Today was the third day of camp, and today was a day full of life lessons. We were blessed with some wonderful visitors today. While we were at Cal Sr.’s Yard, we were visited by our friends at the Maryland National Guard Counterdrug Task Force--including members from the US Army and the US Air Force. We spent our lunch time learning about the effects of alcohol and drugs—even prescription drugs, when they are misused. The kids got to really know the soldiers and airmen and were able to talk to them about anything that came to their mind!
When we got back to camp, the kids got to cool off in the pool and enjoy other activities.
After dinner, we were greeted with a great surprise, a great friend of the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation and a former star basketball player met us and told us his life story.
The story of Ernie Graham is an interesting one and had the kids on the edge of their seats. Ernie was a star basketball player who still holds the record at the University of Maryland for most points in a game. He was later drafted by the 76ers--where he played against Dr. J and schooled him on a regular basis. Ernie was on the road to success, but he had one problem: he liked to get high.
While at the University at Maryland, he set records and did it all while being high. He started developing this mentality that he could keep doing drugs and still be the greatest basketball player ever. This mentality only got reinforced when he got drafted by the 76ers. The team knew he was doing drugs and finally the coach had enough, so they offered him a million dollar contract as long as he could pass a drug test.
Ernie failed himself and his dreams. With this failing came a dark point in his life. Getting high couldn’t cut it anymore for him, so he turned to crack and cocaine. He still believed that he was the greatest basketball player of all time so he went overseas to play ball. They didn’t make him stop using drugs so his drug use got worse and worse but he kept playing ball and in 1986 he was Most Valuable Player in the world. He kept playing ball overseas until 1995 and, of course, kept using drugs. He said he wanted a little bit more out of life—a reason to stop using.
Then Ernie had a son, named Jonathan. Jonathan is hands down the greatest thing that ever happened to him. Jonathan is Ernie’s hero, but without Jonathan, I don’t think we would have Ernie here today.
When Jonathan was three years old, Ernie was smoking crack in the bathroom while his wife was out at work. Ernie thought his son was fast asleep, but he was extremely wrong. Jonathan went into the bathroom and immediately ran out of that bathroom and hid under the covers until his mom came home.
It was that moment that Ernie decided to get help. He let down the one person in his life that meant everything to him. He had to go get help. He had to change what he was doing. He could skate by in life anymore. Drugs weren’t okay. This wasn’t okay. He thought losing his million dollar contract was rock bottom, but scaring his son was the real rock bottom.
His son is 21 now, and Ernie has been sober ever since. When he told his story to us, the kids were astonished that he was that honest with us. They laughed uncomfortably when he made us yell out loud, “he got high,” in response to why he missed out on this or that opportunity. The kids gasped when he told us that he’s been arrested five times. They shook their heads in disbelief when he told us that he has done crack, cocaine, and heroin. But they all sat up on the edge of their seats and had their eyes glued to him and shot their hands in the air when he asked, “Who is going to be that one kid who will say no? Who will be that one kid who will make my life worth living by staying off drugs?”
It wasn’t easy for Ernie to tell us his story, but I think we are all better people for hearing it. He left us with one important thing to remember and I think it fits perfectly with “The Ripken Way” tenet of “celebrate the individual,” and what this camp is all about: “You’re perfect, you just don’t know it yet.”
And speaking of some great individuals, here is Ernie with Thursday’s campers of the day:
Even if you weren't at camp, you can still hear Ernie tell his story. Get live updates on Twitter by following the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation program team or #CRSFCamp.