I appreciate all the support from the first post. I realize this can get lengthy. Rather than doing a novella I wanted to break it up into different segments. It is difficult as a speaker to transition to writing. I can be long winded and it looks as though it carries into my attempt to write.
The summer of 1999 leading into my freshman year at Mount Union College started off just how I had planned. I was in the best physical shape of my life, I was spending certain evenings working with the Quarterbacks at Mount doing 7 on 7. I was learning the offense, watching film, and working from 7 to 3 for the Stark County Board of Election office in Canton. For the first time I was also not playing summer baseball even though I would be playing at Mount. I wanted to focus on becoming a contributing player to a powerhouse football program and make some money working because I just turned 19 and needed to buy useless stuff (CD’s, DVD’s, food).
The best part of the summer job was that I was able to meet some phenomenal educators. I only did grunt work, but I loved it. I was paying in to the state retirement system and putting a few dollars in my pocket. In the back of my mind I knew one thing for sure: I wanted to be an elementary education teacher……First grade specifically. Maybe get a master’s degree, and one day maybe become a principal. I had the privilege of meeting a younger Mr. Gallina. He was a principal at the time and I saw the route I wanted to take. However I will not lie, sports were always in the front of my mind. I was the occasional A, mainly B’s, and sometimes a C student………..Except that infamous 4 D’s I pulled off in 4th grade…Is that even possible? Well I earned that feat back in the day. I lost a nice part of summer cutting grass, and learned some lessons along the way as well.
In late July of 1999 I was at Mount for a Saturday afternoon 7 on 7, which is a special football practice with 7 players on offense and defense. . Last play of the day was a “wheel route” with me as a primary target. I ran the route and the QB left it a little short…I stopped quickly to come back and…….POP! I immediately dropped to the ground and it hurt really bad for about 30 seconds, and then the pain went away.
After learning what had happened I felt defeated. The ACL in my left knee had torn. When it tore, it got tangled up in the joint of my knee and when this happened the knee never swelled up. I would be due back in two weeks for reconstructive surgery. 6-9 months rehabilitation, no football, and probably no baseball my first year in college. Look, I know this was not the end of the world. I get it. However, as a 19 year old it was monumental in my head. Of all the ways I could or should have processed that information something was going to give, and the timing was terrible. Being someone that was always part of a structured routine (school, practice, games) I was about to embark on college life with free time, scattered classes, and a chip on my shoulder. This was not a healthy combination for someone like me.
Up to this point in life I was not a drinker or into DRUGS at all. I did not party in HS, but I did drink on my senior trip to Canada fishing with my buddies. So literally, I could count on one hand the times I had a drink. A few days after having the knee scoped I remember drinking. I never thought it was going to become an issue and I certainly would never get behind the wheel after drinking. I did not even have a valid reason other than feeling sorry for myself. The Problem was I had lived a life to that point of always chasing the rush. Those natural “highs” I got from athletics. I had never realized how dependent we can become on “good addictions” as well as “evil addictions”. For all the wrong reasons, I began to fill the void with the very substances I was taught my whole life that only mask the problem temporarily. Unfortunately, I would also for the first time in my life begin to channel my energy into something that was not positive. Like I said before, if it is good for me, or bad for me, if I wanted to do it, I would. I quickly learned my tolerance was high, and nothing was ever “enough”.
A week or so after the reconstruction I was at a Freshman Orientation at Mount. That weekend I met a girl named Andrea. Everybody should know someone like this. The best way I could describe her is as follows: You know when everyone is sitting around at a friend’s house bored and miserable? Well Andrea was the person that would walk into a room and instantly bring energy. Outgoing, smart, pretty, athletic. We formed a friendship that will carry through this story. We never dated, she was my friend. We studied together, partied together, hung out together….everyone should know someone like this in your lifetime. She provided good positive vibes when she was around.
My first day on campus was August 1999. I hobbled up and down stairwells at Miller Hall with the help of my dad. I was still on crutches, my room had no air conditioning for the hot sweltering late August days, and I needed an air mattress since I was not going up that tiny bunk. This was Not exactly the most comfortable start of college life. The old man drove off, and I made my way to my first football practice.
The coaches and players were so welcoming and I was made to feel like part of the team. The problem was in my heart, it was destroying me to not be out there trying to earn time on the field. Sweating, getting yelled at, and making play is what football is all about. I think it would have been different if I was not in a position to contribute as a freshman. Knowing I could absolutely contribute to a team in the middle of an asinine run at annual perfection ending in National titles or title shots made it tougher. I was truly at a fork in the road in terms of life decisions. I chose to distance myself from it. I scheduled my knee rehabs around the practice times, did my homework, and left campus when there were home games. I know this seems terrible in terms of being a “team” player. I wanted them to win, I just could not be around it. Some may understand, while others may not. Either way, I realize why they encouraged me to be around every day. I wish I would of.
Over the course of the first semester, my grades were decent, knee was ahead of schedule, and I was drinking on weekends. Still would not drive, scared me to even think about. I made a push to get cleared for baseball freshman year and was able to play 5 months removed from surgery. By the end of my first year at Mount Union I noticed a change in my behavior. Now if I had 5 or 6 beers that “competitive gene” kicked in and my thinking was “as long as I am in control, nothing bad will happen”. I drove the speed limit and wore my seatbelt. Then with tolerance and risk meeting up, I became comfortable with my poor choices, and my thought process changed. I remember thinking “if I drive a litter faster, I get there a little quicker”, or “I do not need a seatbelt, nothing bad will happen to me”. The cycle was in motion and with every moment I got away with risky behavior, I was only pulling inches closer to disaster. Never was it a question of “IF”, I now realize it was only a matter of “WHEN”.
During the summer of 2000 I began my own downward spiral. That summer I began to lose interest in sports. Lazy, excuses, justification, I do not know, but I was committed to having fun and not working hard. I will not get into how much, how often, or for how long I messed around with alcohol, drugs, or prescription drugs. Just know it was too much, too often, and too many times.
Nope! The next 6 ½ months would be filled with poor choices. I was no longer a positive influence. I knew I was out of control and a few close friends including Andrea pointed it out. During this span it was not even about the drinking. It was everything. I had built up a strong tolerance, and never came across as “drunk” in terms of falling or slurring or acting out. The body can only metabolize substances at certain rates. The more you consume, the longer it will take. My body was pretty much metabolizing something intoxicating at all times. After consistently partying and developing new patterns of destructive behavior, the risk taking drastically increased. The difference now was now I involved passengers and the safety of other drivers.
July 29th 2001
It was a Sunday. It was hot and humid out. I was working at a golf course that summer. In at 5:30 AM and I was done by noon or so. It was a great job in terms of being outside. I loved cutting grass in the early morning. However, being done by noon made for longer days of partying, and shorter nights of sleep. I was never late or missed work as a result of being out late the night before. On this particular morning I woke up sluggish and tired. Basically, my body was hurting from a solid run poor choices. My gut was to stay home after work that day. We finished up by 9:30AM that day and I headed home to relax the rest of the day. The phone rang early in the afternoon and it was Andrea. She wanted to know what I was doing that day. She wanted to know if I wanted to get something to eat…..her exact words… “You do not even have to drink”. She saw the path I was on and it had even grabbed her attention as we had lengthy talks about some of my choices. I remember thinking “ok cool, I will come and get you”. I hung up the phone and knew I was going to drink that day. I told myself I was not going to drink as much as usual but I was going to drink. Again, when you consume a majority of the time your system is loaded. I picked her up and we headed to the bar.
At the bar I choked down two 24 ounce draft beers. I did it on the down low because I did not want to hear it from Andrea. She had a couple drinks and some food. A friend of mine had called and said she was working nearby and people were coming in. I told Andrea we were going 5 minutes down the road. We gathered our stuff and walked out of the bar.
UNDERSTAND THIS: There was not anyone outside of the bar holding a sign saying “Be careful” or “watch out”. Honestly, thinking about it, I truly believed I was invincible. I did not think actions had negative consequences. In my head nothing would go wrong. We both got in my truck and did not put on our seatbelts.
I remember being at a red light and thinking I needed to turn left when the light turned green. After it turned I went straight through the light which was legal, but I needed to turn. Hindsight is 20/20 but I am first to admit I was not clear minded that day. As soon as I did it, I thought “Damn needed to turn. No worries we will detour”. A few more turns and we were at a red light less than a mile from my parents and even closer to the restaurant. The exact conversation went something like this: “What do you want to do? My parent’s house is to the right, and the restaurant is to the left”. “Let’s go see your friends and then swing by your parent’s house”. The speed limit on this particular road was 35mph. My own agenda, my own rules. Light turned green and I made the turn. When I made the turn there was a car in front of me a little ways down the road following the rules. I began to accelerate, 25, 35, 40…….Andrea was talking to me and to this day I could not tell you what she said. I do remember it was funny and I laughed taking my eyes off the road as I continued to gain speed. When I looked back at the road the car in front of me, was now immediately in front of me as they slowed to make a turn. They said I was going 62mph as I looked to the road simultaneously going over a set of railroad tracks. Slamming on my breaks in fear of hitting the car in front of me, I began to lose control of the vehicle. I thought I saw a little girl in the backseat of the car in front and trust me when I tell you there were a million things running through my head in a matter of seconds. It all narrowed to: Left or Right. If I go straight I am going to hit this car. To the left was miniature telephone posts with steel cables connecting to the next one, all the way down. Last thought was do not go left……I jerked the wheel to the right, my truck flipped 3 times and wrapped around a telephone pole. I have no memory from the time I jerked the wheel until about 15 minutes later when the most haunting phrase was spoken. Outside my mangled truck I heard one gentleman speaking to another…. “There are no survivors, they are both dead”. Both dead? This was a bad dream. This was not happening. I did everything in my power to wake up. Trying to convince myself to wake up. All of a sudden the signs became far too real, and the consequences were damaging and permanent.
Coming in the part 3: The ripple effect and its consequences.
About Aaron Cooksey
I was born in North Canton, Ohio, and raised by two of the most loving parents any child could ask for. They taught me many lessons in life, including making the right choices, and they allowed me to channel my energy and find my passions. As a child, I discovered a love of sports, and I excelled through high school in football, basketball, and baseball. Going on to earn 8 varsity letters, I became a leader both in the classroom and on the athletic field. Wanting to pursue a career as an elementary education teacher, I turned down several scholarship offers and decided to play two sports while attending Mount Union College.
My story began when, one month before my college football debut, I tore my ACL. Shortly afterward, I experienced my first drink of alcohol. Over the following year, I began the destructive cycle of drinking and driving.
As I neared the end of my recovery, and prepared to return to the field, I was crushed by a second tear of my ACL. My despair following this injury proved to be a deadly factor in my decision making. As I continued down this path of destruction, I was the cause of an accident that resulted in the death of my best friend.
In addition to serving 4 years in prison, and having my driver’s license taken away for life, I realized that this nightmare I had helped create had affected hundreds of people.
After returning from prison, I graduated with a degree in Corporate Communications from Walsh University. Dedicating a short time to speaking with Ohio based schools and organizations, word began to travel fast and I realized that I was able to make a real impact by sharing my story. Four years after my release from prison, I chose to leave my corporate career, and I decided to focus full all my energy making a difference through my speaking. Because of the choices I have made, I cannot become a teacher. But, I have made the next best choice, and now travel the country educating young adults about my life.
I now live outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and work independently, dedicated to improving the lives of young adults everywhere.
8/6/2015 10:58:50 am
Aaron, This is an amazing way to reach out to so many of our youth. I, for one, am proud of the man you have become by leaning from the mistakes of youth.
8/9/2015 03:19:14 am
This is such a wonderful story of how someone can take the negative things in their life and turn them into positives that can hopefully prevent the same things from happening again. Thank you for sharing your story.
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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.