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Road to recovery: Former Husker Anthony Steels overcomes drug addiction

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Day after day, drivers on this lonely Southern California highway pass by and see a skinny black man with a thin mustache lugging a plastic grocery bag. They see his white-collared shirt and blue jeans hanging loosely off a once-sculpted build.

The former Nebraska football star shuffles along alone, exhausted from a third day of smoking crack all night.

Anthony Steels knows what they’d say if people back in Nebraska ever saw him on this lonely stretch of highway.

They’d call him a failure. A disappointment. Wasted potential.

Everyone on Nebraska’s 1981 football team knew guys like Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier and quarterback Turner Gill would make it after college. But Anthony Steels -- they thought he might just be the biggest success story of all.

They didn’t know exactly what Steels would do. Some figured he would end up in the NFL returning kicks. Others thought he’d run for a Senate seat in Nebraska, or in his home state of California, winning everyone over with his wit and charm. Husker coach Tom Osborne thought he’d wind up in the entertainment business, maybe making albums with Quincy Jones, or touring the country as a solo act, just Steels and his piano and the stage, and all that incredible talent.

But can you imagine if they saw him now?

“How could you end up here?” They’d wonder.

“Where did it all go wrong?”

As the sun begins to set over the distant mountains, he reaches his destination, squeezing beneath a chain-link fence under a highway bridge. He drops his bag of clothes in the mud and plops down on the tattered tan couch, the air heavy with the musty stench of wet mud and oil.

Alone under the bridge, he wrestles to find the answers to his questions.

How could he, the first athlete in collegiate sports to sing the national anthem before a game, end up so strung out that he hardly remembers to eat some days? How could the guy who quarterback Gill says smiled more at practice than anyone, end up so lost he’s begging on street corners, hoping to panhandle $20 to score a quarter gram of cocaine?

How did I get here?

How do I get out?

Anthony reaches into his bag, pulls out a T-shirt and drapes it over himself. Soon, his eyelids surrender to the monotonous lull of the lonely highway above.

***

The November sun is a slice above the horizon as Steels paces in the parking lot on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus.

The Huskers’ senior starting wingback had to get away, had to be alone. So at 6 a.m., he awoke and went into the cold winter morning, into the deserted parking lot.

“Ohhhh, say can you see ...”

The notes echo off the surrounding buildings, much like they will in a few hours before 76,000 fans, caps over their hearts, waiting to watch the No. 7 Cornhuskers play unranked Iowa State.

Truthfully, ever since Osborne approached him after practice earlier that week, telling him the players had voted that they wanted him to sing the national anthem on Senior Day, he was nervous.

Steels practices in the shower, in front of the mirror, on the way to class, writing out the words over and over. He couldn’t let them see him mess up. He’d been waiting for this day for a long time.

Growing up, Anthony moved every three years like clockwork for his Air Force father’s job. And, one of the few things he took with him from California to Arkansas to Spain was his love of music. He caught the bug watching his father perform in USO shows. As a college freshman, somewhat unfamiliar with Nebraska or football culture, he lost himself in the piano.

Soon, the team recognized his talent. In hotel lobbies and at team dinners, his gridiron comrades began begging “Slick” to serenade them.

When he eventually began performing in local bars and clubs, the front row usually was packed with the beefy linemen who blocked for him.

And now as a senior, Osborne thought Anthony should perform on the largest stage in the state. So that November day, Anthony begins again from the top.

“Ohhhh, say can you see.”

A few hours later, he walked up to the microphone and belted out the national anthem.

Perfect.

The crowd roared with applause, and Anthony gave a tiny bow, then ran back toward the locker room.

Osborne watched from the edge of the tunnel.

“I knew he’d do well,” Osborne remembers thinking.

Anthony’s Husker stardom rose even higher two months later when he caught a touchdown pass in the 1982 Orange Bowl that gave Nebraska a 6-3 lead over Clemson. Although Nebraska lost, two days after the game, the team gave him the Guy Chamberlin Award -- an honor given to the team’s most inspiring player.

“He was a guy that wasn’t afraid to speak his mind,” Osborne would say. “He wasn’t abrasive, but he was positive. Outgoing. Encouraging.”

“He was a leader without being a captain,” said then-tight end and now athletic department employee Jamie Williams. “He was a kind of take-charge guy. So guys really respected him for that.”

Two weeks later, Steels took a job with the Boston Breakers in the fledgling United States Football League.

He celebrated with his first line of cocaine.

***

It’s 8 a.m. and Steels is driving to football practice -- high.

Twelve hours ago, his night began as usual: an after-practice meal at home, a shower and a phone call to find some drugs.

About 9 p.m., two teammates knocked on his door. In a matter of minutes, the three were snorting coke off Anthony’s coffee table, listening to a Miles Davis cassette, arguing over who was the best jazz musician of all time.

Nine o’clock melts to 10, then 10 turns to 11 and it's time to hit the clubs.

Anthony scoops a handful of cocaine into a small glass bottle, grabs a small spoon and takes off with his boys.

At the club, it’s a carousel of music, neon lights and drinks. Throughout the night, Anthony sneaks off into the bathroom, locks the stall door, unscrews the bottle, dips his spoon in, and snorts a little powder into each nostril. And just like that, it’s 6 a.m., two hours before he needs to be at practice.

Anthony rushes home, grabs his bag, jumps in his car and rolls down the windows. When he gets to the Breakers facility, he jumps into the rehabilitation pool to test his senses -- to see if he’ll feel the hits he’ll both give and receive.

He changes and runs onto the field at precisely 8:30, right on time for practice, the night behind him a daze, the day in front a haze.

Save for a few teammates, no one around him knows his routine, his drug use. Not his new girlfriend, a gorgeous brunette he met at a club one night, not the rest of his Breakers teammates, not his family, not his former Nebraska teammates.

But he’s got food on the table, a place to live, and he’s playing professional football.

As far as he’s concerned, he’s living the life.

***

The voice of NBC’s Bob Costas echoes off the walls of the concrete jail cell as Anthony watches his alma mater celebrate a national championship victory over Miami in the 1995 Orange Bowl.

Anthony’s back home in Lincoln, but he’s never felt more lost.

It’s his third straight New Year’s Day in jail.

After years of bouncing from team to team in the USFL and NFL, the persistent drug use and inconsistent play had finally cost him a career. After being released by the San Diego Chargers in 1989, Steels married that girl he met in the club and moved back to Lincoln. He took a job at the Lincoln Council of Alcoholism and Drugs, counseling addicts on the evil of drugs by day, only to sneak off and snort cocaine at night.

But all the while he could feel the panic, he could feel himself starting to slip away. So one day in 1990, he stopped by to see the one man he thought could set him straight. Coach looked across the table and scarcely recognized the man in his doorway.

“He looked like he was pretty much at the end of his road,” Osborne said.

So he set Anthony up at the Bryan Health Independence Center for a 30-day treatment. The coach even sat next to him at the first few meetings as Anthony’s sponsor.

Not long after the 30-day treatment ended, Anthony was back to snorting coke.

In 1991 he lost his counseling job for missing work too many times after all-night partying sprees. Embarrassed by his drug habit and his inability to keep a job, he and his wife moved 100 miles east to Clarinda, Iowa, where it was easier to hide his addiction and shame.

With a clean slate, where no one knew Anthony Steels the drug addict, he again landed a job helping youths struggling with drugs and alcohol.

“People would always hire me because they knew me,” he said. “They knew me as Anthony the football player, the singer, Mr. Inspirational award or whatever. They didn’t know me as a dope head.”

His Iowa neighbors saw a healthy man who sang in the church choir and volunteered as a youth football coach. What they didn’t see was Steels speeding down Nebraska 2 on Fridays to Lincoln to get high all weekend.

“I couldn’t look myself in the mirror,” he said. “And I couldn’t stop using.”

In 2000, after almost a decade of living two lives in Iowa and Nebraska, fed up with his life -- jobless, now divorced, afraid his double life would be exposed -- Anthony thought maybe he should find a new home, a place he was familiar with. Maybe he’d move in with his father.

So he moved to Riverside, California, looking to turn his life around.

It wasn’t long before his father threw him out, and Anthony found himself wandering along Interstate 225.

***

On U.S. 30 outside Columbus, Nebraska, Rod Bauer, an executive at Omaha’s Sienna Francis House, is trying to figure out who he just picked up from jail.

“You said you played ball?”

“Yeah, I played a little back in the day.”

“Wait,” the lifelong Husker fan said. “Are you the Anthony Steels?”

The newly released prisoner nods.

After 10 unsuccessful 30-day treatments since 1990, Steels is hoping this latest five-month program at Sienna Francis, Nebraska’s largest homeless shelter and rehab program, will help him overcome his addiction.

In rehab, the intensity he once put into football clicked and was channeled into getting sober. He dropped the ego, the Man -- the man with the football in the end zone, the man with the microphone receiving a standing ovation, the man with the money free to spend on anything he pleased -- he was freed of the man that blinded him for so long. He became spiritual, reading the Bible before bed at night, and when he got out of rehab for good, he was no longer wandering in the wilderness.

He moved to Lincoln in 2007 and started Cocaine Anonymous, met a woman who introduced love into his life again, and that same year, attended his first Husker football game since singing the national anthem in 1981.

***

Today, Anthony works for Catholic Charities and lives in Omaha, his life now filled with taking his 13-year-old daughter, Sierra, to volleyball practice and trying to train his 1-year-old dog, Pretty Boy, to sit.

Life now consists of morning chats with his wife about Jesus and the occasional gig at a bar with his new band, “Anthony Steels: A Vocal Experience.”

Anthony is nervous again.

It’s March 3, 2013, and he’s now eight years sober. He stands in a stuffy Bob Devaney Sports Center, sweating bullets in a crimson button-up, loose blue jeans and sneakers. He wrings his hands together as No. 20 Nebraska and No. 7 Penn State women’s basketball teams warm up before playing for the regular-season Big Ten title.

It’s the final women’s basketball game inside the Devaney Center, and the 37-year-old bleachers swell with more than 10,000 red-clad Husker fans.

A perfect stage for his return.

When the buzzer sounds, the teams line up and Anthony makes his way to the center of the court. He’s handed the microphone, his hands now sweaty, and the crowd goes silent.

Before he begins, he looks around the arena. They’re all watching again. This time, he wanted them to.

He takes a deep breath, and begins again from the top.

“Ohhhh, say can you see ...”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or cheady@journalstar.com.

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