Feb. 12, 2012

CLEVELAND, Ohio — In the days after Chris Jacquemain failed his first drug test, after he’d gone through a detox program to rid his body of the prescription painkillers he couldn’t stop taking, it was clear the Akron Zips’ starting quarterback needed a supportive environment.

That meant not returning home to Mentor, where in high school Jacquemain first wowed football fans with his strong arm and accurate passes. Bad influences there were too numerous. Temptations were too many.

Instead, in July 2009, Jacquemain went to Pickerington, a quiet Columbus suburb, to stay with his good friend and Akron teammate Tyler Campbell.

Wayne Campbell, Tyler’s gregarious and barrel-chested father, was happy to have them.His son Tyler was one of three children he and his wife, Christy, raised in Pickerington. A former college football player who is now an assistant high school coach, Wayne Campbell knew about the demands and requirements the boys faced heading into Zips training camp.

At Akron, the Campbells were known as a good, solid family. Under Wayne Campbell’s watchful eye, the two young men would be enveloped in a stable surrounding and positive influences.

What Wayne didn’t know was that his son and Jacquemain were addicted to the prescription painkiller OxyContin. Within a four-month span in 2011, his son and Jacquemain would be dead from heroin overdoses, victims of an opiate addiction that began, their families say, when they got hooked on prescription painkillers during college.

Scoring OxyContin and other prescription painkillers on a college campus is relatively easy, and pills are often swapped in football locker rooms because players are expected to play through pain.

As much as Wayne Campbell tried, as many hours as he devoted to helping Tyler recover from his addiction and avoid hazards, in the end he could do little but watch his son and his good friend transform from determined and charismatic players to college dropouts and narcotics statistics.

“We always thought his love of the game would take over,” Wayne Campbell said.

“We thought football would save him.”

The recruit and the walk-on

Jacquemain and Campbell could not have come from more different backgrounds, could not have begun their football careers at Akron under more divergent circumstances.

Jacquemain was so naturally gifted that Mentor High School coaches began eying him when he was a pipsqueak in the city youth program. Mentor head coach Steve Trivisonno played high school ball with Chris’ father, Scott, so he particularly knew what a loss it was when Chris opted for Mentor’s Lake Catholic High School, and was the only freshman on Lake Catholic’s 2001 state championship team.

But Trivisonno was ecstatic when after two seasons Jacquemain transferred to Mentor, and the agile 6-2 player with cropped blond hair began to shine at receiver and quarterback.

Dozens of big programs, including Penn State, recruited Jacquemain, but he decided early his senior year to attend Akron. It was close to home, and he had a chance to play right away. People compared him to Akron alum Charlie Frye, the one-time Cleveland Browns quarterback, and he’d have a chance to break Frye’s Zips records.

Campbell, meanwhile, was not recruited by a single Division I football program — despite being a hardworking, hard-hitting defensive back. With the help of his father, he sent 30-40 letters to colleges looking for an opportunity to join a team as a walk-on. Only Akron responded. He would have to earn his way onto the team and to a scholarship, but he had a chance.

Jacquemain and his family came from blue-collar stock, with Scott supporting his wife, Cindy, and two sons as a truck driver. Campbell grew up in a comfortable suburb where the median household income is about $75,000. Wayne Campbell is in sales, a polished talker who with Christy raised Tyler and his two younger brothers in a gleaming four-bedroom house.

Finding success, finding Oxy

In 2007, the sophomore Jacquemain, after one redshirt year and another spent as a backup, started nine games and began his assault on the record book: four touchdown passes against Western Michigan, second-most in school history; 389 yards passing in that game, eighth-best at Akron.

He also started using OxyContin.

Jacquemain’s family says it began with a separated shoulder that sophomore season and a prescription for the painkiller Percocet to ease the pain in his throwing arm. At some point, he progressed — on his own — to the stronger OxyContin, typically prescribed only to patients with severe pain because of its dangerous withdrawal symptoms and addictive nature.

When teammates spotted him using OxyContin at a party and reported him to coaches, Jacquemain was suspended for the Zips’ late-season game against Bowling Green, a defeat. Chris told his father the experience at the party was a “first-time” encounter, that it wouldn’t happen again. Akron referred him to counseling, which was standard team procedure for a player suspected of having an addiction problem.

While Jacquemain was establishing his Akron career, Campbell was just beginning his. He played all 12 games in 2007 as a freshman walk-on, primarily on special teams. From the start, his teammates noticed something about Campbell: He hit like a freight train. Jeremy Bruce, an Akron wide receiver two years ahead of Campbell, remembers watching a practice from the sidelines early that season and asking a senior who was the tough, fast kid in on every defensive play.

“That’s Tyler Campbell,” the senior told him. “He’s one of our favorite new players.”

Coaches agreed. Akron head coach J.D. Brookhart awarded Campbell a scholarship as he began his sophomore year in 2008. Wayne Campbell was proud. He knew his son was a “late bloomer,” the kind of kid who just needed a chance to prove how good he could be.

Chris Jacquemain at InfoCision Stadium before the start of his senior year at the University of Akron. Jacquemain threw for 2,748 yards as a junior in 2008. He began taking OxyContin to treat football-related injuries in 2007./ John Kuntz, The Plain Dealer

More success, another injury

By 2008, Jacquemain and Campbell were becoming good friends and dominant forces for the Zips.

Jacquemain, now a junior, won the quarterback position outright, and responded with one of the best seasons in Akron history. He threw for 2,748 yards, fourth-best in Zips history, and completed 57.9 percent of his passes, fifth all-time in a season. He was poised to deliver Akron to a brighter fortune than its 5-7 record that season and set the stage for his own personal success. He had a chance, it seemed, at the NFL.

“He was a great competitor, a great kid,” Brookhart said. “He did a lot of things to help the program be successful.”

Campbell, meanwhile, made an impact from Akron’s first game. When defensive coordinator Jim Fleming told Campbell he was starting at safety just before the Zips’ season opener at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium, Campbell, overcome by nerves, threw up in the corner of the locker room.

Then, he recorded 18 tackles against the Badgers in a performance Fleming has retold often as an inspiring story of perseverance and hard work.

As the season progressed, Campbell suffered through the ups-and-downs of injuries, missing one game, and sustaining a shoulder injury that required surgery in January 2009.

Campbell left his surgery with a prescription for 60 Percocet.

OxyContin’s grip tightens

As 2009 progressed, family and friends of both players began to sense a change in their personalities.

Campbell began to spend more time away from his roommates. He communicated less with his closest friends, and was secretive about his whereabouts and actions. He repeatedly called his father to ask for money to help pay for expenses. Christy Campbell remarked often to her husband that Tyler seemed sad, unusual for the kid who was always ready with his trademark smirk.

Jacquemain, typically a quiet leader, began talking nonstop around family. He was fidgety and evasive when asked about what he was up to. He constantly asked his family for money, and slowly, his parents and grandmother, Jeanine, began to notice that money was missing after he visited.

Campbell and Jacquemain had drawn closer as friends, often hanging out together in the locker room and after practices. So when Jacquemain failed a drug test in July 2009 and went to spend time with Campbell and his family in Pickerington, it made sense. At one point during Jacquemain’s stay, his mom called Christy Campbell, thanking her in tears because Chris “had nowhere else to go.”

At the time, Christy didn’t understand why.

Three games into the 2009 season, Jacquemain was still using OxyContin. He failed another drug test and was caught stealing from the locker room. A string of thefts — team equipment, money from teammates’ lockers — had plagued the team for months, until Jacquemain was discovered to be the source. He was removed from the team for a “violation of team policy.”

Campbell played 11 games that 2009 season, but totaled only 31 tackles. He was despondent and moody at times during the season, but his roommates chalked it up to his erratic play.

When Jacquemain was dismissed from the team, Wayne Campbell finally put the pieces together. He realized why his son was asking for money so often, why he seemed so moody and distant. When Tyler returned home to Pickerington for Christmas break, his father immediately forced him to take a drug test. Tyler failed. He was using OxyContin, too.

Tyler Campbell enrolled in a rehab program nearby, but only completed four weeks in the six-week program so he could return to school in Akron. Still, his parents were confident he had kicked his drug problem.

Tyler Campbell recorded 18 tackles in his first game as a starter against Wisconsin in 2009. / John Kuntz, The Plain Dealer

Rehab and hope

By January 2010, Jacquemain, who had retained his scholarship despite being dismissed from the team, was back at school in Akron. But soon into the semester, he returned to his parents’ Mentor home, admitting that he had a deep addiction that needed help. Jacquemain enrolled in an in-patient drug-rehabilitation program.

By then, he had sold most of the possessions he had at school — his TV, his video game system, books, even his championship rings from Lake Catholic’s state title and Akron’s MAC championship from his redshirt season — to support his drug habit. He’d acquired his grandmother’s ATM card, and over a period of time withdrew about $10,000 from her accounts. In all, his father estimates, he stole about $20,000.

By spring 2010, family and friends of Jacquemain and Campbell were hopeful they’d beaten their addictions to painkillers. But breaking free from the drugs’ hold was a much different, much more painful struggle than the two young men had ever faced. Infinitely more painful than the injuries that began it all.

Football becomes an afterthought

In 2010, Akron fired Brookhart and hired Rob Ianello, a former Notre Dame assistant coach, to take over the football program. Ianello, now an assistant coach at Kansas, said he was told of the addiction issues of Jacquemain and Campbell and that he needed to bring discipline to the program.

In March 2010, Ianello learned that Campbell might have returned to OxyContin. He called Campbell into his office, and staged what he called an “intervention,” in which Campbell confirmed Ianello’s suspicions. They agreed that Campbell should return home to Pickerington to address the problem with another stint in rehab, worrying about football later.

Campbell withdrew from school for the semester, intent on getting well and returning to the football team. Wayne Campbell spoke to Ianello in the summer about his son — how Tyler seemed healthy and stable for the first time in a long time — and he learned what their next step would be: Tyler would have to earn back not only the trust of his teammates, but his scholarship as well. Withdrawing from school had voided Tyler’s football scholarship.

Wayne saw the news crush his son. After all Tyler’s hard work, his identity as a Division I football player was gone.

Meanwhile, Jacquemain’s downward spiral continued. At some point, he switched from OxyContin to heroin. Both drugs are opiates that deliver similar highs, but heroin is easier to obtain and cheaper — about $10 for one hit of heroin compared to about $50 per pill of OxyContin — because of a recent crackdown on OxyContin pill factories in Ohio.

Jacquemain quickly deteriorated, losing 25-30 pounds after he stopped working out and focused more on obtaining the drug that he told his friends and family he needed. He worked sporadically for a moving company. He’d be clean for stretches, then noticeably back using for longer periods. He reconnected with his high school sweetheart, Danielle Krantz, and while she encouraged him to attend Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, he continued to hang out with “the wrong crowd” in Mentor, despite her protests.

The drugs were no longer something Jacquemain enjoyed; they no longer gave him the detachment and euphoria he once felt when he took them.

Without them, he felt unwhole, sickly. He needed them.

Addiction claims one, threatens another

As the calendar turned to 2011, Campbell and Jacquemain were unanchored and battling their addictions, on and off the opiates, in and out of rehab. They held jobs for short times.

Brookhart, now an assistant coach at Colorado, contacted Campbell to dangle the possibility of playing football for the Buffaloes. Wayne Campbell saw his son grow ecstatic again at the prospect — only to deflate to a new low when he learned that his college eligibility had been exhausted. In all, Wayne watched his son go in and out of rehab four times. At one of the programs, some of his fellow participants told Tyler how heroin was a cheaper substitute for OxyContin. His addiction worsened.

At the end of January 2011, friends who let Jacquemain live with them called police after he stole about $1,250 worth of jewelry and valuables. As the case moved slowly through the Lake County court system, Jacquemain negotiated a deal to enter a drug-treatment program instead of serving time in jail.

In early July, Jacquemain proposed to Krantz, the girl he met on a Mentor playground in elementary school.

At the same time, Campbell was in rehab again. He began to tell his parents that he might pursue a future in counseling, to teach others what he’d learned about addiction. He confided in his father that he might try renewing his left-handed pitching skills. He’d gained 30 pounds of muscle since he last played baseball in high school, and he might have a shot at making waves in the sport. Wayne Campbell encouraged his son’s forward thinking. He seemed happy.

On July 21, Campbell was released from rehab. By the time he returned home and after he checked phone messages — including one from someone he owed money for drugs — he was dashing out the door, again. He had one obligation: to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

“I have to do this on my own,” Tyler told his parents.

Tyler Campbell came across heroin that night. Maybe on the way to or from the meeting, maybe at the meeting, or maybe even stashed in his bedroom. Wayne and Christy Campbell found their son in his bedroom the next morning, dead from an overdose. He was 23.

The news reverberated through the Akron football community, echoing all the way to Mentor. Scott Jacquemain talked to his son about Campbell’s death, reminding him how fortunate he was not to have reached the same fate. Soberly, Chris Jacquemain agreed.

A month later, Jacquemain failed a drug test and was sent to jail for 60 days.

Return to football?

By October 2011, Jacquemain was out of jail and living with Krantz and her father in Mentor. He was attending meetings regularly and working out again. And then, he had a brilliant idea: Maybe he wasn’t done with football, just yet.

Tryouts for the Cleveland Gladiators, the local arena football team, were approaching. His strong and accurate arm was a perfect fit for the fast-paced indoor game. He asked his father to send in the application fee.

On Nov. 30, Chris Jacquemain awoke feeling sick. His fiancee, Krantz, assumed it was an illness, and fell back asleep. When she woke in the afternoon, Jacquemain was in the bathroom with the door locked. She pounded on the door, unsure what was wrong. He didn’t answer.

When the door was opened, Jacquemain was on the floor, his fingers already turning blue. Krantz didn’t see the heroin nearby that caused the overdose.

Jacquemain was dead at age 25.

Grieving, teaching and educating

In the wake of the addiction problems of Campbell and Jacquemain, Akron’s athletics department changed its drug testing policy. The department’s testing process had been only what was required by the NCAA. Since fall 2011, Akron has tested its athletes at more stringent levels, amounting to a zero-tolerance policy. Any athlete testing positive is referred to school counseling and disciplined. Akron also now has independent contractors, rather than school employees, perform the drug testing.

The Jacquemains and Krantz still struggle to come to grips with Chris’ death. His grandmother refuses to watch college football: It’s too sad to be reminded of her grandson with the golden arm. On Chris’ Facebook page, family and friends leave messages professing their love and saying how much they miss him.

In the weeks that followed Tyler’s death, Wayne Campbell became restless. He realized the amount of time he’d devoted to trying to help his son stay sober — about 20 hours a week, he estimated — and he wasn’t sure what to do with himself.

For two years, he’d watched Tyler’s every move, scoured his cell phone bills for questionable numbers that might indicate a problem, kept track of his friends and where he went every day. He’d tried to save his son, and it hadn’t worked. Wayne wondered how it had all come to this.

“You become addicted to their addiction,” Christy Campbell said.

Wayne turned his restlessness to action. Within weeks, he and friends began meeting to make sense of Tyler’s death. The result was Tyler’s Light.

The nonprofit’s goal is to educate about the dangers of prescription drugs. Tyler’s Light is in its infancy, but it has raised thousands of dollars, formed a board of directors and held meetings twice a month.

The main objective will be to inform middle-school kids of the addictive nature of prescription drugs, reaching out before the problem reaches them. Christy Campbell’s hope is that the organization can focus, too, on educating college athletes on the dangers of prescription painkillers, how taking Percocet after surgery has potential to lead to heroin.

Wayne Campbell’s mission is to learn as much as he can about drug addiction. He reads books, goes to special meetings, talks with experts and repeats all he’s learned to anyone who will listen.

He thinks about the times Tyler would emerge from rehab and everyone in the family would think, “This is the time it’s going to work.”

“Looking back now, it looked like he was trying to get out of a room, but couldn’t find the door,” Wayne said.

During the last two years of Tyler’s life, Wayne Campbell sat at the window to that room, trying to help his son find a way out, trying not to be distracted with why and how his son got trapped there in the first place.

“I never thought this could happen,” Wayne Campbell said. “I thought these kids who OD’d were ones who started on drugs at age 14. He was a strong-willed kid who could overcome any adversity. I thought he could overcome this.”

Now he hopes that with the help of Tyler’s Light, others can.