Focus on Recovery and the Football Field at Augsburg

August 16, 2017 08:47 PM

Chris Barr can pinpoint the moment he knew things had to change.

The 23-year-old Ohio native was playing football at his home state's Walsh University and doing well in the classroom. But things in his life were coming apart as a result of addiction.

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"I landed myself in jail three times in a month right before I went into treatment," Barr said. "I remember my Mom and Dad picking me up the last time and asking, 'How is our son in jail three times in a month?'

"That's when I realized, 'I'm not doing something right here.' It's when I broke down and decided to change."

Barr has now been sober 10 months. He came to Minnesota for treatment - a path that eventually led to enrolling at Augsburg College, soon to be Augsburg University, where he is part of the school's StepUP Program. It's open to those in recovery from alcohol and other drug addiction who seek to pursue an undergraduate education.

The program began in 1997 and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It's available on a first-come, first-serve basis and can accommodate up to 106 students per school year. This year, there are expected to be about 92, according to Patrice Salmeri, the executive director of recovery advancement at the school.

School officials say the average GPA of participants is 3.2. And even more importantly, the cumulative abstinence rate is around 92 percent.

Participants are not required to remain in the program until graduation, though they are allowed to do so. They pay the same tuition and costs required of all students, but there is no extra cost for the program in which they are housed in a substance-free residence hall in the Oren Gateway Center on campus.

They also attend weekly meetings with drug and alcohol counselors designed to support the student's recovery plan, academic progress and assist with other issues.

"It's not treatment by any means," Salmeri said. "It's not a halfway house. It's a residence center on campus where students are like-minded and doing the same things."

For Barr and several others, those things include football.

Though participants in the program have played for Auggies coach Frank Haege before, this season's total of four or more will mark the most on a single roster.

"They appreciate beyond recognition that they're getting the chance to play college football," said Haege, whose team opens its season against Northwestern (Minnesota) on Sept. 2.  "They know how precious and special that is. 

"We treat them like we would every other kid. We have bi-weekly academic meetings, just like we would with anybody else. But we don't get into the other things at all."

He added, "They're here. They've been through the process already. They've been screened. They come in ready to roll."

That's the kind of approach program participants welcome.

"I'm not trying to walk around with a target on my back my whole life saying I'm an addict," said sophomore linebacker Derek Glynn, who has been in the program since arriving at Augsburg in May of 2016 and has been sober 29 months.

"I'm trying to just live a normal life. I'm not looking for crutches or special treatment or sympathy. I just want to be treated like a guy in college who's trying to get a degree."

That sense of normalcy and routine, said teammate John Martin, is what the StepUP Program helps provide.

"This is just such a far cry from what I've been used to," said Martin, a Roseville graduate who spent time at Winona State and the University of Minnesota, but decided to enroll in Augsburg where he felt the StepUP Program would better help him maintain his sobriety.

He's now starting his second year in the program and has been sober 16 months.

"What's worked here for me is that there's a very high level of accountability. You can't get too far down without someone stepping in and picking you up."

Glynn, 26, ranked fifth on the team in tackles last season. But Carr, Martin and Matt Kreye are all new to the team this fall.

Carr last played at Walsh in 2015. But Kreye, 22, hasn't played since his junior year in high school; and Martin, 22, hasn't played since he was in eighth grade, having focused on lacrosse at Roseville where he was a team captain.

But both said they are getting readjusted to the game.

"It's awesome," said Kreye, who gave up football in high school to focus on his recovery. "It's super cool. I didn't think about it a lot leading up to the season. But now that I'm doing it, it's really, really cool. Having the opportunity to play football again is amazing." 

"I'm super grateful I have the opportunity to do this."

Now all four players are doing it healthy and clear-minded, which each said is the most important thing of all, and that makes the StepUP program an important piece of their college lives.

"If you have cancer, there might come a point when you're cancer-free," Barr said. "But when you're an addict, or someone in recovery, you're in recovery for the rest of your life. There's no point where you're addiction-free. And that's something you have to be conscious of and keep working at." 

Of course, Barr said there is an added bonus to sobriety.

"It's a lot easier to excel in football when you're not putting toxins in your body," Barr said. "It helps a lot."

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Frank Rajkowski

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