Baldwin native Chris Weidman said he understands how people can become addicted to painkillers. Weidman, a former UFC middleweight champion, has been prescribed many pills after fights and surgeries.
“You end up having to use these painkillers just to feel good,” he said. That addiction, he added, has led many people to find a cheaper, though much more dangerous, alternative: heroin, a drug that has caused thousands of deaths on Long Island since 2010.
“I can kind of understand where people start heading down that wrong path,” Weidman said. “I can feel that slippery slope where if you really start indulging . . . how it can end up in an addiction to painkillers and, eventually, heroin.”
But there’s one thing that’s kept Weidman grounded and off drugs — wrestling. He started wrestling in Baldwin in first grade, and in high school he became a state champion and an All-American.
The sport taught him how to cope with stressful situations that other people might use drugs to escape from, he said. “Life is tough,” he said, “so they try to run away from it, and their escape is drugs. Wrestling teaches you to face adversity and not be afraid to fail.”
Last Saturday, Weidman sought to teach that lesson to more than 100 children who attended the inaugural Wrestling Takes Down Drugs Day at Nassau Community College in Garden City. The initiative, sponsored by the Nassau County Police Department and the Wantagh-based Friends of Long Island Wrestling, promotes the sport and spreads awareness of the dangers of drug use.
“I’m super pumped to have an impact on kids,” Weidman said, “and hopefully be able to make a difference.” The event was targeted at young children in youth wrestling programs across Nassau County.
“We’re really excited for the kids and the message they’re going to get,” said Friends of Long Island Wrestling board member Kevin Murphy, who wrestled at Lynbrook High School and now coaches the school’s team. “We really want them to know the simple message that you can’t get addicted to drugs if you don’t try them in the first place.”
Throughout the two-hour event, NCPD officers spoke of the dangers of opioids and smoking (including e-cigarette use), and drug-abuse experts told the crowd about some of the warning signs of drug use. Someone is probably using opioids, the experts said, if the pupils of his eyes have contracted, there are bruises or marks on his arms and he is in a state of euphoria or is very drowsy.
Steven Dodge, an Oceanside High School graduate and a former drug addict, spoke about how recovery is possible if you do become addicted. “You can get help,” Dodge, a member of the Rockville Centre Coalition for Youth, told the crowd.
In between speeches, Weidman and other wrestlers demonstrated moves that the children were able to practice on one another. This year’s Nassau County high school wrestling champions in every weight classes gave one such demonstration after they were awarded certificates by the Police Department.
Murphy said that Friends of Long Island Wrestling has raised money for anti-drug causes in the past, but the group wanted to do more. In an effort to spread awareness of the danger of drugs to a larger audience, Murphy called on one of his former Lynbrook High wrestling teammates — NCPD Commissioner Patrick Ryder.
“Kevin said, ‘I want to go after the kids and teach them the dangers about drugs,’” Ryder recalled. The two also had a personal connection to the opioid crisis. Five years ago, their high school wrestling coach, Larry Glenz, lost his son Kevin to a heroin overdose. “[Glenz] could challenge you and motivate you to do anything,” Ryder said, “but he couldn’t motivate his son off drugs. That’s how addictive this stuff is.”
Murphy, like Weidman, said that wrestling is a great way to teach kids that they don’t need drugs to get through life. “It builds self-esteem; it helps you deal with things,” he said. “It’s almost the antidote to why teens try drugs in the first place.”
Ryder said he looked forward to other sports organizations holding similar events in the future. “We’re going to have lacrosse takes down drugs, baseball takes down drugs, football takes down drugs . . .,” he said.