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The Nightmare Run of Tony Boles|
By Steven Malik Shelton
There is an adage that declares that crack cocaine does not discriminate. That it is no respecter of a person's position, prestige or talent. Few have a better testimonial to the truth of this than Tony Boles.
A high school football sensation, he went on to become a star running back at the University of Michigan, propelling them to the Rose Bowl championship for the 1988 season. He was later drafted by the Dallas Cowboys: a team that is synonymous with professional football glory and excellence on the gridiron.
Coming off a serious knee injury, Boles became enamored with a cocaine-like substance given to him to relieve his pain after surgery. This set off a chain of psycho/social dynamics and led to events that would push Boles into the hellish world of crack-cocaine addiction, crime, homelessness, prison and institutions.
Boles' bout with addiction has landed him at Elmhurst Home, Inc. It is a treatment center located on the corner of Elmhurst and Linwood streets in the heart of Detroit's West Side. The facility is renowned for helping addicts get off drugs, boasting one of the best success rates in the state and, perhaps, in the nation.
There are no screaming fans to adore him here; and the only passes he currently receives are the ones signed by clinical staff so that he can journey for a few hours outside the facility. For treatment centers like Elmhurst Home do not deal in the kind of fame that had graced Boles. They do no bask in notoriety: nor do they exist in the limelight of parades and accolades. Unlike the shadowy world of the addict, they approach the devastated one from the dark corners and recesses of his mind and seek to illuminate them. They seek to make him examine those pieces of himself that he keeps hidden away from the rest of society, keeps secluded away, even, from himself.
One gets the impression that Tony Boles is a humble person. He speaks little of his celebrated exploits in college and professional sports. And if he were not pointed out in a crowd he could easily merge with the thousands of other young Black men that have walked the urban streets, entered the doors of the facility and traversed its hallways and therapeutic rooms. Rooms that have proven to be passageways that lead to deliverance and which often mean the difference between negation and affirmation and between life and death.
Physically, he does not fit my preconceived notion of a running back. As an old-school football enthusiast, the term running back conjures up images of Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Tony Dorsett and Earl Campbell. All relatively compact, muscular, running dynamos that exuded cannonball type explosive power. Comparatively, Boles appears exceptionally tall and linear: resembling more a receiver or a corner back than a tailback.
He was born in Thomasville Georgia and moved to Michigan at the age of ten. His family settled in Westland where he became only one of four Blacks on the entire student list of Westland's John Glen high school.
It seems a benign sort of upbringing but I get a sense of turmoil and dissonance beneath the surface. And when I ask him about his childhood and home life, he speaks hastily as though (as in his grid-iron days) he has found an opening with which to express himself and must hurry before the opening closes and the opportunity and the inclination are no more. "My Mom and Dad were together during my entire childhood," he offers. "I just really found out my real father when I was 27 years old. I was an only child to my mother, but on my biological father's side I had 13 or 14 brothers. Everybody knew about my real father, but me. That was a big surprise to me."
The social and emotional ramifications of not being reared by his biological father and being separated from his siblings were aggravated by his step dad who was usually harsh and unsympathetic. "We was always arguing and bickering with each other," says Boles. Sometimes he would get mad at me and tell me that I would never amount to nothing Materially though, I had a nice childhood. Being the only child in the household, I pretty much got everything I wanted."
Yet these "things" were not enough to fill the void or to assuage the emotional discord that he felt. And he would, (as tens of thousands of other American youth have), succumb to pressure and dabble with alcohol and marijuana, effectively laying the foundation for a lifestyle that would propel him through successive bouts with drugs and crime. "Growing up in Westland during that time I doubt if there was five Blacks in the entire school," he emphasizes. " I was kind of trying to fit in with everybody else. And that's when I began to smoke weed. It didn't really have an effect upon my life until I got to be about 27 or 28 years old. That's the age when I started experimenting with cocaine."
It was also the year when he discovered that the man he thought was his real father was not. During this same time period Boles was unable to establish a meaningful relationship with his biological father. It could easily have been the feeling of being betrayed and abandoned which pushed him over the edge and into the seductive grasp of crack cocaine. I ask Boles about what seems to be an obvious connection between his introduction to cocaine and his realization that he had been misled about his father. He skims over it. Perhaps the memory still much too painful to collide with head on.
"I don't know if that had anything to do with it," he explains. "I believe that what sparked my addiction was when I was injured while playing at the University of Michigan and I had my major knee surgery. I was also medicating myself. I can recall medicating myself in the hospital. And I was depressed due to the fact that I was not able to play up to my standards before I hurt my knee. I believe that had something to do with me turning to alcohol and crack cocaine. There was also the pressure exerted on me by the school to get well so I could get back on the field and play football."
Drug usage for Black Americans is often a convenient escape hatch for the psychosocial toxins of racism and exploitation in American society. Tony Boles was raised in the White almost Black- negating environment of Westwood. I ask if the pervasive dynamics of racism effected his sense of himself and instigated him to find relief and sustenance in drugs?
"I didn't experience any racism at all," says Boles. "I believe I was sheltered from it because of my prominence in sports. I also ran track at Marshall Jr. High when I was growing up, and I didn't see it at all. I never heard any racial slurs or saw any racist slogans written on lockers or walls, which was unusual. In my heart I believe there was negative racial stuff being said about me behind my back. But I never heard it directly.'
Tony Boles pauses for a moment as if to emphasize a point, or perhaps to conjure up a memory that he had buried beneath the veneer of his race-neutral, sports-celebrity, early life.
"I remember I was going out with this White girl at the time, and I was not allowed to go to her house. I took her to the prom but she told me not to pick her up, that she would pick me up. I know that it was because I was Black. It was never discussed; I just know that was why she didn't invite me over. She simply said, 'My Dad wouldn't like it.' And I definitely had a sense that the reason her Dad didn't like me was because of my color. But she went out with me anyway."
While explaining how he was recruited to the University of Michigan on a football scholarship, Boles reveals that he sometimes regrets not going to a Black college because "that's where I believe I would have gotten a better education and experienced more about my history. Sometimes I think that would have been a better choice for me."
Some of this history is rife with ominous implications. There is evidence linking the United States Central Intelligence Agency C.I.A.) And the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (D.E.A.) to the introduction and spread of crack cocaine in the Black urban areas throughout America culminating in an epidemic of crack addicts, and fueling a surge of gang wars, drive by shootings, murders, assaults, robberies and rapes. 
Gary Webb, a journalist for San Diego's Mercury News, wrote in a series of revealing reports: "Black America is still dealing with its (the C.I.A.'s) poisonous effects. Urban neighborhoods are grappling with legions of homeless crack addicts. Thousands of young Black men are serving long prison terms for selling cocaine - a drug that was virtually unobtainable in Black neighborhoods before members of the CIA's army started bringing it into South Central (Los Angeles) in the 1980's at bargain basement prices."
When Boles left the hospital after his knee surgery, his life took a nosedive, almost identical to countless other addicts caught up in the compulsive and obsessive nature of drug addiction.
He tested positive shortly after being drafted to the Dallas Cowboys and was cut from the team; management determining that since Boles came in with a knee injury, that it would be more expedient to simply bring in another running back than to rehabilitate a drug addicted one.
"As a rookie with the Dallas Cowboys,' he recounts. "I had to perform menial tasks like washing cars for the veteran players as a form of initiation. And I took Emmit Smith's truck, his black Pathfinder, and I went on a two-day binge just getting high. You know, Emmit Smith is the man at the Cowboys. He actually gave me the car to wash it; I just never came back. Two days later they locate me and fine me 5,000 dollars. I was the talk of the town."
Boles shakes his head and chuckles, as though describing the exploits of someone else. And in a way he is right to do so. For the man who exhibited this (and other) irrational behavior is in many ways as much a stranger to himself as he is to those around him.
In 2004, after months of subsisting in the seedy addict underworld of Inkster, Ann Arbor, and Detroit's infamous Cass Corridor, he was busted for robbing an elderly White couple and sentenced to 3 to 15 years in prison. He went through the bubble at Jackson and was released soon after into a work program. Yet, he still wrestled with his addiction to crack-cocaine and alcohol. And he still was haunted by the unresolved issues that prompted him to find within drugs, a handy refuge. He tested dirty several times while on parole and was stipulated to the drug treatment facility on Linwood. He now hopes that with the tools he has learned and with the understanding about himself he has garnered, he will be able to stay off drugs.
At least for now, Tony Boles fully realizes that the demons that he unleashes with the ingestion of drugs cannot be outwitted or out-ran. And if there are still dreams left to find, he must look for them inwardly. For they are no longer to be found under the blazing lights of the sports stadiums or within the cascading power of the cheers from tens of thousands of spectators. He must, at long last, seek redemption by siphoning through his tormented soul, and by searching within the obscure corners of his mind.
Steven Malik Shelton is a journalist and human rights advocate. He can be reached at: email@example.com
Notes and References:
* Elmhurst Home, Inc.
© May 2006 By Afromerica
Brother Steven Malik Shelton will be keeping the Black community updated on the most current Black experiences effecting our lives. Visit regularly for new information that could help you overcome and make the best of your everyday experiences.
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