John Adams: With Erik Ainge, it’s what could have been

John Adams
Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge celebrates with the crowd after a 52-50 win over Kentucky in four overtimes.

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess

Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge celebrates with the crowd after a 52-50 win over Kentucky in four overtimes.

Erik Ainge in 2011.

Photo by Matthew Muise, ESPNNewYork.com

Erik Ainge in 2011.

Erik Ainge made positive impressions right away as a freshman quarterback at the University of Tennessee.

I remember watching him throw in UT’s indoor practice facility before his first college season in the summer of 2004. He looked as much like a future NFL player as any Vols did at that stage of their career.

Receivers were still adjusting to the quickness of his release and the velocity of his passes. He looked bigger and more athletic than Peyton Manning. He also seemed as comfortable in his first media interviews as he did on a summer practice field.

He clearly was no ordinary freshman.

Game action confirmed the first impression. In only his second college game, the Oregon native demonstrated talent and poise while throwing for three touchdowns against Florida. His role in the comeback victory convinced everyone in Neyland Stadium the Vols had their next big-time quarterback.

Ainge started for most of his four seasons at UT, overcame several injuries, was a fifth-round pick in the NFL draft and made the New York Jets. But he never reached the enormous potential he flashed so early in his college career.

Now, you have a better understanding why.

Ainge said this week in an interview with ESPNNewYork.com that he suffered from bipolar disorder, started using alcohol and drugs at 12, was addicted to pain killers while at UT, has been in and out of rehab, but is now on the road to recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

The details of his revelations raise numerous questions, not the least of which is how he accomplished as much as he did at UT. It’s a wonder he didn’t drive over someone in a drunken stupor, rather than help lead the Vols to two SEC championship games.

Ainge’s story also reminds you how little you often know about the players who pass through Neyland Stadium. You watch them in games and interviews and think you know them. But in many cases you don’t.

There was no apparent mystery to Ainge, other than a dramatic drop-off in play his sophomore season. That frequently was attributed to the serious shoulder injury he suffered late in his freshman season as well as the loss of confidence that followed. Bottom line: He never played with quite the same pizzazz thereafter.

Unless Ainge has embellished the depths of his addiction, it’s amazing he played at all. While it’s not surprising those outside the program had no inkling of his problem, it’s puzzling that no one on the coaching staff or support staff had a clue.

This wasn’t just another player. He was the starting quarterback.

Moreover, there were warning signs. His decline in play as a sophomore was one. His demand for painkillers as a senior was another.

He said the team doctor eventually stopped giving him pain medication, so he took his needs to the street. If his desire for pain medicine exceeded the legal limit, shouldn’t someone have questioned whether he was too hurt to be playing?

Ainge, not UT, is ultimately accountable for his actions. And I realize that most people, especially those with something to hide, are good actors. Yet you would like to think that with UT’s army of support staff supposedly serving a student-athlete’s every need, someone would have figured out over the course of four years that not all was well with one of the most prominent players in the most high-profile sport.

Ainge finally confronted his problem and sought help. Now, his story still could have a happy ending.

But UT fans might forever wonder how different the college chapter of his story would have been if he had sought help much earlier.

Remember the quarterback you saw in the comeback against Florida? You might have seen him for four years.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or adamsj@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns.

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Comments » 39

winVol writes:

fire hamilton,,fire hamilton,,,fire hamilton

volbike writes:

I am more concerned about the impact on him personally, mentally and physcially than how many games he could have won especially if the coaching staff should have picked up on this and helped him overcome it.

NGage writes:

Molder of men.

twister2 writes:

Did he not have a drug test at some point? Would Mike Hamilton not get those results? Hmmm... I am sure he failed it. BTW, where were his parents at age 12? A lot of questions out there. I wish him the best! Good Story.

BigOrangeFanBeagleMom writes:

Any one who has ever encountered a drug addict knows -- they are extremely adapt at fooling those who are trying to help them. Whether UT knew it or not, Ainge was responsible for his own behavior, and acknowledges that. He took drugs to alleviate pain, he built up a tolerance, he took more. I watched a family member act perfectly normal while taking 3 oxycontin a day for years and years (and driving). Personally, having been prescribed pain meds for various surgeries and getting off them as fast as I could because of how they impact your digestive system, I am amazed how any one could continue to take them (and bunches) for extended periods of time. But that is the ugly truth of pain medications. They are addictive and that result can apparently happen pretty rapidly.

cltvol writes:

the bi polar is serious stuff. God bless him.

VOLunTEAR writes:

The real question . . . what's going on right now that we will all be "stunned by" in a few years? And the folks from Neyland to TBA are CLUELESS.

Bufforange00 writes:

John,

Maybe no one cares what you think

leedsvol2007 writes:

I personally have had shoulder problems since I was about 16 and I thought that Ainge played with a problem shoulder from the California game on during his senior year.

If you remember he threw mainly underneath routes and not many take-offs that year. When your shoulder is hurting the line drive throws usually are not affected as much because there is more limited external rotation on that type of throw.

Against LSU in the championship game he under-threw by a wide margin the kid we had that transferred from FSU (his name escapes me) who was wide open for a TD.

And he also played with a bad left hand as well early in the season so he obviously had a legitimate need for pain medication which is why the illegal stuff never showed.

Bi-Polar issues are obviously serious and are often genetic. Hopefully he will be able to get himself together and stay there.

He has a lot of talent hopefully like Brett Farve he can overcome his pain killer addiction and go on to a nice career.

JDub82 writes:

Gee, John, lest we forget he said he was on drugs and alcohol 6 - 7 years before he ever came to UT.

GoVols_16 writes:

Stallworth, Henry, Lewis, Haynesworth, Goodrich, Little, Stephens, Briscoe, Banks, Ainge, who else?

I know I'm missing a lot of players. Under Fulmer's watch there were a TON of players that have wound up in trouble. And he's a "builder of men."

UofTNVol writes:

Instead of doing real reporting, the KNS prefers to rehash stories other actual news sites produce and then beat us over the head with them. Posting my comments from the actual news story:

It took a lot of courage for Erik to publicly share his story and own his mistakes and problems. I hope it inspires others coping with addiction to face their own demons, and serves as a cautionary tale for others on the verge of slipping down that path.

For those that troll these boards to get some kind of sick pleasure out of crapping all over everything and everyone, and pretending they're perfect and know everything: I'm not buying it. I respect Erik Ainge a lot more than I respect you. At least he's being honest.

Erik was a damn fine Vol that played his heart out and we should wish him all the best. GBO

CrankE writes:

in response to leedsvol2007:

I personally have had shoulder problems since I was about 16 and I thought that Ainge played with a problem shoulder from the California game on during his senior year.

If you remember he threw mainly underneath routes and not many take-offs that year. When your shoulder is hurting the line drive throws usually are not affected as much because there is more limited external rotation on that type of throw.

Against LSU in the championship game he under-threw by a wide margin the kid we had that transferred from FSU (his name escapes me) who was wide open for a TD.

And he also played with a bad left hand as well early in the season so he obviously had a legitimate need for pain medication which is why the illegal stuff never showed.

Bi-Polar issues are obviously serious and are often genetic. Hopefully he will be able to get himself together and stay there.

He has a lot of talent hopefully like Brett Farve he can overcome his pain killer addiction and go on to a nice career.

Truth.

At some point in the 2007 season, there was an article that indicated that Crompton was taking about half of the first team snaps. Which seemed kind of high for a backup and meant that the starting QB was only getting about half of the snaps. I commented at the time that we must have the best prepared backup and the worst prepared starter.

After the bowl game, it was revealed that Ainge was limited all year by the injury suffered at Cal. (You know, the helmet in the back that wasn't worthy of a penalty flag for spearing.) Being limited, they kept everything to dink and dunk routes because it's all Ainge could do.

I thought it was really cute of UT's staff to reveal all of that at the end of the season. In a manner of speaking, they were protecting their own backsides even then.

VOLinDAWGland writes:

It appears this staff is taking a much more proactive position with a possibly similarly troubled player, Janzen Jackson. Hope he gets his life turned around.

RunningWithTheVols writes:

Ainge did what he did and is responsible.

I will never forget nor forgive the stupidity of calling the play that Ainge hurt his shoulder on in the first place. Last play of the half at mid-field against ND, we are dominating the game, and Sanders calls for a Hail MAry, I guess. Ainge gets sacked and hurt, we lose the game, we lose Ainge's effectiveness for the season and probably the rest of his career.

Completely moronic play call. 100 things could have happened on that play, and 98 of them were bad.

NO_DIGGITY writes:

in response to BicardiRum:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Please Spell your Screen name Correct. It is Bacardi not Bicardi. IMHO.

tenuhc writes:

Another chance for Adams to blame Fulmer. Guarantee this article was written for that purpose alone. When Hamilton is fired send Adams with him !

Down_The_Field writes:

good point, adams. if someone would have intervened when ainge was at UT, you could have trashed him then instead of having to wait 5 years.

back to the true subject. i'm glad ainge is putting it together. i only wish the best for the guy.

GBOEngineer writes:

in response to winVol:

fire hamilton,,fire hamilton,,,fire hamilton

shut up...shut up...shut up

VOL1972 writes:

I know everyone is going to jump on UT, UT's athletes and the athletic dept. now, but you have to living in a dream world if you don't think this is happening everywhere. Back in my college days UT was ranked #1 among party schools in the US. If you think all everyone was doing back then was drinking beer, you obviously didn't get out much. Drugs were prevalent back then, I can only imagine what it is like today. Now UT can't even crack the top 20.

The most recent Princeton Review party school ranking

1.University of Georgia
2.Ohio University
3.Penn State
4.West Virginia University
5.University of Mississippi
6.University of Texas at Austin
7.University of Florida
8.University of California – Santa Barbara
9.University of Iowa
10.DePauw University
11.Florida State University
12.University of Wisconsin - Madison
13.University of Alabama
14.Sewanee - The University of the South
15.Indiana University - Bloomington
16.University of Colorado - Boulder
17.University of Missouri
18.University of Illinois
19.University of Maryland
20.Michigan State University

givehimsix82 writes:

Are the good men at KNS sharing a crack pipe. Didn't Erik say the pain med prob started his senior year. We strive for a good football season and our qb takes pain meds to start so we can win.... I read that Oregon had one of the highest drug rates of all the states and was where the meth probs started... he was probably one of the "cool" kids and peer pressure and such were a factor. I was 13 and tried a joint but I'm not a an addict. We want to blame our 2005 season on him... ainge gave us some good games at it and a few 9+ win seasons that's how I want to remember number 10.

givehimsix82 writes:

Every programs has this stuff.... we aren't special.... look auburn paid players and we probably have too. Its happens... but I will always love Tennessee through good and bad....

TNMOM50 writes:

in response to UofTNVol:

Instead of doing real reporting, the KNS prefers to rehash stories other actual news sites produce and then beat us over the head with them. Posting my comments from the actual news story:

It took a lot of courage for Erik to publicly share his story and own his mistakes and problems. I hope it inspires others coping with addiction to face their own demons, and serves as a cautionary tale for others on the verge of slipping down that path.

For those that troll these boards to get some kind of sick pleasure out of crapping all over everything and everyone, and pretending they're perfect and know everything: I'm not buying it. I respect Erik Ainge a lot more than I respect you. At least he's being honest.

Erik was a damn fine Vol that played his heart out and we should wish him all the best. GBO

Great post! The trolls are out in droves!

NO_DIGGITY writes:

in response to BicardiRum:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Capital B Litte a Little c Little a Little r Little d Little i.

Who should we Hire after all those folks are fired?

usnavyvol writes:

in response to BicardiRum:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Your so called "culture of corruption" is defined as college sports at large. Dont' assume UT is the only school that this is happening to. It's not wise to throw rocks in a glass house. It's obvious your hatred for UT sparks your desire to always post neative comments..peckerhead

VolunteerLifer writes:

I had often wondered why the Erik Ainge I saw as a freshman seemed to just disappear, and a different qb seemed to take his place. When the shoulder was always mentioned, I thought, jeez, don't you eventually get over a shoulder injury. Now, this explanation finally makes sense. I hope Erik beats his demons and recovers as fully as he can.

beef4davols writes:

in response to Euro_Vol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

In every interview I've heard Ainge give about this issue he has been given the oppurtunity to place blame on everyone and everything but himself (questions like "Do you think if you had not been injured....?"). With out hesitation he would state that the problem was with and caused by Eric Ainge and no one or nothing else. But I guess it is more enjoyable for some to kick someone who is already down...gutless

orangeman1 writes:

in response to bigorangegoon:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Fulmer tried to get the best athletes, just like every other coach in college including Dooley. Coaches take chances on problem kids and keep problem kids on the team until the public has enough in order to win games. Fulmer was no different than any coach at a major program.

msinva writes:

in response to BicardiRum:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

BicardiRum has always lived in a stone house with no windows.

volmom8388 writes:

Chris Lofton was diagnosed with testicular cancer and all rallied around him (as we should)
and commented upon his quiet strength while he was a student/athlete battling a life-threatening illness. There are now Bruce Pearl endorsed fund raisers in Loftons honor. And,yes,this is as it should be. Chris Lofton was an accomplished student-athlete with a very serious illness who successfully competed at the collegiate level in athletics, graduated from college and sought successful treatment for his illness.

Erik Ainger is no different than Chris Lofton,yet the calls to rally around him are fewer. He competed athletically on the collegiate level,graduated from college,was drafted by the NFL,and sought successful treatment for his life-threatening illness.

Cancer victims don't ask to have cancer. Addiction victims don't ask to be addicts.
It happens. Genectics,co-occuring diagnoses,external influences. Just like cancer.
And,as with cancer addiction has periods of remission and periods of relapse. Patients seek treament more than once, and often at more than one facility until successful results are acheived.

It's a disease folks. Get on Wikipedia--get on Google,go to the library whatever it takes but this "addicts are losers" mentality is old news. Call Cornerstone of Recovery,Bradford Health Services, or one the local hospitals with treatment programs and ask for some literature. Attend an open AA or NA meeting and sit down and listen.

Being the parent of a UT student who is also in recovery I can say with certainty that addiction is alive and well at UT and it crosses all socio-economic barriers. Students,staff and administration. Yet,we see no fund-raisers for this disease. We have a major teaching hospital associated with this university but no addicition medicine programs. No formal recovery programs on campus,no sober-student living facilities.

Im proud of Erik Ainge--it took immense courage for him to step forward and share his journey.
And,for anyone familiar with the 12 step programs that help millions of people he is clearly "working his program". A large part of the success of those programs focus upon helping others with the disease. Reaching out.

100,000 of us sat in Neyland stadium on many Saturday afternoons and cheered for Erik Ainge--if we are people of integrity and compassion we should,collectively,cheer for him now more than ever.

A personal note to Erik and his family if you are reading these posts: You will be welcomed back to Knoxville and the recovery community with open arms. My son and many other Vols in recovery are there with love for you and support.

volmom8388 writes:

My apologies for the typo's.

jarvol writes:

Fire Hamilton!

The guy can't even oversee a simple pee in the cup operation successfully.

volmom8388 writes:

He passed the pee-in-the-cups because he was taking the medications prescribed for him by team doctors. The test would simply show the opiate he was prescribed and obviously it passed NCAA standards. More exhaustive tests that show the amounts of medication he was taking are more costly and not routinely done.

Seriously folks,get some addiction education.

orangeman1 writes:

Getting testicular cancer is not a choice. Using drugs is. Thats not to say dealing with addiction isnt tough, but its not the same as cancer. You cant choose to stop having cancer like you can to stop using drugs. Addicts need support, therapy, and an environment that doesnt promote drug use. I do feel bad that his injuries caused him to have to use pain meds, but addicts have to take personal responsibility for their choices which he hopefully is doing by going to treatment.

PennVol writes:

They must have started serving the basketball Vols 3 meals/day of painkillers after they beat Pitt this year.

orangeman1 writes:

in response to volmom8388:

Chris Lofton was diagnosed with testicular cancer and all rallied around him (as we should)
and commented upon his quiet strength while he was a student/athlete battling a life-threatening illness. There are now Bruce Pearl endorsed fund raisers in Loftons honor. And,yes,this is as it should be. Chris Lofton was an accomplished student-athlete with a very serious illness who successfully competed at the collegiate level in athletics, graduated from college and sought successful treatment for his illness.

Erik Ainger is no different than Chris Lofton,yet the calls to rally around him are fewer. He competed athletically on the collegiate level,graduated from college,was drafted by the NFL,and sought successful treatment for his life-threatening illness.

Cancer victims don't ask to have cancer. Addiction victims don't ask to be addicts.
It happens. Genectics,co-occuring diagnoses,external influences. Just like cancer.
And,as with cancer addiction has periods of remission and periods of relapse. Patients seek treament more than once, and often at more than one facility until successful results are acheived.

It's a disease folks. Get on Wikipedia--get on Google,go to the library whatever it takes but this "addicts are losers" mentality is old news. Call Cornerstone of Recovery,Bradford Health Services, or one the local hospitals with treatment programs and ask for some literature. Attend an open AA or NA meeting and sit down and listen.

Being the parent of a UT student who is also in recovery I can say with certainty that addiction is alive and well at UT and it crosses all socio-economic barriers. Students,staff and administration. Yet,we see no fund-raisers for this disease. We have a major teaching hospital associated with this university but no addicition medicine programs. No formal recovery programs on campus,no sober-student living facilities.

Im proud of Erik Ainge--it took immense courage for him to step forward and share his journey.
And,for anyone familiar with the 12 step programs that help millions of people he is clearly "working his program". A large part of the success of those programs focus upon helping others with the disease. Reaching out.

100,000 of us sat in Neyland stadium on many Saturday afternoons and cheered for Erik Ainge--if we are people of integrity and compassion we should,collectively,cheer for him now more than ever.

A personal note to Erik and his family if you are reading these posts: You will be welcomed back to Knoxville and the recovery community with open arms. My son and many other Vols in recovery are there with love for you and support.

I find this post offensive to those with cancer and other medical diseases. I'm not saying addicts are bad people, but you are taking it too far in making them Victims. Addiction doesnt just "happen" like you say. Choices are made to use drugs that people know can lead to addiction. How in the world can you say its "Just like cancer"? You list external influences, gentetics, etc. , totally leaving out personal responsibility. I feel for you being a parent of someone with addiction, but I suggest you go to some cancer clinics and see what women with breast cancer or men with prostate cancer have to go through due to NOTHING of their own doing. Then go to some group therapy for cancer survivors or relatives who've lost loved ones after lengthy battles with cancer. Then let me know if you still think addiction is a disease "Just like cancer".

GBOEngineer writes:

in response to BicardiRum:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

isn't one of those singers, Michael English, the guy who was having an affair??

eVOLved writes:

Users are good at passing drug tests. He insinuated that he drank heavily during drug-test time, and the injuries probably allowed him to hide his problem, because he was being prescribed meds.

I bet he was tough to deal with. Cromps probably struggled to understand what was going on. I'm a vindicated Cromptonite now.

Ainge, like many drug addicts, is probably full of it, self-centered, etc. Makes Charlie Sheen look like Miss Daisy? I wish he was as much of a winner as CS.

UCFgradVOLatHEART writes:

John Adams why do you act like no one is allowed to make mistakes. Every article you write is negative to say the least. I Just read Josh Hamilton's book and everyone deserves to have redemption. I feel very torn by your writing every time I read. You only seem to look for the bad in every VOL or the bad they are capable of. I am a recovering addict myself. All we ask for is for people to give us another chance. John why don't you give Erik one?

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