Below is the 4th and final post by Aaron Cooksey. We decided the final post should be lighthearted and fun, while teaching some very important life lessons at the same time. I would like to thank Aaron for taking the time to share these lessons with our readers. His posts hold a blog record of 1500 different visitors in one day. Thank you Aaron!
As much as the guts of my programming is about choices and the consequences they can have relating to drinking and driving, I am a firm believer in creating added value for our everyday habits. I call it “Priceless Knowledge” because I do not feel you can put a value on these behaviors. I have condensed this list over the years and understand that many other things could be included. These just happen to be things that resonated with me throughout life. At the end of the day I will always be considered a felon. I am ok with that. These are things I always share when closing my program. I have the unique privilege of having a platform of 15-24 year olds and I always feel better knowing I share these with them. I realize they are all common sense, but more importantly they are FREE to do.
1. Have a firm handshake
When you get introduced to someone, have a firm handshake. I am not saying that you should try to break their digits, but let them know you are serious. It shows confidence. I do not care if you are male or female, bring confidence with your handshake.
As a guy I was raised to respect women. When I would get introduced to a lady I would extend my hand and think, “I am going to be respectful”, and they would squeeze harder than I did. I would walk away thinking “I am a sissy, I need a redo, I need a redo”. So everybody have a firm handshake.
I learned this a long time ago. I was with my dad on a cold snowy day and he ran into a guy he knew. I must have been 8 or 9 years old. He proudly introduces me to the gentleman, and I extended my hand which was covered by my coat……Nothing says “Nice to meet you” like a handful of coat. Instantly, I felt the non-coat covered hand of an angry father clenching on the back of my neck. Lesson learned, firm and proper handshake ever since.
2. Look people in the eyes
These first two go a long way in life, specifically for interviews. Have a firm handshake and look people in the eye when you talk to them, or they talk to you. Make the person interviewing you break eye contact first. I promise within 8-10 seconds they will look away. Now, I am not encouraging you to get into a creepy staring match with the person. Ha, after you leave they will say “wow that person stared at me for like 5 straight minutes”, but engage them and show you are serious and respectful.
3. Hold the door open for females
Fellas, hold the door open for women. I do not care if you know them or not. First impressions last a lifetime. I was raised to do this and always have. I complained about it as a kid and then it became a habit. I would always think that it was not appreciated until a few years back. I was holding the door open for a lady and she walks through and stops, looks at me and says, “ Good to know chivalry still exists”……Ha, you got that right lady, I am your guy! She was about 90 years old, but none the less it was appreciated. A second time involved an elderly woman who was using a walker. She was with her great-great-great (this lady was old) granddaughter. I hold the door, 5 minutes later she passes through and says, “Good to see gentleman still exist”. You know, she did not know I was ever in prison or what I did to be imprisoned. Heck, we would never meet again. However, in that moment I was just a nice guy that took some time to make her day easier. I can always live with that.
Now, you may hold a door open for a lady and she will let you know, “I am a strong independent woman and I hold my own doors”…….ummm yea and you are a rock star for it! Do you think you could hold it open for me, because I still have to get through? Point is, always offer until they make it clear they prefer to open their own doors.
4. Follow your passions in life
I wanted to be an elementary education teacher in life. Because of the choices I made I can no longer do that. What is the next best choice? For me, it is traveling the country trying to educate young adults. That is as close to a classroom as I will ever get. I am ok with that. Everybody is great at something. Generally it coincides with things we are passionate about. If you love to do it (assuming it’s safe and legal) do not let ANYONE tell you it is not possible or a waste of time.
5. Go with your gut
We have all had that experience where we say “I don't want to go” and we go anyway, only to say at the end of the night “I knew I shouldn't have went”. 6th sense, gut feeling, whatever you call it, when something doesn't feel right, it probably isn’t. That is not to say that every time you have a gut feeling something bad will happen, it will, but is it worth it to find out?
6. Be nice to everyone
I really tried to be nice to everyone growing up. Now, I am positive I do not have 100% record on this, but for the most part I was nice to everyone. I did not care who you are, what you did, what you didn’t do, or what you may do, I was nice to people until they gave me a reason not to be. Over time people can earn your respect. There is a difference. Even if you do not respect someone, you can always be nice.
7. Do not text at the dinner table
When I went to prison I realized that all the things my family did that bothered me, became the things I missed the most. Look, I text like anyone else. I get it when friends are texting from the same table to each other, but when you have the family at the dinner table for holidays or birthdays, put the phones away. Unless you are taking a colossal family picture, put them away. I promise you this: There is going to come a day when someone at that table is not going to be there anymore. You do not want to look back with regrets, “I could of, I should of…used that time better”. Andrea’s family would give up everything they own for one more dinner with their daughter. I promise they would not care about texting at the table. Do not take your family for granted. Once their gone you cannot get that time back. Use it wisely. I am raising my daughter to sit at tables without electronics. Some people disagree, luckily she is my daughter and if she doesn't know a life with a phone at the table, she cannot miss it.
8. Let the Choices You Make Today be Choices You Can Live With Tomorrow
This is actually my favorite one. I got this one from a HS in Ohio called Johnstown-Monroe. Great school with great students. This saying hangs above the entry and it holds so much value.
When I was a kid I would sneak onto this golf course near my house in the evening with a couple of clubs and golf balls. I would play until dark, or until they chased me off. Well occasionally I would hit a ball into the woods. I realized that not only could I find my ball in the woods, but also like 50 other golf balls. I became this OCD ginger hoping around the woods looking for golf balls……..Golfers would be like “You see my ball”? “Uh was it a Slazenger”? “Yea”…….. “Nope have not seen it”! Nothing ever beat finding a golf ball with a nice logo on it too! Well with this weird habit also came the most horrible bouts of poison ivy, oak and sumac you can imagine. I mean I get it BAD! So I would go home fill up the bucket with my treasures and wake up the next day COVERED in poison everything. Mom would ask where I was, and I would tell her. She says, stay out of the woods. Simple enough right? Spent my childhood itching and accumulated the greatest collection of golf balls ever!
About a year or two out of prison I was walking near the same course talking to my buddy about the misery I had running those woods. Well out in the open was a golf ball. Bent down and picked it up…..along with the rush of finding golf balls. Ran to the edge of the woods, peered left….saw like 3 of them, peered to the right….like 5 golf balls. Never forget it, 27 years old went in for ½ hour and found like 30. Woke up the next day, and you know the result. Point is, there are lessons in life I will never learn from. You can preach all day about poison ivy, oak, and its dirty cousin sumac and as soon as you are done telling me how itchy it is, I will say “where is the nearest course, I have golf balls to find”.
At the end of the day I know the consequences for those actions. I also know it is not hurting anyone but myself. However, there are lessons in life I have learned from. In an ideal world everyone that knows my story will never drink and drive. I already know that is not the case. I do not read about the ones I save, I read about the ones I didn’t. I also know that I will have to explain it all to my daughter one day. So before you make choices, just make sure you can accept the worst case scenario if it doesn’t work out the way you envisioned it too.
What did I do? I googled hobbies and started looking. Saw one called antique bottle digging. So I learned all about it. Basically it is digging privies from the 1800’s or older and pulling out glass bottles. I found some amazing bottles. Spent all summer digging. Then I found out that poison ivy roots itself deep in the ground and I gave it up, only to take on metal detecting. Yes that, I have found gold and silver rings, coins from the 17 and 1800’s, hundreds of dollars in change. After that I got into thrifting and flea markets, and even arrowhead hunting. Now that I am a father, a majority of my time is consumed, but when I have idle time I always run to my positive hobbies. Heck, I am learning to sew now. Point is, I always have to be engaged in positive behavior. If I can do that I know that whatever choices I make, I will be able to live with the consequences.
As the harsh realization hit me that this was not a dream, the sights and sounds were forever embedded into my brain. From the sound that glass makes as pieces would deflect off more glass, or metal. The earthy smell of dirt from where my truck tore the ground up around the telephone pole. The sirens, walkie talkies, the crowd gathering to see what had happened. Yet, inside the truck, it was calm and eerily quiet. As I began to regain consciousness the obvious moment hit me, “Where is Andrea, I will find Andrea, she will make this better”. I kept looking and looking and remember getting mad and frustrated. I ran my hands over my face and through my hair. I heard more glass fall and noticed the stain of blood on my hands. Instantly my heart sank and I got a sick feeling. I had an extended cab truck, and in one last effort I looked back and there she was………….It is not what you may be thinking. Everything looked normal and peaceful. I never thought to verbally communicate with her. Maybe it was the fear of what may be, or knowing the damage was already done. She had a belly button ring and I could see it. I thought, “I am just going to make sure it moves and I know she is breathing”. I stared for what felt like a lifetime, in reality a minute or so. I kept thinking “Move, move, please…..move”. It never did. My friend, the one I am supposed to do everything in her best interest now laid lifeless. How highly did I think of my best friend? I knowingly drank, got behind the wheel, sped, flipped my truck 3 times, and let her die in a ditch, upside down on a Sunday afternoon because I did not think the rules applied to me. IGNORANT!!
I was rushed to ICU where I spent a number of days. I do not speak about the injuries because I am still here, and someone is not. They took her by helicopter, but I could have told them it was too late. While in ICU I remember asking the disappointed and sad faces that came into the room “How is Andrea”? I was holding on to the smallest glimmer of hope that this was a dream, she was alive, and none of this was happening.
I was released from the hospital in early August 2001. I was sent home but I knew what happened. I knew if it was not alcohol it was going to be something in my system, and I knew Andrea had passed. My main thought was Actions have consequences, both good and bad. The problems I instantly created for so many people was truly crushing.
A few weeks after being home I got a call one afternoon. It was the Massillon PD and they informed me a warrant had been issued for my arrest. Aggravated Vehicular Homicide, DUI, speeding, reckless op, and a few other charges. I was asked to turn myself in. The next morning I went to the station to be booked, arraigned, and put on house arrest where I would stay for the coming months while the prosecutor, my attorney, and her family would determine my fate. There was no taking it to trial. From the minute it happened I accepted responsibility. Whatever the court and family feel necessary is what I will serve.
Any time there is a crime with a victim, or in this case the victim’s family they have a huge say in the sentencing process. They deserve it, and this would be no exception.
Around Thanksgiving 2001 the judge let my attorney know that sentencing would be December 24th 2001. He was not sure how long I would spend in prison, but that would be the day I found out. In addition, the family have the right to speak at sentencing. It is called the victim impact statement, and is the most critical aspect of the sentencing phase. It is their chance to look you in the eyes and tell you how they feel about what you did to the one they love.
The weather was terrible that morning and her family was unable to get to the courthouse. Judge Brown said they would not be denied that opportunity. Went on to tell me he was going to start my sentence that day. Said I could go home and be back on the 27th for sentencing. I would serve 4 years in a State penitentiary, lose my driver’s license for life, and be on probation when I got home. The time in prison never bothered me. I was still trying to process what I had done and the pain I caused. In fact, I remember thinking “cool 3 more days”, it will be the last time I see my parents in that particular environment for 4 years.
2nd day home I was getting out of the shower and looking in the mirror. I was thinking “How did I go from the guy that would not hurt anyone, to this addict that took the life of an amazing woman”, and all in a year and a half. Resonating in the back of my head was what my dad always told me, “If life is not going the way you want it, look in the mirror”. What I saw staring back at me was the most selfish, disgusting person to walk this earth. It was a moment of clarity. I realized that one choice, one decision which I thought was harmless, affected hundreds of people in an instant.
I let my mom and dad down. That is the second worst feeling I have ever experienced. I spent my whole life trying to be a good kid in the classroom, athletics, or just in general. Loved to see that look of pride in their eyes. Now, I only saw the emptiness in their eyes. I destroyed those two people and they did everything the right way. Coaches, teachers, little kids that once looked up to me. In addition, all my friends. On the other side Andrea’s family. Her parents, brother and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, coaches, teachers, her friends…….Hundreds and hundreds of people woke up July 29th 2001, and by the time they went to bed they were dealt news in one of two ways: “Hey did you hear Cooksey was driving around drunk with that girl from Mount Union. Crashed his truck, she is dead”, or “Did you hear Andrea was riding around with that guy from Mount Union, he was drinking and driving, lost control, she is dead”. That is the last thing in the world any of them thought they were going to hear. To this day, the void in their hearts is from me.
I showed up for sentencing the 27th. Her family was there. Specifically, her father was there. He read a statement, I stood there and looked him in the eyes because that was how I was raised. He just wanted his daughter back for one more day. One more family dinner. As much as I truly wanted her to live and me to be the one that did not make it, it is not how the cards were dealt. I could not tell you every word that came out of his mouth that morning, but I will never forget the look in the man’s eyes. I cannot even find the combination of words to describe it. It did come full circle years later. Every year I come back to Ohio and do two programs where they bring in HS seniors for Prom programming. One is called Your Life Your Choice (I recently took over for a retired police officer that lost his daughter to a drunk driver) He brought me on board years ago, and recently handed me the reigns to take over for him. An honor when you think about the dynamics of that. The other is NoneU21. Both programs have one thing in common; the walk of remembrance. It is a collection of families that lost someone close to them to the hands of a drunk driver. They have large pictures of their loved ones and the family stands on either side. Five families on each side. After programming, they walk silently through a hall of victims. The first year I did the programs I told myself I needed to walk through this. I knew the families did not like me (After 9 years I have now formed extremely special relationships with a few of the families). As I stepped into the sadness I spent a handful of seconds at each family looking at their lost loved one and making eye contact, tears rolling down my face. By the time I got to the last family I realized something; the very look in each of their eyes was the exact same look Andrea’s dad had in his eyes the morning of sentencing. Like I said, no words, but I can tell you this much: YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE THE REASON THAT CAUSES THAT MUCH PAIN AND THAT MUCH HURT ALL ON A PREVENTABLE ACT.
They slapped the cuffs on me and away I went. Now people always want to know what prison is like. Well, it is not what you see on TV and it is not fun. Yes, I was with every conceivable type of criminal. Some had petty crimes, while other crimes were so heinous it would make your stomach turn. I do not spend a lot of time in the politics of prison and whether the system works, or sets people up to fail. I do know the % of people that committed their crimes while under the influence of “something” was astronomical. The worst part about prison had nothing to do with the people, violence, or food. It was once or twice a month when my parents would drive 2 hours to see me for a couple hours. Looking them in the eye every visit stating my sorrow and remorse for all the pain I caused so many people. They would look me in the eyes and say “Aaron, you did a horrible thing and hurt a lot of people. We are your parents and we are going to stand by you. We know you will make us proud again one day”. My own family was not even proud of me. Rightfully so, I did not like myself much as a person either at that time, but it doesn’t make it sting any less.
About 3 years into the sentence my mom started doing what moms do and asking me about finishing college. My reply was “Mom, I have a felony, I cannot be a teacher anymore. In fact I cannot do 90% of the jobs I wanted to with a felony”. She would go on to tell me that I could make my own choices but they would love to see me get a degree. Even if I did not use it. Once I have it they cannot take it from me. She would say “you would be the first one in the family to get a degree. It would make us so proud”. At that point the decision was easy.
I reached out to Walsh University who at one time was begging me to attend their school. Now, I was begging them for a chance to go. I was given an opportunity to attend and was adamant on making it count. I saw it not only as a chance to get the degree, but also set the groundwork for the next person that may be needing a second chance. I knew if I could do well the school may be more apt to allow the next person a shot.
I was released from prison December 24th 2005. Two weeks later I was enrolled for the spring 2006 semester. First semester all A’s, even made the Dean’s List. It was the first time my name was ever mentioned in the same sentence as Dean. Heck, I remember kids trying to scope out my answers. I was now the guy people tried to copy!
A chance to play football at Walsh also came about. Long story short, I went through spring practice and was awarded scholarship money. After having some issues with high blood pressure and kidney problems the Doctors made me hang it up. The Doctors never pin pointed the exact cause, but did state their confidence that although short lived, the excessive amount of bad substances I put through my body, did damage. Then spending 4 years in prison while the problem went unattended did not help. I then needed a 4th knee operation and that finished any hope of continuing sports. At that moment I decided to be the best student I could possibly be. I consumed myself with something positive outside the world of sports.
In August of 2007 I had completed the 62 credit hours finishing the requirements for my degree in Corporate Communications. Now there is not much I can do with my degree (Because of the choices and decisions I made) but when I got it my parents looked me in the eyes and said “we are so proud of you, we love you”. If people understood how hard and long I worked to hear them say that. To this day I consider my degree one of my top accomplishments in life. No matter what you love in life give academics your all. At minimum you will earn that diploma or degree. I realize not everyone wants to do the college route and that is ok. Whatever you choose to do in life, just do it well!
When I was in prison schools in Ohio kept calling and asking if I was speaking to students. After a bunch of calls the prison brought me up front one day and said “Are you good at public speaking” After learning why they wanted to know my first and only answer was “sure am”, knowing in the back of my head my number one fear was public speaking.
The first two programs I ever did were the most awkward experiences as a speaker. My first program was to 450 middle school students sitting on a gymnasium floor. I was cuffed and shackled, nervous, and it was rough. I came with so much intensity and those poor souls just wanted to do some macaroni art. The second was a very interesting school in Painesville, OH. When addressing any audience, the worst setup is in a gymnasium when they pull both bleacher sides down and students are looking across the gym at each other. Meanwhile I am posted up under the basketball hoop having to constantly look left or right and have nothing visible down center. Well about 6 minutes in I froze. First and only time it ever happened. I went from a guy that felt a 3 minute speech in class was a filibuster, to a guy delivering a 45 minute program on my second time out. I just froze. Must have been a minute of trying to figure it out. With each passing second the rumbles, laughs, and jeers grew louder. Got back on track and finished the program. While being escorted off stage by two armed Correction Officers, I realized how challenging it will be to convince young adults, “It will never happen to me”. Over the last 10 years I have dedicated my life and mission to create a program that truly resonates, relates, and impacts every student.
After a year of doing various engagements for the ODRC I was put in the “hole” for 30 days for an alleged gambling operation I was not found guilty of. However, their house, their rules. The decision to stop me from speaking was made, but the spark inside me knew this was something I wanted to do.
The combination of Alcohol and Driving does not discriminate. It does not care who, what, when, where or why. It strikes when it is least expected and leaves a painful trail for hundreds of people. The ripple effect is a powerful reminder that being proactive is the best approach.
Shortly after coming home I was contacted by Coach Tressel at OSU. He had recruited me for football when he was at Youngstown State. Either way, I went and spoke. Before I knew it I was at an array of programs speaking and sharing. I told myself I would do this as long as I could but never wanted to be “that guy”. The one that would come to schools and say “don’t do this, don’t do that, 7 out of 8 kids that drink on Wednesdays fail Algebra tests on Thursdays”……What, you made that up, that is not real…. So I came up with Drop Your Pride, Too Many Have Died. It started as a drawing on cardboard with a pen and pencil and grew into something I am proud of.
The basis for my program is as follows:
I realize not every student drinks, and not every student drinks and drives. The backbone of the Drop Your Pride program is simple: Actions have consequences, both good and bad. Nobody is perfect, and we all make mistakes. The importance comes in minimizing all unnecessary risk. What is the next best choice? The keys represent “Your Pride”, it is symbolic. Your keys are generally what get you in trouble after driving drunk. So you drank, find a ride home. Do not let your friends drive drunk or get in the car with someone who is drunk. I do not condone underage or excessive drinking, but I do realize that it is going to happen. 999 out of 1000 times, nothing bad happened to me. The one time it did, everything changed forever. Your parents would much rather get a call from you asking for a ride, than having the police call. Your parents would much rather pick you up than visit you in prison or your grave site.
I do not have the magic formula to eliminate drinking. My friend did not lose her life because I was drinking. She lost her life because I made the choice to drive after drinking. I do not educate on the science of alcohol, or cram statistical data into the 50-60 minute program. I simply relive the nightmare which I created for so many people on July 29th, 2001.
At the end of the day I realize I cannot deliver this message forever. I would much rather walk away from speaking on my own terms, than to be on stage and realize I can no longer connect. I actually have a rule (I created) called my 60/15. The 15 minutes before I go on stage to talk feels like an hour. The hour I am on stage feels like 15 minutes to me. When those numbers reverse, I know it is time to walk away.
I truly do this to help someone. I know that individuals are going to make their own decisions in life despite what I say or share. I always say if the fear of taking a life, losing a license, losing career opportunity, or hurting so many people doesn’t not deter you, try this one on for size. I am now a dad to a marvelous 21 month old girl. She thinks I am the funniest dude alive. Now, I am never going to be Father of the Year and that is ok. Perfect example: My wife left this morning for Dallas. She is excelling beyond anything I imagined with AdvoCare. I am in it with her but stayed back. Anyways early this morning she was being stubborn and only wanted noodles…aka Mac and Cheese. Now it was 7:30AM and my thought was “Yea that sounds good”, so we ate mac and cheese together at 7:30AM. What I also know is that little girls are supposed to look up to their dads and we can be their hero and it sounds glorious. One day, I am going to be forced to look her in the eyes and break her little heart. No matter how forgiving, understanding, or perhaps admirable she may see what I did to try and help, a small part of her heart will break when she learns about my past. Given the ultra-fast digital age we live in that day is going to come sooner than later, and I am not looking forward to it. I am grateful and blessed to have her, but I never thought when I was twenty one I would have to one day explain my past actions to my daughter. Believe me when I tell you, I do not share this for sympathy, and I never want someone to feel bad for me. I DID IT! I DESERVE THE CONSEQUENCES! Feel sorry for her family who never got to say goodbye.
The one thing that has always bothered me was when people say “Over time this will all get easier”. Truth is, each year it gets a little bit tougher to deal with. I am in the 15th year since the crash. Law of numbers says it cannot be rainy every day. So over time I have had some amazing experiences, and great days. I promise you this: No matter how great of a day I have, by the time I go to bed that good feeling gets trumped. I am confident Andrea’s family comes home with great days too. Probably share it with the family. The family probably agrees. But then they are reminded that it would be a little bit better if Andrea was there. Then they are reminded why she is not. Then they are reminded of me. I am the constant reminder as to why they can never have dinner with their daughter again. That will never be easy to deal with.
Coach Mike Grady
Coach Grady has 10 years experience working with pitchers of all ages through private and group instruction, including 6 years experience as a college pitching coach. This blog is dedicating to helping pitchers of all ages improve their game.
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North Canton, OH 44720
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