On the surface it would seem like an athletic dream come true.
Acclaimed national publication Sports Illustrated recently sent a crew to Albuquerque to interview and photograph the families of several local athletes for an in-depth story that appeared in the June 22 edition.
But this story has nothing to do with on-field glory. Instead it describes the ongoing nightmare of drug addiction that has gripped Albuquerque and claimed numerous lives, athletes prominent among them.
In fact, Albuquerque residents who were interviewed for the piece shared one devastating link: All of them have lost family members who were also athletes to drug overdoses.
The article is entitled “Smack Epidemic – How Painkillers are Turning Young Athletes into Heroin Addicts. ” It tells the stories of young athletes who were prescribed painkillers after suffering sports-related injuries and later became hooked on less-expensive and more easily attained opiates like heroin.
Albuquerque’s Bo and JoAnn Montaño, who lost their 22-year-old son, Roman, to a heroin overdose in 2012, are featured in the story.
Roman grew up as a standout athlete and competed in multiple sports at Eldorado High School. He was introduced to prescription painkillers after undergoing surgery for a foot injury during his junior year, starting a tragic cycle that ended with Roman’s death.
“I hated sharing my son’s story,” Bo Montaño said Friday. “It felt like we were reliving that whole painful time, but it had to be done. Addiction is such a serious problem, especially for young people, and the message needs to get out.”
Albuquerque is referred to as an “epicenter” for the painkillers-to-heroin abuse issue, which the story says has claimed the lives of at least eight athletes in the metro area since 2011. Athletes who are introduced to prescription painkillers can be set onto a path that leads to drug abuse, addiction and in some cases death.
Opiate addiction among athletes could be viewed as the latest chapter in a larger tale of drug-related misery that has plagued Albuquerque and New Mexico in recent years. Heroin and prescription painkiller abuse have been the focus of several Journal articles and series detailing a number of alarming statistics.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Mexico’s death rates from heroin and prescription drug overdoses led the nation in 2012, the most recent year the statistic was released. Teen heroin use in the state was double the national average.
Jennifer Weiss-Burke knows the statistics all too well. Her son, Cameron Weiss, died of a heroin overdose in 2011 at age 18.
Weiss, who played football and wrestled at La Cueva High School, followed the path described in Sports Illustrated, beginning with a sports injury and progressing through painkillers to heroin. His story and that of Weiss-Burke, who has since formed an awareness and advocacy group (Healing Addiction in our Community, or HAC) for families touched by drug dependency, were detailed in a 2014 Journal article.
Weiss-Burke has become involved with numerous families who have lost children to overdoses and helped facilitate the Sports Illustrated story. She agreed with the description of Albuquerque as fertile ground for opiate addiction.
“I don’t think New Mexico’s too much different in terms of painkiller abuse compared to other states,” Weiss-Burke said. “But with our proximity to Mexico and being located on a major artery like I-40, Albuquerque’s kind of a hub. There’s such easy access to drugs, heroin and pills alike.”
Weiss-Burke also believes young athletes are becoming particular targets of illegal drug distributors.
“Athletes tend to get hurt and they want to play,” she said. “They take painkillers to get back on the field and that can start the cycle.”
Injuries, however, are not always part of the equation.
Greyson Newman was a football standout and top student at Del Norte High School when he died of an overdose of oxycodone in 2011. Newman, 17, had not suffered a significant injury or had painkillers prescribed to him, said his mother, Dana Newman. Greyson had no history of drug use and had passed a screening six months prior to his death.
“I don’t really know when or how it started,” Dana Newman said. “There’s no one introduction or answer, but I’ve found out how common (painkiller and heroin) overdoses are here among high school kids and athletes. I heard of six or seven others in Albuquerque just during the year Greyson died.”
Dana Newman was not interviewed for the Sports Illustrated article but like Montaño and Weiss-Burke, she believes more than eight current and former Albuquerque prep athletes have died of overdoses since 2011. Perhaps many more.
Derek Chavez, a former teammate of Roman Montaño at Eldorado, has been hit particularly hard by the local addiction problem. Chavez, 25, said he became an unhappy regular at funerals caused by drug overdoses, including services for Montaño and Greyson Newman.
“Fourteen people I knew fairly well died in a four-year period,” Chavez said, “twelve of them were in Albuquerque or Rio Rancho. It was happening every couple of months, to the point where I almost couldn’t deal with it.”
Chavez said he too experimented with painkillers but was fortunate enough not to get hooked. He was glad to see the Sports Illustrated story and hopes it will generate more discussion.
Dana Newman agreed.
“There’s a lot of shame and stigma attached to drug addiction,” she said. “Parents feel they’ve failed their children and don’t want to talk about it, so no cause of death is released.”
In some cases, overdose-related deaths receive greater publicity when the victims are current or former athletes. Such attention can be difficult for the victims’ families, but Montaño, Newman and Weiss-Burke have since chosen to take active roles and speak out about fighting drug abuse.
Montaño and his wife lead a 12-step program for addicts and alcoholics and introduce them to sponsors. Newman volunteers and talks to young people through HAC, and Weiss-Burke cofounded and serves as executive director of Serenity Mesa, a recently opened long-term treatment center for young people suffering from drug or alcohol addiction.
All say they welcomed the attention Sports Illustrated’s story brought to the issue, even if it portrays Albuquerque in an unfavorable light.
“So many people turn a blind eye to this problem,” Montaño said, “because heroin is considered a shameful drug. But addiction is progressive, it’s an epidemic among our kids and it has been for a while. We can’t afford to be self-righteous about something that’s killing our kids.” Chavez, who now works in the film industry as a production coordinator, hopes to shed further light on Albuquerque’s addiction issue. He’s working on a documentary film entitled “Project H,” which he hopes will be released later this year.
“It started as a way to honor Roman and some of the other people I knew who’ve suffered from this,” Chavez said. “I hope it does that and gets people talking. I don’t think that happens enough.”