Former Vol Erik Ainge is staying sober

By: Sara Shookman Email
By: Sara Shookman Email

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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  • by Mike Location: Oak Ridge on Sep 27, 2011 at 08:18 AM
    That says a lot for the drug test athletes take at UT.
  • by Bob Location: Knoxville on Sep 24, 2011 at 07:28 AM
    Good luck to Erik however, isn't it time for him to get a job and support himself instead of spending all of his time trying to be the center of attention. Also, for some reason this town want to make him a hero. Ten years from now if he is clean and sober maybe then he can be the poster boy for recovery.
  • by Amy Location: Knoxville on Sep 22, 2011 at 01:27 PM
    Good luck to Erik but if you look at his March ESPN interview, you should wonder why the local press has chosen Erik as a topic. He is an admitted drug addict and admittedly, disrespectful of authority and women. Is it because he was a UT Quarterback and now is supposebily a "recovering heroin addict"? When we look back at Tennessee football would Peyton or Heath Shular be a much better choice to interview? Neither of them made the poor choices Erik made and yes, it was a choice. Both Peyton and Health have made a difference in society and I am proud to have my sons strive to be like them.
  • by Richard Location: Morristown on Sep 22, 2011 at 05:14 AM
    So many people can be touch by Eric's actions. Actions speak so much louder than words. I my self is addicted to pain med and alcohol. It is a minute by minute process and everyday is a struggle. God bless Eric and my God use him in a better way that we used him in football.
  • by Anne Location: Harriman on Sep 21, 2011 at 09:59 PM
    Erik, we are "pulling" and praying for you as you continue to get your life together. It is amazing that you portrayed such a clean life as you thrilled your fans Saturday after Saturday when you were at U.T.
  • by greencar1 on Sep 20, 2011 at 06:21 PM
    had no idea...did the coaches at u.t. know? team mates? it is just great that he is trying to get his life back on track good luck and god bless


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