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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns.