By David Yarger
Wednesday night, former Grand Island High School and University at Buffalo wide receiver Alex Neutz spoke with Niagara-Wheatfield student-athletes about his mental health struggles with anxiety, depression and addiction.
At the Falcons' winter sports meeting, Neutz took students on a journey of his past history with anxiety dating back to when he was between 5- and 6-years-old. Neutz also told the audience how the sport he really loved was volleyball, but with persuasion from coaches and a want to have friends as a "socially awkward" kid, he switched to football, because Neutz said he felt it was the cool thing to do. Neutz called it the best and worst decision of his life.
He mentioned a time where he hurt his back and was given hydrocodone to take the pain away. He said the pill changed everything for him.
As time went on, Neutz became a superstar football player at GI and UB, but he said his addiction worsened and his happiness also declined. Despite countless efforts to reach out to coaches and other people around him, Neutz couldn't find the help he needed.
It wasn't until Neutz's best friend came home one day - shortly after a drug-related incident in which Neutz was held at gunpoint, and then another incident in which Neutz was arrested - where Neutz opened up to his friend about his conditions. The friend told Neutz's parents, and two days later Neutz entered rehab.
Neutz added he wanted help before the occasion, but said he didn't want to let his parents down, because he felt to them he was perfect. He said his parents figuring out was uncomfortable, but a "saving grace."
Neutz said he met many people from different walks of life at rehab. "Addiction does not discriminate. It does not care who you are, where you are. It does not care about the color of your skin. It does not care what race, gender, or sexual orientation you are. It does not matter," Neutz said.
Neutz added he learned many lessons at rehab that he never learned at school, and said you have to be the most important person in your life in order for life to work out.
"It's OK to talk about your feelings," Neutz said. "I've learned this. I played Division I football where you have to be macho, tough, put on this persona. My life could've went a whole different direction if someone just heard my cries for help, heard me reach out. Talk to people, open up, ask your friend how they're doing, ask your kid how they're doing, ask your friend if they're happy. ... Don't be afraid to dig and care and love everybody and love each other."
Neutz has spoke in front of audiences before - including teens and young adults - and he said telling his story to the kids is important to him and he hoped the audience understood to reach out and not be afraid when help is needed.
"Telling my story allows other people to tell their story," Neutz said. "Too often there's all these negative stigmas around addiction ... like 'bums on the street or drinking out of a paper bag.' Not a Division I athlete from Grand Island, New York, who had everything he could ever want growing up. So just to show that it can happen to anybody and it doesn't discriminate. And just to get people talking about it. ... It's the biggest thing to get everyone talking about it."