FLOWERY BRANCH — Some believe those with substance-abuse issues must hit their bottom before recovery can happen. That’s not necessarily true. Real bottom is death. Close to bottom may be waking up in a strange place with no recollection of what happened the day before, or losing a job or a spouse, or learning you’re responsible for a tragedy. But none of those guarantee an addict’s awakening.
Ask Steve Sarkisian. His awakening was a TV show. He was sitting at his home in California one Sunday night in October 2015, a few nights after his USC football team lost to Washington. He was trying to unwind, processing the struggles of his professional and personal life, when “SportsCenter” came on the screen. Soon, there was anchor Scott Van Pelt, editorializing on New York Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia’s decision to check himself into treatment for alcoholism on the eve of the American League playoffs.
“He got commended and celebrated for recognizing his problems,” Sarkisian said Wednesday. “That sat with me. Here’s this guy getting ready to pitch in the playoffs, ace of the New York Yankees, and it was OK. I was dealing with the same thing, but I didn’t know if it would be OK. He was a like-person in a similar situation. Ultimately, that’s what gave me the confidence to do what I did. It gave me purpose. That was my moment.”
So Sarkisian, who had wrestled with drinking issues for years but never sought help or fully surrendered to his disease, walked away. It was five games into the season. But he informed USC he was going to check himself into treatment.
“I told them: ‘I’m going to go to treatment.’ Then when I landed, I got terminated.”
He was fired before the next game. It’s the basis of his $12.6 million wrongful termination suit against the school, which states in part, “Instead of accommodating Steve Sarkisian’s disability, USC kicked him to the curb.”
But how that suit unfolds will have no impact on the Falcons’ season, nor how Sarkisian lives the rest of his life.
It’s 20 months later. Sarkisian has been given control of the NFL’s best offense. Lesson learned: Keep doing the next right thing and good things happen.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who lost offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to San Francisco after the Super Bowl, hired Sarkisian from Alabama, where he re-emerged and worked under Nick Saban’s staff for five months. Quinn knew Sarkisian from his days in Seattle when Sarkisian was at Washington and had been thinking of hiring him for a while. He always believed he would be a perfect fit for the offense and the Falcons’ culture. But he had to be convinced Sarkisian was solid in his recovery.
“I had to know: Could he be the best version of himself?” Quinn said. “Part of what sold me was his honesty and the openness to discuss it. His transparency made me feel at ease. I didn’t feel like I had to dance around the subject. He just said, ‘Dan, let’s just talk about it.’”
Quinn had dealt with people in his professional life with substance-abuse issues but never was in the position of possibly hiring one.
“I knew my decision would affect everyone,” he said.
Recovery is a personal issue. The individual can keep it as private as he desires. But Sarkisian lived a very public life, his series of crashes at USC out there for consumption. There were stories about him showing up seemingly drunk before practices, a video surfacing showing him slurring words and using profanity at a booster function.
So Sarkisian understood the backdrop when Quinn phoned him about the job the night after the Super Bowl.
“I’d be naive to think I could shy away from the subject,” he said. “I didn’t have the choice whether to keep it private or not, so I just accepted it. And in the end, I thought, maybe I can help somebody else, somebody else who was high-profile.”
He says all the things that would lead one to believe he’s in a good place. He talks about gratitude. He talk about humility. He talks about taking life one day at a time.
I asked him: What’s tougher – coaching football or recovery?
“Oh man: Recovery is tougher,” he said. “But they’re both very gratifying. You have those moments when you lay down at night and you feel good about the things you accomplished each day. Whether they’re on the field or in recovery, you feel really good.”
Sarkisian has long been considered a talented coach, ahead of the curve offensively, and praised for his ability to connect with players. Al Davis, the late Oakland Raiders owner, hired him as quarterbacks coach when he was only 29 years old, then interviewed him for the head coaching position when he was 32.
But recovery has humbled him. It has made him a better coach. It has taught him it’s OK to ask for help and rely on others when necessary.
“There was another way to go about it than just self-reliance and grit and toughness. That’s a perspective I’ve taken into coaching. We have really good guys on this staff and this isn’t all about Steve Sarkisian and what he wants.”
He understood the demands of an NFL coach, which require up to 16-hour workdays during the season. But he has carved out pockets during the week for meetings and other aspects of his recovery. He understood why Quinn needed to know what his assistant’s plan would be if the Falcons hired him.
“I had to make sure I was being authentic in my approach to a lot of things, whether it was my job or my personal life,” Sarkisian said. “It was just another opportunity to say, ‘Hey, this is who I am.’
“The reality is, things happen to all of us. How we respond to those things ultimately define us and the character we have. This is my life, and it’s taken the course that it has. I’m grateful for the opportunity to offer something back after a tough time.”
There’s an expression in the world of recovery: “terminally unique.” It’s when somebody doesn’t fully grasp the reality that they’re the same as other addicts.
They think: I’m not him. I’m not that.
The awakening comes when that person acknowledges they’re not unique.
“It’s a challenge crossing that hurdle,” Sarkisian said. “The community that I’ve been able to associate with is so important because you don’t feel like, ‘Man, what’s wrong with me? Why am I so different from everybody else?’ You come to realize, ‘Maybe I’m not as different as I thought. I just have something that sucks to have.’ So I have to do something to make me the best person I can be.”
He said he is doing that. If that continues, he will be fine and so will the Falcons’ offense.
Subscribe to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast with the AJC’s Jeff Schultz and WSB’s Zach Klein on iTunes. Episodes also can be downloaded from on-demand link on WSBRadio.com.
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