KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- For four years, people packed Neyland stadium to cheer every Erik Ainge touchdown pass.
It's not what he accomplished on the field he's most proud of. It's being sober, now 14 months.
"Even if I don't say anything that's going to help them, it's going to help me tonight," he told Local 8 News while speaking at a Chronic Kidney Disease support group meeting. "I know I'm going to be sober for the rest of the night and that I'm going to be in a good mood."
Sharing his story is helping Erik Ainge take one day at a time. And for once, his life is one he's proud to be living.
"I was fortunate that I played football well. But that was about all I did right," Ainge said.
Ainge started drinking at 11, drugs at 12. And by the time he was a senior standout at Tennessee, his addictions included prescription pills, coke and heroin.
After he arrived at the New York Jets, he says he was hitting rock bottom, again and again.
"The overdoses, the having lots of money and losing it, and the near death experiences," he recalled. "People think that's fun. Do that for a couple months and see how happy you are. It's miserable."
In 2010, Ainge found a therapist he wanted to trust. And got his destructive habits and mental illness, called rapid cycling bipolar disorder, in control.
"I'm 14 months sober now."
He's coaching pee-wee football and speaking out to help the next generation.
"I want them to see someone that does what they say they are going to do."
"When he says certain things, he's making little promises to other people," said his girlfriend Amanda Wilburn. "And I think that inspires him to keep going." Ainge says he's in love with Wilburn and glad to be setting up a new life in Knoxville.
"I'm a heroin addict. I'm a recovering heroin addict. And that has a very powerful stigma," he said. "Each day that I can get out and do stuff like I did tonight, that's the kind of stuff when people realize that I'm a good guy."
Ainge says his football playing days are likely over. As far as his next job, he's waiting for the right choice, and living day by day.
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