"If you’re in denial or too afraid or weak to fight, then there isn’t anything I can do”
I don’t know much about sports. Never been an athlete. It just wasn’t my thing.
But it didn’t take a sports buff to see how good this kid was.
It was a cold Motzaei Shabbat. I was standing with hundreds of other people, watching as the final teams of the night played for the final spot in the flag football playoffs. For this crowd, it was a very big deal.
I spotted Akiva across the field. He was standing with his players, giving a pep talk.
He was the reason I was there.
“I need you to come see something,” he had told me over the phone. His tone was serious.
“If you need help on the court, I’m the wrong guy,” I said.
“It’s football, Yossi,” he said. “There is no court.”
“I’m not sure how I can help,” I said again.
“Just come to the game,” he said. “Watch number 17. We’ll talk after.”
So here I was and I had to admit that number 17 (whose name was Mike) was really something to watch. No matter what yard he started at, it seemed that as soon as he got the ball, he was bringing it to the end zone for a touchdown. He ran, pivoted, and spun around the opposing team like they were moving in slow motion. He was fast as lightning and could stop on a dime. No one could come within five feet of him. He was unstoppable.
“Well, that was a waste,” I told Akiva when the game was over.
“If you’re going to show off, at least do it for someone who’ll appreciate it,” I joked. “That kid is incredible. He was the fastest by a long shot. You’re going to win the whole thing with that kid.”
“That’s the problem,” Akiva said.
“Someone being that good is a problem? He carried the whole team, Akiva, he was—”
“He was stone drunk the entire time,” Akiva interrupted.
Oh, so that’s why I was here.
The league had a no-drugs, no-alcohol policy that they took very seriously. But if Akiva just wanted to cover himself and hear if this kid could make it through the season without getting the whole team disqualified…
“I highly doubt anyone is going to find out if he’s playing like that,” I said finally. “I mean, even I couldn’t tell.”
Akiva stopped walking. “That’s what you think of me?”
“I’m sorry,” I apologized. “I just had to know what your intentions were.” It was the force of habit and a mistake.
“You know me better than that, Yossi.”
I did and I apologized again. Then I asked him what the plan was.
“He’s going to meet with you and you’re going to do your thing,” Akiva said, like it was obvious.
“Sounds simple enough,” I said sarcastically. “What if he doesn’t want to come?”
“I’ll tell him to. He will.”
“But if he’s able to play a game like that while drinking, he has a serious alcohol problem. He might need a detox or even rehab. This stuff doesn’t happen overnight. And it’s a tough journey, are you sure he’s up to it?”
“He’s a warrior,” Akiva said. “He can do it.”
Mike showed up at my office the next day. In the light and proximity, I saw everything I’d missed at the game. The flushed complexion, red eyes, slight slur in his speech. But still — if I hadn’t known, would I have picked up on it?
We talked about the game and Mike told me a little about himself. He was especially eager to share the story of his journey from a preemie to a kid with leg braces to becoming the greatest player the league had ever seen. I was impressed. Akiva had told me he was a warrior, but I hadn’t realized what he meant.
“So Mike, what are we doing here?”
Mike leaned back and his voice got lower. “I know I have a problem with drinking. But I don’t want to stop right now.”
“Okay, so when?” I asked.
“After the season.”
“Mike, there’s always going to be a reason not to get clean. You need to get help with this and start the fight. I can’t start it for you and I can’t fight it for you. It’s not my fight, it’s yours and yours only. Now, if you’re in denial or too afraid or weak to fight, then there isn’t anything I can do.”
I knew I’d hit a nerve. It was uncomfortable but I couldn’t stop there.
“I mean, the risk of waiting is that when the league finds out, and they will, your team will suffer the embarrassment of being disqualified from competing.”
He stared at me. He knew I was playing him. But there is a button that warriors have and once you push it, they only see winning.
I knew three things about Mike. He defined himself by the tough times he overcame. He was loyal. And he didn’t lose. No one can get clean unless they make the choice to get clean. I had to use his strengths against him so that he would view sobriety as a new challenge to win.
He said nothing, just sat and stared out the window.
I broke the silence.
“You need to make a decision, Mike.”
“I can’t do it,” he said. He stood up and left.
I went to the game the next week. Maybe if I showed Mike support on the field, he’d accept it off the field too. Akiva was doing his usual pre-game pep talk. I scanned the players for number 17.
He wasn’t there.
The game was about to start. “Where’s Mike?” I asked Akiva.
“Rehab,” he said. He gave me the thumbs-up.
What? “He went?”
“Yeah, you didn’t know? Typical Mike, he likes to stay in control.” He laughed.
I was genuinely shocked.
“I told you,” Akiva said, looking at his clipboard, “he’s a warrior, we’re impressive.”
I found my voice. “We?”
“Yeah,” he said. “The Warriors.” He pointed to his shirt.
For the first time I took in the name of the team — The Warriors.
I stayed and watched the game anyway.
The Warriors lost.
The warrior won.
Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.
Rabbi Yossi Bensoussan serves as mashgiach ruchani at Yeshiva High School of Cleveland. He is a Certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC) who currently maintains a private practice, and does motivational speaking and community education on addiction all over the US and Israel.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 842)
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