From Harvard to heroin, a recovery story

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Russell Schober, a former Harvard University football star, at his Brentwood, Pa., home.

A dozen years ago, two freshmen were suspended from Harvard University’s football team, reportedly for some high-octane partying. Today, one plays for the Cleveland Browns, while the other lives just south of Pittsburgh, where he’s trying to get things back together after a decade of addiction to pills and heroin.

“I have no money, no assets, no job prospects and no career,” said Russell Schober, 31, who now lives in Brentwood, Pa.

But he has family, sobriety and an as-yet-unfocused desire to turn his losing streak into a win.

“I’m going to own it. I’m going to embrace this,” he said.

Back in 2005, Mr. Schober was a first-year defensive back for Harvard, following a childhood in Lancaster, and both academic and athletic stardom at Clear Lake High School in Houston. At Harvard, he palled around with Desmond Bryant, now a Cleveland Browns defensive lineman.

Bryant bounced back after his suspension, and now makes millions. Schober, though, suffered a back injury and was prescribed Vicodin, then oxycodone.

“I was like, this is it,” Schober said, in an interview, recounting the intense euphoria. “I remember standing in front of my window, thinking, ‘This is it, this is what I’ve been waiting for.’”

Over time, he sidelined athletics, academic ambition and even his girlfriend.

“When I realized that I liked opiates and I could abuse them and get a higher effect, it wasn’t long before I was using four or five a day,” he said.

After graduating from Harvard, Schober bounced between financial services and teaching jobs, and between his mother’s place in Houston and his father’s in Lancaster. In Texas, he was able to find painkillers easily, through doctors or street dealers. In small-town Pennsylvania, that was much tougher.

“I remember driving around Lancaster, looking for Oxycontin,” he said. “No one knew about any Oxycontin, but they knew about bags.”

He decided to give heroin a sniff. Later, he learned to inject it.

“If I am already this far into it,” he recalled thinking, “I might as well go all the way.”

Schober’s prestigious economics degree got him jobs, but his heroin use continually sabotaged them. His family repeatedly took him in and got him into rehabs, but he would use and get kicked out.

Low points included collapsing in a Texas school where he was teaching and coaching, and sleeping in the woods near Erie after he was booted from a rehab.

He decided to try Pittsburgh, where his sister had settled. When he arrived in town in 2013, his appearance shocked her.

“At the height of my football career, I was 215 [pounds],” he said. “When I showed up in Pittsburgh, I was 154 pounds.”

Schober said he holed up in a motel and promptly went through withdrawal after six months on black tar heroin.

“I had never been through anything that bad in my entire life,” he said.

For a while, he drifted into and out of drug use — sometimes pills, sometimes heroin — and through a string of rehabs and flop houses. Even when he wasn’t using, when he would hear stories of overdoses, he would wonder about what he was missing.

Then, around 19 months ago, his girlfriend wrote two words on the bathroom mirror in lipstick: “Six weeks.” Schober realized that he had been sober for that long.

“If it’s already been six weeks, I might as well keep it going,” he said. “I owe it to God. Look how much I’ve been blessed and I’ve squandered it all.”

His path hasn’t been entirely smooth. In September, according to a police report, an argument between Schober and his girlfriend escalated into an assault by him. The charge was withdrawn in April.

Since then, he has been helping his girlfriend to care for her son, looking for work and considering whether he has a message to bring to others.

“I was a nerd. Your kid starts on the football team? Me, too. Your son was the homecoming king? Gotcha,” he said. “If it can put me where it did, it can put anybody anywhere.”

The flip side? “How would I be able to help people as well if I didn’t have these scars?”

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542. Twitter @richelord.