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At a random headstone, in a random cemetery more than 1,200 miles from the only real home he ever had, Alton Voss knelt and started praying.
Just give me guidance
Heavy sobbing, the visceral kind that makes your chest heave, followed. A few feet away sat the red Pontiac Grand-Am he had swiped from a parking lot and taken for a 10-minute spin through a Holland, Mich., neighborhood.
Just show me the right way because the way that I’ve been living is not the right way
Physically, Voss — perhaps the greatest quarterback in Gulf High School history — had been behind the wheel. But the pills, weed, crack, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder had steered him to this juncture, to this grim metaphor.
Four winters after signing a full scholarship with USF, Voss’ addictions had quite literally driven him to the grave. He finished praying, rose and returned to the car. The cops already were waiting.
The brawny, brown-haired heartthrob, who could send a spiral across two-thirds of the Des Little Stadium football field, had just completed his downward one.
Addiction takes hold
During a 90-minute phone interview, Alton William Voss IV emits candor, remorse and most of all, sobriety. His 6-foot-3 frame carries 240 pounds, essentially his playing weight upon arriving at USF in 2007. He’d love to return to school someday. If not there, somewhere.
“Physically, I’m in better shape than I was when I was in college,” he said.
Since June 18, Voss has resided at CMI Abasto, a stately, stucco-brick medical office building smack in the middle of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Small verandas jut from the structure, and ivy cascades over walls near a courtyard.
For $1,000 a day, a team of doctors and philosophical coaches work with Voss to help conquer his demons and uncover their origins.
Voss’ Michigan-based attorney and primary benefactor, Jane Patterson, calls the place “phenomenal,” referring to it as a “cocoon of love.”
“I know, for me, before I came here, I had no hope,” Voss said. “I had lost a vision of life and who I was and what I wanted to do. But since I’ve come here, what they do is, they cure your addiction, but they want you to have a balance where you have a true happiness.”
For most of his 23 years, true happiness has seemed as elusive as Voss could be in a backfield. The product of a broken home, he and younger sister Laurie were essentially raised by his mom’s old boyfriend, whom he still calls his stepdad.
Athletics were his avenue of escape from his hardscrabble existence. By his junior year at Gulf, Voss had evolved into a first-team all-county quarterback, amassing more than 1,000 passing and rushing yards and roaming the secondary as a head-hunting safety.
He committed to USF in the late summer of 2006, weeks before the start of his senior season. That year, he passed for more than 1,200 yards, led the team in sacks and interceptions, and blocked eight kicks — all with a torn meniscus sustained in the season opener.
“He never missed a day of practice,” said Jay Fulmer, Voss’ coach at Gulf. “Went to school every day, was on time every day, worked like a dog and played like his life depended on making a play.”
Soon, his life would depend on making a score.
The second semester of his senior year at Gulf, Voss met up with some friends at a Walgreen’s in New Port Richey. Someone asked Voss if he’d like to try something.
They drove to a Checkers at the intersection of State Road 52 and Little Road in Hudson, where one of the friends hooked up with a dealer. Voss said he was handed a pill with a “blue-ish tint to it,” a stamp on the front and the numeral 30 on the back.
Within moments of taking the Roxycodone — a narcotic pain reliever also called a roxy — he was hooked.
“It made me feel real relaxed,” he said. “For me, if I had any stress or issues I was dealing with during the day, it made all those things disappear. It’s an opium, so you’re just in a state of, I guess I could say bliss.”
Before leaving for USF a few months later, Voss estimates he did pills 10 or 15 more times. He did six before boarding the bus with classmates for grad night at Disney World that spring, and brought a half-dozen more with him. He said he doesn’t remember the trip there.
“But I remember being at Disney World,” he said. “And the only thing that has stuck to my mind is always going to the bathrooms and finding a stall. I just remember going to the stalls periodically and doing the line (of pills) on the toilet paper dispenser.”
He says he had been at USF about a month when he took pills again. His addiction grew branches: Oxycodone, Oxycontin, muscle relaxers. Initially, his scholarship checks financed his fixes. Some weekends, he’d return to New Port Richey without telling anyone, just to meet his dealer.
He’d remain high from Friday night until Sunday, make it to USF’s workout Monday, then crash for 12 to 15 hours. By July 2008, Voss no longer could sustain the pace. He abruptly walked away from the Bulls and his fully-paid scholarship, citing a lack of passion for the game.
“I’m thinking (the desire) disappeared naturally, but now that I’m able to look back at it, doing the drugs, it definitely made my decision-making foggy,” Voss said.
“I’d do my workout, go to class, come back later on in the day for the second workout, and I was just going through the motions. The only thing my mind was set on was, ‘Man, I cannot wait to get back home so I can call my drug dealer and get my fix for the day.’ ”
The downward spiral
His scholarship money drained, Voss says he was encouraged by a friend to swindle pills from a pain management clinic. The friend showed him how to contort his back in a way that would show a disorder.
An MRI, Voss says, revealed five bulging disks. He was prescribed 240 Roxycodone, 120 40-milligram Oxycontin pills and 90 muscle relaxers. The addict also was now a dealer.
“I had this huge smile on my face,” he said. “I felt like I won the jackpot.”
Meantime, suspicions gained traction. Fulmer says about a year after Voss exited USF, he showed up at Gulf’s fieldhouse “ranting and raving about miscellaneous things.” Astounded by his behavior, Fulmer and an assistant coach took Voss aside and asked him to leave.
“Even at that point, you look at this kid and you see Hercules,” Fulmer said. “It’s just hard to even put it in your mind that he could be putting things in his body that could destroy him to that point. So even when I kind of thought it was going on, I was in denial a little bit.”
So was Robin Burge, the de facto stepdad. To this day, Burge starts sobbing when speaking of Voss; he said an adult or two warned him about the kid he adored, but he couldn’t accept it.
“He was able to disguise it right under my roof here,” said Burge, who still helps raise Voss’ younger sister, Laurie.
“He would make sure if he was messed up that he didn’t come out (of his room), I guess. He would stay back in that room for a couple of days at a time if he didn’t have anything to do. … Little did I know he was back there getting high half the time.”
In time, the quarterback’s progressions — from one drug to another — got more erratic. He tried hooking up with two junior college programs — in California and Kansas — but flamed out at both in about a month.
It was upon his return from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College that he was introduced to crack. Voss said he remembers injecting a huge dose into a vein in his closet at Burge’s home. “My heart felt like it was going to explode,” he said.
Heavy marijuana use followed, but not before he was arrested for possession of a controlled substance in Pinellas County in December 2010. Shortly thereafter, while attempting to take some classes at St. Petersburg College, he experienced what he called a “manic episode.”
“I had this intuition that I was going to win the lottery,” he said. “For some reason, that’s what popped into my head.”
Immediately, he phoned a buddy in Michigan, whom Voss says was living with his dad and trying to get clean himself. The friend suggested he join them, for a change of scenery. In the SPC library, he booked a flight.
Next thing Voss knew, he was jogging down a strange road, and coming upon a man on a cellphone entering a building. He had left his Grand-Am running.
A savior steps in
Jane Patterson’s Michigan accent is as crisp as a Saginaw autumn. A 54-year-old married mom of two grown daughters, she has practiced law in and around Ottawa County, Mich., for nearly 30 years. Upon meeting Voss, she knew she had to help him, and still can’t explain why.
“There was just something about him that was different,” she said.
“I’m as stable as the day is long and for me to do this, it’s an incredible God thing because literally, I couldn’t sleep until I did something to help him. He’s worth it. There’s something special about him.”
After getting Voss’ felony charge — larceny of a motor vehicle — reduced to a misdemeanor and cleared up, she got him on a plane back home. Soon, Voss was calling her almost daily, if only just to chat.
“It got to the point where I just knew if something didn’t happen, he’d die or end up in prison,” Patterson said.
She had just the alternative. Patterson served on the board of directors of the Ross Poel Organization, a nonprofit group aimed at fighting addiction. Poel himself had conquered his demons at the facility in Argentina.
Through the help of Patterson, her husband and the Poel group, Voss arrived in Buenos Aires on June 18. He says he has been clean ever since.
“CMI doesn’t treat the drugs or the problem but the symptom of the problem,” said Patterson, who also helped get Voss’ possession charge in Florida dropped to a misdemeanor. “So let’s find out the why, let’s fix the anguish of your soul.”
Kim Advent, president of the American company that represents CMI in Argentina, acknowledges a 100 percent success rate for those who complete the treatment. Voss, about halfway through it, is trying to raise money to stay.
Physically, spiritually, philosophically, he insists it’s working. He’s even playing a little football again. The spirals are crisp as ever. And upward.
“First, I need to get this cured,” he said. “But when I’m done I want to go back to school. I had a dream of playing football again. For me, I have this confidence again in myself that if I were given an opportunity I could maximize my potential.
“I do not have any desire to come back to New Port Richey, at all.”
To assist Alton Voss financially, visit www.rosspoelorganization.com or call (616) 466-9125.
Joey Knight can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.