This story appeared in the February 14, 2018 edition of the Cortland Standard. To become a subscriber, email us, or call us at (607) 756-5665. Back issues available by request.
McGRAW — Ken Bartolo threw away 23 years of his life, ruined relationships, destroyed a career as a professional athlete and watched the world from the wrong side of prison bars.
He points to one bad decision — to take a hit from a joint when he was 15 — but that was followed by years of bad decisions and setbacks as an addict.
Bartolo spoke at several sessions Tuesday at McGraw High School, to students, to parents, to residents, urging them never to assume addiction won’t happen to them.
At 15, Bartolo was already being scouted by colleges for his lacrosse and football skills at Fayetteville-Manlius High School. He was even asked to sign autographs. But when he took a puff of marijuana to impress some friends, his coach saw it and benched him. He was later expelled.
Then Bartolo suffered another setback. He fractured two vertebrae in his back while playing lacrosse and was given percocet, an opioid, for the pain. He soon came to rely on the pill, even as he transferred to Jamesville-Dewitt in his junior year.
He played games so high he couldn’t see the field, costing his team wins on many occasions.
“I wish I had a crystal ball, I never would have taken the pill,” Bartolo said after the presentation.
Even so, Bartolo went on to have a great two years on the field. But he soon realized something was wrong with how he coped with anxiety. His friends didn’t need to get drunk or high.
“I realized they had something I didn’t,” Bartolo said.
His athletic abilities got him far, still, he went on to play lacrosse at Nazareth College and then football at St. John Fisher.
However, his addiction haunted him. He’d be clean for a streak then tell himself he could party just for the weekend, sobering up the night before a practice. Then he’d drink vodka on the way to practice and snort cocaine to stay alert.
Bartolo also went on to play lacrosse professionally in Rochester, but still his addictions haunted him. He’d dream of killing himself to end the pain.
Ten years later he tried, while he was in prison. He considered suicide again after he was released, and relapsed. Something inside him finally told him to seek help.
He reached out to a friend and found a spirituality that he says saved him.
That was seven years ago. Bartolo is 49 now, and he and his brother have since started a foundation to raise money to help youngsters get treatment for their addictions, There and Back.
Now he does speaking engagements, sharing his story with students for a two-fold purpose: For kids who aren’t using drugs, it’s about prevention. For kids who do use, it’s to encourage them to seek help.
After the presentation, Sommer Bleck, a parent of two McGraw students, said she attended because her children were so moved by Bartolo’s words earlier in the day. As a probation officer, Bleck said she deals with addiction a lot but she thinks it is meaningful for someone to share their firsthand experiences with kids.
Candy Farris, who attended the presentation with her 12-year-old son Lucas, said it helped her see the situation through the eyes of an addict.
“When you don’t know, you think why did they get into this,” she said. “It was pretty powerful.”