Last year, all of Oklahoma was captivated by a special friendship between a sick little girl and a towering football player.
Olivia Hamilton was diagnosed with leukemia at age 8 and underwent 108 weeks of chemotherapy. She came to a Coaches vs. Cancer event at Oklahoma State's basketball arena and met a star athlete.
It was Justin Blackmon.
The two became close. Blackmon visited Olivia several times in the hospital and wore a pink wristband she gave him in his Cowboys games. The bond became a national story, an inspiring story, and Olivia finished her treatment.
Now it's Blackmon who needs help.
Last June, he was charged with his second DUI. He blew a 0.24 in a breathalyzer test – three times the legal limit. It was a shocking turn in the story of a quiet player who most fans only knew for his incredible talent and his soft touch with a cancer-stricken girl.
Blackmon played his rookie season in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars and then was suspended four games for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy. He came back to the team and played very well, only to be suspended again Friday, this time indefinitely, for another violation of the league's substance abuse policy. He won't be allowed to apply for reinstatement until next summer. Blackmon is in serious trouble, in his career and in his life.
Aside from the selfish reaction of those who wonder what this means for their fantasy team, there's widespread outcry. How could anyone throw all this talent away? How could a millionaire adult playing a game risk it all for a fix or a high or a buzz?
Those aren't the right questions to ask. No "spoiled athlete" would cavalierly endanger his dream like this. Blackmon is set to lose about $3 million in salary and up to $10 million if he's cut. He knows this. He knows he was down to his last chance earlier this year. He was asked in May if he believed he was at a "crossroads moment" and he said, "I do."
It's clear that Blackmon is facing a monster he can't corral on his own. Far from being "diva behavior," this is someone who isn't strong enough to overpower his own demons. He needs professional help that goes well beyond the support of his head coach, Gus Bradley, and the Jaguars' general manager, David Caldwell. His life is now a tragedy in slow motion, and he's been fortunate to avoid doing greater harm to himself or others. We all worry that the next news story involving Blackmon will be frightening rather than disappointing.
Put simply and starkly, he's lost control.
The best and only way for him to regain that control is to find an environment where he can search for answers and insight without the fear and shame that come with discussing your private life with your bosses.
"His suspension will provide him the opportunity to receive the attention and professional treatment necessary to overcome his challenges," Caldwell said Friday, "and we will support him during this time."
Overcoming those challenges isn't just ridding himself of whatever substance he's using; it's acquiring an awareness of what's leading him back to those things. Everyone knows the symptom; what's the cause?
When he was asked in May if he felt he had a drinking or substance abuse problem, Blackmon said, "No, I would say I don't." Whether Blackmon was being dismissive or oblivious doesn't matter now. He does have a problem, and it's beyond career-threatening. It's something that's affecting him to his core, and emerging in the form of terrible choices. One person within the Jaguars organization says Blackmon was making very good progress, so the effort to get better is there. But sometimes the individual effort we laud in athletes is not enough to solve a personal problem. Sometimes no amount of work is enough without the right kind of assistance.
When college basketball coach Larry Eustachy was photographed drinking with co-eds after a game at Missouri, he reached out to a therapist named Jimmy Stewart and heard something he'd never forget.
"He just told me, 'You just don't have enough tools in the toolbox to deal with your alcoholism.'" Eustachy recalls. "I had no clue what he was talking about. But that was probably the most powerful thing I've heard since I've been in recovery."
Blackmon doesn't have the tools, either. Someone has to help him find them.
What fans can do is remember the person who helped little Olivia. The real Justin Blackmon is likely that one, who opened himself up to a scared girl in her time of need. A truly careless, selfish person wouldn't have done that.
Olivia told TV cameras that she cared about Justin Blackmon, and that she loved him. He needs to hear those words again now, and know they aren't for a football player with a famous name, but for a human being with a real heart.
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