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Remembering Tampa Bay and Alabama football great Keith McCants: the heartbreak and hope of recovery

Former Bucs defensive end Keith McCants died on Sept. 2, 2021, after a long battle with physical pain and drug addiction. Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

THE PEOPLE WHO loved Keith McCants hated the first of every month. That's when the former Alabama football star and first-round draft pick would get his disability check from the NFL. It was just enough money to pay all of his bills and live a good life in St. Petersburg, Florida -- or go buy a dangerous amount of drugs.

On Sept. 2, their nightmare scenario came true: McCants was found dead in a Florida hotel room in what the St. Petersburg Police Department has deemed a likely drug overdose. He was 53. His death came just hours into National Recovery Month. Two days later, actor Michael K. Williams, who gave us the legendary character Omar from "The Wire," was found dead in his apartment of acute drug intoxication.

Overdose deaths in the U.S. the past five years have grown by 56%, from 52,404 in 2015 to 93,331 last year, and the American Medical Association says the pandemic has been a terrible accelerant on what was already a national epidemic.

Like so many other people who struggle with drug and alcohol dependency, McCants tried. He tried so hard. He'd been caught in a vicious cycle: He'd use drugs to relieve his physical pain, then feel depressed about his addiction, then reach for drugs to numb the emotional pain too. But those close to him thought 2021 might be a turning point -- he'd been doing quite well recently, completing a two-week stint in rehab and then getting a hip replacement that had him moving like he hadn't in 25 years. "He was doing better than he ever had -- ever," says McCants' best friend for the past decade, Robert Blackmon.

As much as his loved ones wanted to believe, McCants never believed it himself. For the past decade, even this year, he just kept telling everybody he didn't think he was going to make it. Blackmon once bailed him out of jail after yet another drug possession arrest, and McCants plopped down in the car and said, "I only have 18 months to live."

Blackmon was confused -- McCants' voice was matter-of-fact, like a doctor had just told him he had a late-stage terminal illness. But it was just something McCants felt about himself.

"I don't know how it's going to happen," McCants said. "I just know it's going to happen."

He outlived his own prediction by years, but he kept saying it. The first time Blackmon heard McCants speak to an audience of people struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, he zoned out a bit as McCants told the same stories of going in and out of rehab, of being in and out of his three kids' lives, in and out of jail, in and out of pain. "Get sober," he implored the crowd. "Do it for your friends. Do it for your family. Do it for yourself."

When he got done, Blackmon was blown away watching as 50 people lined up to hug McCants. "You just put your pain out there in a way I never have before," one man said. "But I will now. Thank you for your service."

Afterward, McCants told Blackmon in the car that he didn't think he'd ever be able to practice what he just preached. He said he thought he might be able to prevent the next Keith McCants ... but not save the actual one. "I want to share my story and do some good while I am still on Earth," McCants would say. "That's what I want from my life."

As Blackmon finishes telling that story now, he looks down from his Zoom screen and starts crying. He cries for five seconds and then 10 seconds and 20 seconds, and finally, after 33 seconds, he lets out that sad sigh, the one where you hope you cleared away all the emotion, and he says, "Keith wanted to live up to the potential that I saw in him. He wanted to be that person and he would do everything he could. It was just so hard to ever get him to view himself in that light. And now he's gone."

IT'S AN AGE-OLD, torturous question: How do you help somebody get sober? Yell at them? Hug them? Stage an intervention? Cut the person off? Harm reduction treatment? All of the above?

People around McCants tried the kitchen sink approach, with mixed returns. He'd complete rehab and piece together six months, then disappear or lie about relapsing. The two people with the most history with McCants, Blackmon and McCants' ex-wife Gigi, tried the tough-love approach. But both couldn't stomach the times they put up firm boundaries and turned him away. They didn't know if they could live with themselves if they let him die alone.

So independent of each other, they both landed on the same philosophy: That the best approach is love. They had to just pour love on him and hope for the best. "Everybody who met Keith loved him," Gigi says. "You met Keith and he was a big teddy bear, loved by every person he met. That is Keith McCants."

Gigi met him in 1990. She had just moved to Florida from Puerto Rico and got a job working the Walkman section of a Circuit City when McCants strolled in. He'd just signed a rookie deal for $7.5 million with the Bucs as the No. 4 overall draft pick. He was an incredible athlete, a 6-foot-3, 265-pound defensive end/linebacker who ran a 4.51 at the combine. His Alabama coach, Bill Curry, once described McCants as what God would create if you asked God to make a football player. In the first year the NFL allowed juniors in the draft, McCants was the first one off the board.

Gigi didn't watch football, though, so she had no idea who this giant person was. McCants asked her for help to buy some electronics, and then if she'd go on a date with him some time. She politely declined, but McCants just kept coming in and buying stuff, sometimes bringing Tampa Bay teammates. After about a year, she'd emerged as one of that Circuit City's best salespeople, and she finally went on that date with McCants.

They went to TGIFriday's, then to a nearby mall -- McCants asked her to help him buy some Christmas gifts for friends and family. She hung out with him that night at his mansion, and he told her to go ahead and walk around and check out the house. She wandered the hallways for a while and then stumbled upon a backroom with the door closed. When she pushed it open, she was surprised to see piles of unopened computers, stereos, VCRs and Walkmans -- all the Circuit City stuff he didn't need but kept buying from her. "Only God knows how much money he spent on things he didn't even know how to use," she says.

They got married soon after and ended up together from 1990 to 1997, with a son and a daughter. Before she even realized it had happened, it became normal to see Keith surrounded by mounds of pills and injections that kept him on the football field. McCants had his moments on the field, but he played six injury-plagued seasons before he was out of the NFL. "He loved football so much," Gigi says now. "He'd do anything to stay in the game. But once he got cut for the last time, in 1995, everything went downhill."

She asked him to leave two years later, and McCants disappeared, pingponging between Alabama and Florida, getting deeper and deeper into drugs and alcohol. He also threw away almost every dollar he earned, eventually becoming a featured subject in the ESPN 30 for 30 episode "Broke," about athletes who lost their fortunes.

Over the next 20 years, McCants floated in and out of Gigi and the kids' lives, and he had another daughter from a later relationship in Alabama. But when he called or showed up, Gigi could never resist opening her doors. Once, about 15 years ago, she let him come live with her and their two kids for a few weeks, well after their divorce, because she was worried about him. He was almost 400 pounds, barely able to walk because of his hip pain, and he seemed off from the minute he knocked on the door. She didn't yet know the extent of his drug use, which then included crack and heroin.

The first day, McCants left the house and didn't come back. After 48 hours, Gigi filed a missing persons report with the police. But on the third day, McCants came stumbling to her front door. She helped him to his bedroom and called off the missing persons report. A few hours later, she heard groaning and banging on the walls, and she went into his room. He had vomited all over the floor and was choking.

"I'm going to call 911," she said.

"No, don't do that," McCants said, in a rasp. "Just get me a gallon of water and put it by the bed."

She brought the water and he began to chug it, then he crumpled back against the wall in a heap. She's still devastated by the visual of her ex-husband, once among the most impressive athletes in the world, collapsed against her guest bedroom wall, obviously in drug-induced distress. She thought he might die if she left the room, so Gigi crouched down and slipped her 5-foot-1, 130-pound body behind his like the last book on a bookshelf. She held him like a pillow, crunched against the wall in the Heimlich position all night. By the time he woke up again and lifted his body off her, she couldn't move. Her back had gone out and she couldn't get off the bed. She just sat behind him and cried. He tried to tell her it was a stomach bug, but that's the moment Gigi knew addiction had taken McCants.

Blackmon has a slew of similar stories. His friendship with McCants has a unique origin story. He had seen headlines about McCants getting arrested and being broke, and he wrote McCants a letter in prison saying he wished he could help. To Blackmon's surprise, McCants responded with a note saying he could actually help. "Bail me out," McCants said.

So he did bail out McCants, and it would be the first of many times. Their ensuing friendship was such a roller coaster that Blackmon's friends staged an intervention -- on Blackmon, to try to convince him to cut off McCants.

But Blackmon never could. He found incredible inspiration from McCants. When he graduated from Florida State in 2010, Blackmon started a small painting business to rally money to pursue his ultimate goal of buying and selling real estate. McCants was in his ear constantly telling him to think big, to chase his dream the way he'd once chased his football dreams, even as McCants' own life was continuing to unravel.

For most of the next three years, McCants' pep talks happened from jail phones, as he was in and out for a variety of drug possession and driving violations. But Blackmon found success, and the experience of trying to help McCants -- even if it wasn't showing up in McCants' own life -- pushed Blackmon toward public service. He ran for city council and won and now is heading for a Nov. 2 showdown to become the St. Petersburg mayor. He's a Republican in a left-leaning city, so Blackmon is an underdog.

He got the news about McCants' death on Sept. 2 and was in such disbelief that his best friend was gone that he tried to just take a shower and go to work -- there was a water main issue he needed to sort out in city council. But when he got to his first meeting, Blackmon broke down and turned around and went home. He needed to sit with one of the toughest losses of his life. "A few days ago, I thought I couldn't continue with this election," Blackmon says. "But now I have to. Keith accepted me and supported me in everything I ever tried to do, and vice versa. After everything he had suffered, it made him more available to open up and love and accept others."

A few minutes after our Zoom conversation is over, Blackmon sent me 15 videos of McCants. In many, McCants is sitting in the passenger seat of Blackmon's car, singing along with the radio -- he loved to sing. In another, they're sitting at a restaurant table, and Blackmon tells McCants to stop playing games on his phone -- he says McCants spent thousands of dollars a month on Candy Crush and HomeScapes -- and eat his food. McCants sheepishly puts the phone away and picks up his fork.

The last video he sends is a stirring endorsement video from McCants, who raves about Blackmon's kindness in helping him fight back against addiction. They thought about using it during Blackmon's close primary fight, but McCants convinced him that he was going to win and that he should roll it out for the general election in November. "I don't know what to do with that video now," Blackmon says.

He pauses. He just stumbled upon the answer. The endorsement video was meant to help motivate thousands of voters to believe in Robert Blackmon. Maybe it's not so bad that only he will ever see it, that Keith McCants' last endorsement of him could just be for him. "I'll just watch it and remember my friend," he says.

I STILL REMEMBER the first funeral of a friend who overdosed. I'll call him Marcus, though that's not his real name. I waited for about an hour in a line of friends and loved ones that curled around the funeral home like a question mark. So many of us loved Marcus, but he couldn't quite stay sober.

Funerals for addicts hit me particularly hard because I am one, and I probably should be dead myself. I was eating 50 painkillers and six beers a day for several years before I went to rehab in 2008 and somehow have managed to stay sober ever since, despite chronic pain being a part of my story, just like it was for Keith McCants. But it is hard, and not everybody makes it.

There was supposed to be closure in that room, and maybe other people found some. I didn't. I felt so sad. So, so sad. I'd seen him sober and vibrant, and now there he was in a casket. Recovery hadn't worked for him -- like loved ones say about McCants, my friend would go to detox or rehab and get better. But every time he got his life spackled back together, he would go missing again. When he finally found rock bottom again, I'd hear he was back at a treatment facility. And every time, I'd go visit him, or drive him home if he needed it. Maybe this is the time, I'd think.

Then one day I got the dreaded call -- Marcus was dead. A family member had found his body.

After the funeral, I decided to step back from working with newcomers. But a few days later, I went to a 12-step meeting and someone shared about our friend who had passed away. He said he was devastated, too, and felt profound sadness that morning. Then he closed with words I will never forget. He said, "I will miss Marcus. But I also refuse to let him die in vain."

I wish there was a perfect, healthy checklist for how to help somebody get sober. But I don't think it exists. I'm constantly assessing whether I am overinvesting or underinvesting in people struggling with drugs and alcohol. Both are bad outcomes -- I got too wrapped up in campaigning for Marcus to get help that he didn't want, and I may have overlooked other people who desperately could have used it instead. I try to always think about that now, that I should grab the hands that are reaching for me, not the ones that are tucked into pockets.

That's a quaint notion for so many people, though. What if the addict in your life is your spouse, or your brother, or your daughter? How do you just cut off somebody you love so much, that you know could get sober and live a better life? What if the loved one's struggle has begun to ruin other lives too?

I didn't cringe when Blackmon and Gigi discussed moments when they gave McCants painful boundaries -- both told him, multiple times, get help or else. I get it. I know sober people who say the best thing that ever happened to them was a DUI or getting kicked out of their house. It takes what it takes to get to the very bottom, and sometimes that isn't rainbows and butterflies.

I also nod along when both Blackmon and Gigi describe McCants winning them back over, of seeing him make an earnest effort and then suddenly they found themselves rallied back to his side. I embrace that mentality often myself -- "I won't carry you toward help, but I will run alongside you, brother."

It can get bumpy again after that, and you have to wrestle with what McCants' loved ones did. Addiction often is a black hole of pain and money and broken promises and disappearances and a hundred other ugly things, and too many times, that movie has sequels.

I have come to believe, though, that there is hope in love, even if the love doesn't always pay off. As a good sober friend once told me, "Remember you have a 100% success rate helping people." When I told him I most certainly did not have a 100% rate, that my help rate was more like 5%, he said, "Since you have been trying to help others get sober, you have stayed sober yourself 100% of the time, right?" He was right, and that's why I still would rather have a heavy heart than a cold one.

That's what kept pulling Gigi and Blackmon back in -- there was always a chance this was the time, that this next batch of help they'd provide would love Keith until he could love himself. For every bad moment, they had so many beautiful ones, too, and those were worth the cost of the ugly times. "Keith would always tell me, 'You're stuck with me for life,'" Blackmon says. "And I was glad to be stuck with him. I really thought we had turned a corner."

Gigi thought the same thing. McCants had been back in the kids' lives a little more than in the past, and she thought he looked physically much better since he'd completed rehab and gotten his hip repaired.

But then the first of the month rolled around, and she got the call from her son: Cops had showed up at his door to let him know McCants had been found dead in his apartment. "It was surreal," she says. "It still is. But on some level, I always knew I was going to get that call about Keith."

For the first week, she cried every day. She wondered if all the effort, all the hugs, all the patience, had been worth it. That was a short conversation -- she knows it was worth it. McCants always emphasized that tragic but powerful message about his own life: The purpose of the story of Keith McCants was that he hoped you wouldn't become him.

It's hard to hear the people who loved McCants talk about him and not feel sad. That the ending to his movie is tragic, that he never got his life back on track long enough to truly give himself a chance at a joyous life free of pain and drugs.

But the more I listened to Gigi and Blackmon talk about never giving up on McCants, the more apparent it was that they'd both drop everything for the next person who sincerely asks for help, too.

So maybe there is another takeaway to the McCants story. Perhaps the lessons of Keith McCants might be less about how he died, and more about the people who tried to help him live. And for them, he most certainly did not die in vain.

Go to SAMHSA.gov or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 800-662-HELP [4357] for free, confidential help. You're worth it.