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Alexander uses new playbook to show youth straight, narrow

May 13, 1999|By MARK KELLER

WILLIAMSPORT - Robert Alexander speaks from experience.

The former National Football League running back has, in his own words, "been from the penthouse to the henhouse, and everywhere in between."

Having pulled himself from the henhouse, Alexander has set out on a mission to educate youth on the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse.

The West Virginia University graduate founded the N.F.@L. (Not Failing at Life) program two years ago for that reason, and he took his message to Williamsport High School on Wednesday.

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Alexander's appearance was made in conjunction with the school's Prom Promise program, in which students pledge not to use drugs or alcohol during their prom weekend. His mission - persuade those kids who are planning to party not to by revealing his own struggles with substance abuse.

And Alexander has struggled. He said he turned to drugs when his father died in 1978, beginning a 15-year addiction. He went through six short-term treatment centers, but he said they "only prepared me to use again."

His seventh stint in treatment lasted 15 months, but Alexander finally conquered his addiction during that stay.

"It's the hardest. It's the most miserable experience I went through in my life," said Alexander, who was dressed in a Los Angeles Rams jersey, the team that drafted him in 1980.

Alexander said Wednesday's presentation is actually only the first step in the N.F.@L. program.

"This initial part, with 400 kids, is really getting to know the kids," Alexander said. "Hopefully, next year I'll come back and get into some smaller groups so there can be more intimate conversations.

"When I come back, I tell the kids, 'OK, now you're going to talk to me. Tell me what you're doing and why you feel you need to do it.' And we're going to go nose-to-nose and toes-to-toes on this issue."

His message to the Williamsport students was sometimes light, sometimes humorous, sometimes quite dark ... but always honest.

"Honesty is the only policy," he told the group.

Alexander drew diagrams on a chalkboard, stating that when the kids can see as well as hear what he is discussing, it makes a much stronger impact.

But in the end, his words carried the most weight.

"People always ask me who hit the hardest," Alexander told the students. "Alcohol ran me down faster than any defensive back, and drugs hit me harder than any linebacker ever did."

Williamsport principal Roger Giles was impressed with Alexander's presentation and with the message he was able to convey to the students.

"I think it helps for them to receive the message from that outside source, yet incredible source," Giles said. "That person that they deem as an authority who has dealt with making these appropriate decisions and come through successfully ... I think it's a very important way for them to receive that message."

And for Alexander, it's all about the kids.

"There's no touchdown, there's no Super Bowl, there's no trophy or award that could replace the feeling I get when I know I've really helped a kid," Alexander said.

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