Ken Bartolo is a former lacrosse and football player from Syracuse who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for 27 years. He is now a motivational speaker who talked to Moriah Central School students recently about the dangers of substance abuse.
Photo by Lohr McKinstry
MORIAH — Former professional lacrosse player Ken Bartolo recently had a powerful message for students at Moriah Central School about his long climb back from drug addiction.
As students listened intently, Bartolo told a chilling story of how his promising athletic calling was destroyed when he became addicted to marijuana and prescription drugs in high school in Syracuse.
“I started early,” he said. “It led to a steady decline in my athletic career.”
He was on his way to becoming a professional football player, he said, with scholarships offered to Syracuse University, University of Massachusetts and University of Maryland.
But his addiction had started in his sophomore year in high school, when he broke his back while playing lacrosse and became addicted to the opioids that were prescribed to help him.
“By the time I was 17, I got caught smoking weed,” he said. “I was on painkillers. I became the kid with the drug problem.”
He ended up going to Nazareth College in Rochester to play lacrosse.
Once his eligibility for lacrosse was up at Nazareth in 1989, he began playing football at St. John Fisher College. After graduating in 1991, Bartolo had a one-year stretch playing professional lacrosse for the Rochester Greywolves.
He said all was lost when he started using drugs and alcohol, and by his senior year, his grades had plummeted and he was struggling with addiction to cocaine, Oxycontin, Xanax, tranquilizers and heroin.
That was to continue for another 27 years, until he finally quit drugs and rebooted his life.
“They call it rock bottoming out,” he said. “I hated myself. Now I can say the guy who did this is dead; he’s gone.”
Bartolo was arrested 15 times, charged with four drunk driving offenses, served three years in prison, and was pronounced dead twice from drug-induced heart failure.
“I was homeless on the streets of Syracuse,” He said. “I was actually contemplating suicide.”
He’s been clean now for five years, and he attributes a lot of that to his family and friends.
“My family are the real heroes here,” he said. “I reached out to people and they guided me.
“Your decision-making affects your family,” he continued. “It starts with a lack of self-esteem. It continued to get worse. Then I made a recovery.”
His recovery came after a stay at the Syracuse Rescue Mission, where he went into a bathroom and prayed. He then called a friend who had recovered from drug addiction and alcoholism to ask for help.
His friend took him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He started seeing a therapist and took a 12-step program with AA.
When he got better, his brother, Matt, gave him the idea to start There and Back, his motivational speaking program, and his AA sponsor told him it would help with his recovery.
He said he’s spoken to an estimated 250,000 school students, staff and and administrators all over the U.S.
Bartolo said that after some of his motivational talks, kids have come up to him to say they were considering suicide.
“They’ve handed me their suicide notes and said ‘you changed my mind,’” he said. “I’ve probably been given 20 suicide notes, sometimes five at once.”
In those cases, he’s helped them get further help, he said.
Bartolo still practices lacrosse and works out at the Manlius YMCA near Syracuse.