With each interview and every speech, Chris Herren reopens deep wounds.
They are dark memories from which most would rather move on and forget. Alcohol and drug experimentation turned into addiction, near-death overdoses and arrests that overshadowed a promising basketball career that had shined brightest while he was at Fresno State.
“Always tough, never easy,” said Herren, who has since recovered and become a nationwide public speaker. “Baring your soul in front of hundreds and hundreds, it’s not easy.
“But I think it’s necessary. I think there’s a lot of power in people’s stories. And people can find inspiration in it. There’s a lot of people out there struggling. I hope my story makes an impact.”
Herren, 39, is scheduled to make another trip to Fresno for a speaking engagement Monday, this one at Buchanan High. He will share his stories first with Buchanan students at 1 p.m., then in a general public session at 7 p.m.
The public session sold out Thursday.
Herren, a star at Fresno State from 1996-1999 under future Hall of Fame coach Jerry Tarkanian and who then played a couple of seasons in the NBA, knows some might already know of his story. An ESPN “30 for 30” documentary titled “Unguarded” came out in 2011 and detailed his struggles.
A few months before the documentary’s release, Herren was back in Fresno and some scenes were filmed here. He hadn’t been back since but said he is anxious to return.
There are a few friends who believe his drug use grew during his time as a Fresno State student, with the Valley a hotbed for crystal meth. It was at the university, during the 1997-98 school year, where Herren held a tear-filled news conference to confess he had “slipped up,” started using again and would miss part of that season to attend rehab.
“The issues I was dealing with at that time in my life, it would’ve escalated at Harvard; it would’ve escalated anywhere,” Herren said. “Fresno offered me more help than I ever received in my life. They never closed the door on me, and I’ll never, ever forget that.
“In my darkest hours, at a very young age, a community rallied and embraced me and helped me and welcomed me back. Not many communities do that. I see a lot of college athletes fail a drug test and have to leave college and they’re done. They’re not welcomed back. I was. Fresno, it’ll always be a home for me.”
Herren said he’s been drug and alcohol free for 61/2 years. It started when a drug counselor told Herren, after another arrest and overdose, to have his wife tell their children their father died in a car accident and then for Herren to leave his family forever.
“I know what rock-bottom feels like,” Herren said. “I lived there for many years. I understand that world. The desperation, the struggle is the same whether it’s with heroin, meth, crack, OxyContin, you name it.”
Since cleaning up his life, Herren has shared his stories year-round with people of all ages. He’s visited with this year’s Super Bowl teams, the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, as well as the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.
Herren, who is paid for most of his speaking engagements, talked to all four programs in this past season’s college football playoff (Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Oregon) and to many other universities. He’s also spoke at numerous high schools.
“I found my passion speaking most with high school kids,” Herren said. “They’re at a crossroads at that age. You’ve got a couple of major decisions to make. If I can get them on the right track or keep them on the right track, then it’s a huge win for everybody.
“Unfortunately, there’s this notion like it’s become almost the norm that high school kids are going to get wasted. Like it’s become part of the high school experience.”
Herren also doesn’t approve of the legalization of marijuana in states such as Colorado and Washington.
“I think it’s sad,” he said. “It’s reckless. I feel bad for the kids who are going to have free access to it. There’s kids out there who can smoke pot and will never be faced with a problem. But there’s kids out there who’ll spoke pot and open a door they can’t close.”
Herren’s visit to Fresno became possible thanks to former Fresno State baseball star Bryan Marsoobian. He and his youngest daughter were watching Herren’s “30 for 30” documentary when she told Marsoobian that she knew a lot of students who were using drugs and alcohol.
A visit with a local drug prevention program known as PAIN provided further inspiration to get Herren to speak. According to PAIN executive director Flindt Anderson, the majority of his teen clients attended Buchanan, Clovis North, Clovis West, Clovis, Fresno Christian, Bullard or Memorial.
A study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University revealed that “teens who abuse prescription drugs are twice as likely to use alcohol, five times more likely to use marijuana, and 12 to 20 times more likely to use illegal street drugs such as heroin, Ecstasy and cocaine than teens who do not abuse prescription drugs.”
“I was shocked to hear the numbers,” said Marsoobian, who serves as an off-campus Buchanan baseball assistant and starred at Fresno State from 1987-88. “I just thought, we got to do something about this. Maybe hearing Chris tell his story would help, even if it’s just one. Hopefully, it helps a lot more.”
Herren calls being drug-free “freedom,” but a daily fight, nonetheless.
“This is a family illness,” Herren said. “There’s a lot of people who are affected by one person. And if you can help one person, you’re not just helping them. You’re helping their children, their brothers, sisters, wife, their mother, their father. There’s so many.”