Bob Newton tackles his strongest foe
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
Bob Newton never became the athlete he might have been.
Yes, he played football with Nebraska the year the Cornhuskers won their first national championship.
Yes, he played for 11 years as an offensive lineman in the NFL, five years with the Chicago Bears, with teammates like Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers and Walter Payton. Then six years with the Seattle Seahawks.
But Newton could have done even better.
“The Chicago Bears, after my first year at offensive guard, thought I had the potential to be an all-pro offensive guard, which means one of the best in the league,” Newton said Friday at Mount Carmel High School. “I never made it. I never reached that potential because what I was doing off the field.”
What he was doing off the field was drinking heavily. Many men wouldn’t admit that to themselves, never mind to others, never mind to a gym full of high school athletes taking a break from their summer weight training. But Newton, a recovering alcoholic, who went straight from the NFL into rehab, and for the past 15 years has worked at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Rancho Mirage, California, is trying to help young people avoid the pitfall of addiction.
“I speak to patients, families, and high schools, as often as possible,” he said. “Going to assemblies, training teachers, school administrators, to identify signs and symptoms of substance abuse.”
He told the athletes how, despite the rising tide of legality, marijuana can be addictive and affect cognition. “It saturates your brain cells.”
Newton said that in addition to hurting his athletic career, his drinking also destroyed his marriage. And that addiction runs in families.
“How did my problem start, where did it start?” Newton asked. “When I look back on my life, I started drinking alcohol in high school. Back in those days there was not a lot of intervention. I went on to the University of Nebraska, my drinking continued. There were signs I had a problem. My father had a significant problem with alcohol, and aunts and uncles on both sides of my family had a significant problem with alcohol. If people in your family have a drinking problem, I would be very cautious. This problem is handed down.”
Newton is 65, his hair and beard now snowy white. But he still is a commanding 6’4 presence. He knows he’s going against all the glitz that Madison Avenue can muster, the endless big bucks promotion of alcohol wedded to pro sports.
“My concern is all the advertisements,” he said. “Young people are bombarded. By the time you’re 18 years of age, you’re going to see 100,000 messages to drink.”
Football is a team sport, and Newton enlisted a more famous teammate to help get his message across. His last year with the Bears was Walter Payton’s rookie year.
“I never saw a player work harder in practice,” Newton said. “One of the hardest working guys. A great teammate. I never saw him put a toxic substance into his system. Never saw him drink. Never saw him do any other drugs. He came to practice every day to work. But he felt like it, because he wasn’t putting these toxic substances into his system. We all know how phenomenal he was, one of the greatest football players to every put on a football uniform.”
Mount Carmel was eager to have Newton speak.
“We’re not naive to think these kids never drink,” said athletic director Dan LaCount. “A lot of them have aspirations to play Division I football and beyond. It’s important to us to have someone who has been where Bob has been to speak to them at this age. We’re very aware of what can attract these kids, and we do our best as a school, as an athletic department, to be sure they get the right message.”
I could tell from the players’ faces that Newton had caught their attention. Afterward, I asked a few what they thought.
“Eye-opening to see an NFL player who went through these problems and to come out and talk about all of it,” said Jake Cirame, 17, a lineman entering his senior year. “Personally, I think it affected me.”
“Truly eye-opening, to have someone whose been through all of that and have the guts to speak about it,” agreed Logan Brokop, 16, a defensive back entering his junior year. “How he beat it, and he’s still sober and beating it today.”
Follow Neil Steinberg on Twitter: @NeilSteinberg