WELLESLEY, Mass. — Erik Ainge glances at his wrists whenever he needs a quick pick-me-up during recovery from his painful past.
Tattooed in black ink on the inside of the New York Jets backup quarterback’s left wrist are a series of comforting letters: O.D.A.T., T.T.S.P. and J.F.T.
“The first is ’One Day At A Time,’” Ainge explained while sticking out his left hand. “The others are ’This Too Shall Pass’ and ’Just For Today.” ’
Ainge then showed his right wrist, which has “Romans 3:23” on it — “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” — along with the date 4-1-2009, the first time Ainge tried to beat the addictions that nearly killed him.
“They’re all true,” he said of the tattoos, “and they help me.”
Ainge has been on a tumultuous journey — marked by years of drug and alcohol abuse — that has taken him from high school star in Oregon to big man on campus at the University of Tennessee and all the way to the NFL as a fifth-round draft pick.
But now, he’s here: A recovering drug addict with bipolar disorder and a surgically repaired foot, trying to rebuild his once-shattered life under the roof of his famous uncle, Danny Ainge.
“I’m learning how to be a new person,” said Ainge, who recently met with The Associated Press for a day-long interview in the Boston area. “People who only knew me as the old Erik would be like, ’Who is this person?” ’
The 24-year-old Ainge told the world exactly who he is in a candid first-person account last week for ESPNNewYork.com, opening the nearly 2,000-word piece with the sentence:
“I’m a drug addict.”
Ainge spent last season on the Jets’ reserve/did not report list while rehabbing his foot. That came two years after being suspended four games by the NFL for violating the league’s policy on steroids and related substances. In his piece, Ainge detailed his struggle with drugs and alcohol since he was 12. He said he overdosed “several” times and abused prescription medications, cocaine, heroin, marijuana and alcohol. He also revealed he’s dealing with rapid cycling bipolar disorder.
“The first reason I did it was for me,” said Ainge, who has been sober for nearly nine months. “It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders to get everything out there. I also wanted to help people.”
Ainge gets up at 6:15 each morning, jumps into his burgundy 1999 Yukon Denali — the one he’s had since college with nearly 139,000 miles on it — and picks up his sponsor for their 7 a.m. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Every day, without fail.
“He’s just displayed a willingness to do what it takes to change the person he was, which is huge,” said Ainge’s sponsor, Jay Punch, a 33-year-old resident of Natick. “It doesn’t matter who you are. This disease wants you dead.
“The first part I thought I’d have to work with him on was sort of letting go of his prior life and coming to grips with what happened, but that hasn’t been a problem at all.”
There are no visible traces of Ainge’s playing days at Tennessee or with the Jets in the guest bedroom at Danny Ainge’s home, which is nestled in the quiet town of Wellesley. The room looks like that of most 24-year-old single guys — with some clothes scattered among DVDs and CDs — except for the soothing pictures of pink roses hung on the wall.
He ended up there after starting his recovery last summer at McLean Hospital in Belmont, and then going to a halfway house in the same part of town. Eager to stay in the area because of the progress he was making with his therapists, he spent two weeks mustering up the courage to ask his uncle if he could stay with them.
Danny Ainge, the general manager of the Boston Celtics, his wife, Michelle, and their teenage sons Cooper and Crew welcomed him six months ago with open arms.
“I’m a literally crazy, tatted-up drug addict,” said Erik Ainge, who hasn’t trimmed his hair since rehab; his once close-shaved head covered by neck-length locks. “I’m a nice guy, charismatic, polite, but if you just wrote down on paper what’s wrong with me, I could see someone not wanting me to live in their house. They had no hesitation.”
Ainge feels happy these days, something he can’t remember experiencing during the last several years. The drug abuse was a big reason for his despondency, but so was the bipolar disorder, which was recently diagnosed and is treated with mood stabilizers.
“I just felt like a crazy person,” he said. “I wasn’t educated enough to know that I was bipolar, but I just felt different. When I’d look in the mirror, I felt ashamed. I felt like there was something wrong with me.”
The hour-long therapy sessions with his psychiatrist three days a week have helped. So have the Narcotics Anonymous meetings, three nights a week.
“The way I was living, I’d have been dead at 26,” he said. “Do you know how freeing that is to be sitting here saying that? It’s like I’m living a new life, literally. I can say that. I’ve overdosed. I’ve looked at death.”
That’s why he gets a kick out of simply jumping in his truck and cranking some of his favorite bands — Soundgarden, Audioslave, Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against The Machine, to name a few — and cruising around town.
“I love that, man,” he said. “It just makes me feel good everytime.”
Kind of the way his one-hour physical therapy sessions do. Ainge had a stress fracture in his right foot since high school that never properly healed. He had surgery to put two screws in his navicular bone in January and hobbles around in a bulky, black walking boot — something he’ll have to wear for at least a few more weeks.
Ainge goes to therapy three times a week in Waltham, Mass., where his therapist, Sean Rollo, vigorously rubs the foot, ankle and calf and uses ice and heat treatments.
“I literally dream about this massage,” Ainge said while sprawled on a table a few feet away from a poster that features the 1980s Celtics with Ainge’s uncle, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson.
While Danny Ainge might not be able to walk anywhere in the Boston area without being recognized, Erik zips around town in relative anonymity. His 6-foot-5 frame stands out, but he gets more second glances because of his appearance last year in the movie “Jackass 3D” than for his football accomplishments.
“I’ve gotten about 10 of those in the last month,” he said, laughing. “I love it.”
Then, there are those who simply know him as one of the neighborhood regulars, like the guys at Deluxe Pizza in Wellesley.
“Hello, my friend,” one shouted to Ainge as he walked in. “Good to see you.”
Starbucks coffee. Pastrami sandwiches. Hard rock. Celtics games. These are the little things Ainge enjoys now.
He’s still under contract with the Jets for another year, but has no idea whether he’ll play again — and that’s of no concern to him right now. The Jets wouldn’t speculate on Ainge’s future with the team, and couldn’t comment on his drug and alcohol abuse, citing the confidentiality of the league’s steroid and substance-abuse policy.
“If football started tomorrow, I really don’t know if I’d be able to show up,” said Ainge, who will consider himself a Jet until the team tells him otherwise. “If it started in six months or a year, maybe I would. I don’t know.”
Truth is, Ainge isn’t focused on who he used to be, but rather on who he hopes to become.
“With all the things I accomplished, think of how amazing I could’ve been if I would’ve kept on the straight and narrow path and done things right,” he said. “I don’t lose sleep over that and I don’t have regrets. Life’s about what you do with what happens and I’m making those decisions now.
“I am a drug addict, went to rehab and am living in Boston. Now, what am I going to do about it? I’m living that right now, and so far, so good.”