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August 18, 2012TUSCALOOSA | Chris Herren has taken his message of sobriety nationwide, but for all his traveling, his recent stop in Tuscaloosa felt a bit more like home.
"My family is from Alabama. My father's family is from Ragland," said the former NBA basketball player, who was chosen to speak to University of Alabama football players about the dangers of substance abuse. "My grandmother still lives there."
Herren said he has been an Alabama fan since he was a child, even though he grew up in Fall River, Mass., where both his stardom and his troubles as a young athlete began. The subject of a recent ESPN "30 for 30" documentary titled "Unguarded", Herren managed to become a second-round NBA Draft choice despite drug problems that followed him from his days as a player at Boston College, to Fresno State and finally to a brief NBA career.
Herren now speaks to students and athletes about his battle with addiction, and was one of many speakers arranged for the University of Alabama football team during its fall camp.
"Chris Herren had some pretty significant abuse problems, and he did a fantastic job with the players," Saban said.
Herren spoke for nearly an hour before engaging in a question and answer session with players.
"My message to them was that football ends. You're going to come to a time where there is no more spring practice, no more hitting, it's just going to be you," Herren said. "Be a pro at being you before you become a pro at anything else. I lost myself along the way of chasing a dream like that. I neglected my well-being."
UA center Barrett Jones said the schedule of speakers UA provides to players is a highlight of fall camp each year.
Another speaker who engaged the players during camp was Dewey Bozella, a former boxer who was wrongly incarcerated for murder for 26 years, and later exonerated and released. Bozella passed on multiple chances for early release because he would have been required to admit guilt of the crime.
"Different speakers connect with different guys. That's why Coach always does a good job of having guys from different backgrounds and different main messages," Jones said. "Different speakers touch different guys. We have such a diverse group that it would be hard to touch everyone at once. That's why we've had so many different kind of great speakers."
Herren spoke to UA players on Aug. 7, and has brought his message in recent weeks to the NFL Rookie Symposium, the University of Tennessee, Florida State University and the NFL's Green Bay Packers.
"I was just extremely impressed by the players and the coaching staff, and how dialed in they were, how drawn they were to the talk," Herren said. "It was an honor to meet coach Saban and speak to those guys."
UA coach Nick Saban was impressed with Herren's message enough that he had the 36-year-old speak again the following morning to a smaller group -- UA's freshman class.
"You pre-emptively need to get out in front of younger kids and find out where they're at, who might be high-risk, what makes them tick and what triggers them," Herren said. "The freshman group was amazing. Those kids were great. We sat there for 25 minutes and we talked, and they were very responsive."
Reach Chase Goodbread at email@example.com or at 205-722-0196.