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Ex-Gulf High standout Alton Voss climbs back from addiction

He was a cop with a canine, dispatched that chilly March afternoon to find the brawny white male who had swiped a red Pontiac Grand Am from a parking lot.

Joe Slenk, an officer with the Holland, Mich., Department of Public Safety, found the car in a neighborhood driveway. In a nearby cemetery, he encountered his 6-foot-3, 250-pound suspect wearing a Michigan State sweatshirt.

His weapon drawn, Slenk ordered the suspect to lie down.

Alton Voss offered zero resistance.

"He was real somber," Slenk recalled. "He did not say much. He did exactly what I told him to do. . . . He just seemed kind of lost, in many ways. Just kind of a lost soul trying to figure out what his next step was."

On reflection, the irony of that scene is as bracing as a December dive into Lake Michigan.

Voss' rebirth began at that graveyard.

Nearly three years later, the greatest quarterback in Gulf High lore has climbed his way out of an abyss of drug addiction and psychological torment first chronicled in the Tampa Bay Times two winters ago.

With the help of a compassionate Michigan lawyer, Voss' legal problems are behind him. So is a successful two-year stay at a treatment center in Argentina.

He just completed his first season as a tight end and special-teams player at Michigan's Grand Valley State, which finished 12-3 and reached the semifinals of the Division II playoffs. He has an apartment, roommates, a beard and a Bible verse tattooed beneath his right shoulder.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

"My life is beyond good," Voss said.

The twist to this whole redemptive tale? That's beyond surreal.

His arresting officer has evolved into the brother he never had. Joe Slenk would trust his three daughters — ages 7, 5 and 3 — with Alton William Voss IV.

"He's pretty much turned into one of my friends and we have a brother-type relationship," Slenk said. "I've done police work for 12 ½ years, and this is by far the most rewarding experience I've had in police work."

These days, Slenk, Voss and lawyer Jane Patterson share their improbable story with high school football teams, at-risk groups, families coping with an addicted loved one, even judges and probation officers.

"We've been trying (to help) Alton spread the word of hope," Patterson said. "(The treatment facility) clearly saved his life."

Sometimes, they still struggle to believe their own respective roles in this cautionary tale.

For all Slenk knew, that late-afternoon arrest represented another day at the office. Weeks passed, then months. Voss became a file stored in the rear of his subconscious.

Until one day when a neighborhood pal, Tim Lont, told him about a guy residing in the same Buenos Aires treatment center as Tim's son. Jimmy Lont's heroin problems had landed him at CMI Abasto, which tackles addictions by uncovering what lies at their origins.

Tailoring its treatment to each individual, the center touts a 100 percent success rate.

"One night, Tim says to me, 'Hey, you should check out this kid who's down there with Jimmy,' " Slenk recalled. "'He's a good friend of his and his name's Alton Voss. Big football stud, you should check him out online.'"

Initially, the name rang no bells. The next morning, after a Bible devotional, Slenk took Tim Lont's advice. What he saw nearly made him spray his coffee.

Unbeknownst to him, Patterson had ultimately gotten the charges against Voss reduced to a larceny misdemeanor.

As a board member of a nonprofit group aimed at fighting addictions, she also had helped arrange for him to go to Argentina. Now, here he was on Slenk's screen, giving a YouTube testimonial in which Slenk played a role.

"I was pretty taken aback by it and knew that it had been placed in front of me for a reason," Slenk said. "I just kind of felt like I needed to inquire a little bit more about it."

With Jimmy Lont's help, Slenk hooked up with Voss. Soon, via Skype, they were corresponding regularly. Eventually, Slenk's wife, Chanda, was sitting beside Joe getting acquainted with the kid her husband had once cuffed.

Over time, Voss would tell them what he had begun sharing with everyone:

Reared in a broken home, he had been introduced to Roxicodone — a narcotic pain reliever also called roxy — the second semester of his senior year at Gulf High. By the time he joined USF's football team a few months later, he was regularly getting high on prescription pills.

By July 2008, he had walked away from USF and his football scholarship, graduating from pills and marijuana to crack.

"I would say going from high school to college, it was an identity crisis for me," said Voss, who was residing with a buddy in Michigan at the time of his arrest.

"I went from the three-star recruit, ranked 26th in the nation, I have all these accolades, then I go to South Florida and I'm just another guy. I'm a number on the team. . . . I lost myself."

But he found a second family, in time.

• • •

During his two-year stay in Argentina, Voss played a little American football, completed an outpatient rehab program and secured an invitation to join Grand Valley State as a walk-on.

Upon his return to Michigan, he stayed in the basement apartment of Slenk's parents, who reside across town from their son and 30 minutes from the GVSU campus.

His assimilation into college football was gradual. A multiposition star at Gulf High who had 1,000 yards rushing and passing as a junior and blocked eight kicks as a senior, he began as a Lakers tight end and earned steady playing time on special teams.

"The first game, I played one play of punt (team)," Voss said. "The second game, (coaches) put me on kickoff. It seemed like, as the weeks were going on, I eventually ended up on all the special teams and I played tight end when they needed me."

Despite missing a handful of games with a pinched nerve in his neck (which required no prescription medications), Voss totaled 19 tackles, 35 all-purpose yards and a blocked punt in the regular season finale against Saginaw Valley State.

Coaches have said they believe he might only have scratched the surface of his potential.

"He has tremendous upside," Lakers coach Matt Mitchell told in November. "And I don't think we're even close to realizing what he can do."

Off the field, the segue back into normal life has been equally seamless. A broadcast major with a 3.0 GPA his initial semester, he now lives with three roommates — two of them baseball players — in a four-bedroom apartment across from campus.

Now 25, Voss says the urge for drug use is gone, but he'll have an occasional drink.

"That's something I'm able to do, that's something I worked in my treatment so when I came out, I was a normal person," he said. "I wasn't this person who needed to be careful of people, places and things. I do pay attention to those things, but it's not like those places are overwhelming and the temptation is too strong. I'm a normal person now."

With one exception: A sprawling surrogate family.

During Thanksgiving and Christmas break, he spent time at the Slenk and Patterson homes. The Slenks, in fact, purchased season tickets to Grand Valley games.

Patterson, a married mom with two grown daughters, says the more people who love Alton, the better.

"For us, we can't imagine our life without him," she said.

He remains in contact with relatives in New Port Richey such as his mom and Robin Burge, the de facto stepdad who essentially raised Alton and a younger sister. They tell him it's probably best he stay away from the place where his addictions were spawned.

Not that he's in any hurry to return. On Christmas morning, he woke up in the Patterson home to the most bountiful set of gifts of his life: new sheets, new boots, a hat, even a coat.

"My relationships with the people that I've met on the team, the guys that I've lived with, the Patterson family, the Slenk family, I couldn't really ask for any more," Voss said.

"I have zero complaints."

Ex-Gulf High standout Alton Voss climbs back from addiction 01/17/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 17, 2014 8:17pm]
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