choked and had vomited all across the floor.

She said, "I'm going call 911."

McCants screamed, "No, you don't do it," McCants said, in a raspy voice: "Just give me a gallon water and place it beside the bed."

He began to drink the water, and then he collapsed against the wall. Her ex-husband, who was once one of the most accomplished athletes in the world collapsed against her guest bedroom wall in apparent drug-induced distress. She is still shocked by this scene. He was so scared she thought she would die if Gigi left the room. So, she crouched down and slipped her 130-pound, 5-foot-1 body behind him like a book on a shelf. He was held in a Heimlich position by her, and she cradled him against the wall. She couldn't move until he awoke again and lifted his body from her. She couldn't get up from the bed because her back was hurt. He sat beside her and she cried. He tried to explain it was a stomach virus, but that's when Gigi realized McCants had become addicted.

Blackmon is not alone in having a number of similar stories. McCants' friendship with Blackmon has a unique history. McCants was being reported on in the media, so he wrote McCants a note to express his gratitude and asked for help. Blackmon was surprised when McCants replied with a note indicating that he could help. McCants replied, "Bail me out!"

He did bail out McCants and it was the first of many. Their friendship became so turbulent that Blackmon's friends organized an intervention to force McCants to stop bailing out of him.

Blackmon was unable to do so. McCants was an inspiration to Blackmon. Blackmon, who graduated in 2010 from Florida State, started a small painting company to raise money for his ultimate goal: to buy and sell real estate. McCants was always in Blackmon's ear, encouraging him to dream big and to pursue his dreams the same way he had once chased football dreams. Even as McCants' life was unraveling, McCants continued to encourage him.

McCants received his pep talks from jail phone calls for most of the three years. He was being held in jail for various drug possession and driving offenses. Blackmon was successful, and the experience of helping McCants, even though it didn't show up in McCants' life, pushed Blackmon towards public service. Blackmon ran for the city council, and won. Now, he is headed for a Nov. 2, showdown to be elected mayor of St. Petersburg. Blackmon, a Republican in a city that is left-leaning, is an underdog.

McCants' death was announced to him on Sept. 2. He was so shocked that his best friend had died that he tried not to take a shower and head to work. There was a water main problem that he needed to resolve in city council. Blackmon collapsed at the first meeting and then turned around and headed home. Blackmon had to face one of the most difficult losses in his life. Blackmon says, "A few days back, I thought that I couldn't continue this election." "But now, I have to. Keith was a great supporter of me in all I tried and accepted my efforts. It made him more open to love and accept other people after all he had been through.

After our Zoom conversation was over, Blackmon sent me 15 videos featuring McCants. Many of the videos show McCants singing along to the radio while sitting in Blackmon's passenger seat. One picture shows them sitting at a table in a restaurant. Blackmon tells McCants that he has stopped playing on his phone and wants him to eat his food. McCants puts down his phone and takes out his fork.

McCants sends him a moving endorsement video. He praises Blackmon for his kindness in helping him beat addiction. McCants suggested that they use it in Blackmon's close primary race, but McCants convinced him to keep it for the general election in November. Blackmon states, "I don’t know what I should do with that video right now."

He stops. He had just found the answer. This endorsement video was created to encourage thousands of voters to trust Robert Blackmon. Perhaps it isn't so bad that he will never see it. Keith McCants could be his last endorsement. He says, "I'll just look at it and think of my friend."

McCants, the No. McCants, the No. 4 pick in the 1990 draft, spent most of the millions he earned in the NFL and ended up broke in retirement. Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

I REMEMBER the funeral of my friend who died from overdose. Although he is not my real name, I will call him Marcus. I waited in line with friends and family for over an hour, looking around like a question mark. Many of us loved Marcus but he couldn’t stay sober.

Because I am an addict, funerals for them hit me especially hard. I used to consume 50 pills and six beers per day for many years before I entered rehab in 2008. I have been sober since then, despite the fact that chronic pain has always been a part my life, just as Keith McCants. It is not easy, and it is not for everyone.

That room was supposed to have closure, and perhaps other people also found it. I didn't. I felt so sad. It was so, so sad. He was sober and bright, but now he was in a casket. He wasn't able to recover -- as McCants' loved ones said about McCants, my friend would seek treatment or detox and get better. He would disappear again after he had put his life back together. I would hear him tell me he was back in a treatment center when he reached rock bottom. Every time, I would go to him or drive him home, if necessary. Perhaps this is the right time to think.

One day, I received the terrible call that Marcus had died. His body was discovered by a family member.

After the funeral, it was clear that I would no longer be working with newcomers. A few days later, however, I attended a 12-step meeting where someone shared the story of our friend who had died. He shared that he was also devastated and felt deep sadness the morning. He closed his remarks with words that I will never forget. He added, "I will miss Marcus." He said, "I will miss Marcus. But I refuse to let him go in vain."

I would love to have a healthy, complete checklist on how to help someone get sober. It doesn't exist, however. I constantly assess whether or not I am investing too much in people who are struggling with alcohol and drugs. Both of these are bad outcomes. I was too involved in Marcus's campaign for help, and may have missed other people who could have benefitted from it. It is important to remember that the hands reaching out for me should be the ones I have in my pockets.

This is a ridiculous idea for many. But what if the addict in you life is your spouse? Your brother? Your daughter? How can you cut off someone you love so deeply that they could become sober and have a better future? What if the struggle of the loved one has caused other people's lives to be destroyed?

I didn't cringe when Blackmon or Gigi talked about moments when McCants was given painful boundaries -- both of them told McCants, multiple times, to get help. I get it. It's something I have heard from sober people. They say that the best thing that happened to them was getting thrown out of their home or a DUI. Sometimes it's not easy to reach the bottom.

I nod along as Blackmon and Gigi described McCants winning their backs, of him making an earnest effort to win them over and then suddenly finding themselves back on his side. That mentality is something I often embrace -- "I won’t carry you towards help, but I’ll run alongside you, brother."

After that, it can become more difficult and you will have to deal with the actions of McCants' loved ones. Addiction is often a dark hole of money, pain, broken promises, disappearances, and a host of other unpleasant things. Unfortunately, there are many sequels to this movie.

However, I believe that love is possible, even if it doesn't always work out. A good friend of mine once said to me that you have a 100% success rate in helping others. He said that I didn't have a 100% success rate and that my help rate was closer to 5%. I explained that I had been trying to help other people get sober for a long time. He was correct, and I would still rather have a hard heart than a cold.

This is what kept Gigi and Blackmon coming back in -- there was always a possibility that the next group of help they would provide would love Keith until he could truly love himself. They had many wonderful moments, even if they were going through the worst. Blackmon said that Keith would always remind me that he was with me for the rest of my life. "And I was happy to be stuck with him. "I thought we had made a significant turn."

Gigi also thought the same thing. McCants was back in the lives of the children a bit more than in the past. Gigi thought McCants looked better after he had completed rehab and had his hip fixed.

The first month came and went, and then her son called. He informed her that cops had arrived at his home to inform him that McCants was found dead in his apartment. She says, "It was surreal." It is still surreal. However, it was always clear to me that I would get a call from Keith.

She cried every single day for the first week. She wondered if it was worth all the hard work, all the hugs and all the patience. It was only a brief conversation, but she knew it was worth it. McCants has always stressed that tragic, but powerful message about McCants' own life: Keith McCants wanted you to not become him.

It is difficult to listen to McCants' loved ones talk about McCants and not feel sad. The ending of his movie is sad. He never had the chance to live a happy life without drugs and pain.

Gigi Blackmon and Blackmon talked about McCants never giving up, but it became clear that they would both give everything to help anyone who asks.

Perhaps there's another lesson in the McCants story. Maybe the lesson of Keith McCants is less about his death and more about those who tried to help him. They were certain that he did not die in vain.

For confidential, free help, visit SAMHSA.gov. You're worth it.

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