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On Jan. 9, 2009, Anthony Steels will turn 50.
While so many others countdown to celebrate such an important milestone, Steels will spend that Friday night with 40 to 60 people who are trying to climb out of their hideous addiction to cocaine.
They will all gather in the basement of a church at 13th & F Sts. in Lincoln – the home of Cocaine Anonymous, an organization Steels launched two years ago with another addict who is no longer around. Steels, though, is there every Friday and Sunday night, so he can teach other addicts the 12-step program that has kept him clean and drug free for four years now.
A former Nebraska wingback starter in the early 1980s, Steels is willing to bring his dark secret into the light now, especially since Nebraska will play Clemson in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day in Jacksonville, Fla.
The last time those two teams met, Clemson beat Nebraska, 22-15, in the Orange Bowl to claim the 1981 college football national championship. Steels scored the game’s first touchdown on a 25-yard pass reception from I-back Mike Rozier.
It was a trick play that caught the Tiger defense off guard. One of the most popular athletes on the Nebraska campus, Steels never dreamed that a dangerous drug could trick him so repulsively that it would ruin his eight-year marriage, destroy close friendships, put him behind bars and threaten his life more than once.
Amazing something like that could happen to someone who didn’t even drink alcohol in his first three years of college. “I was the designated driver,” explained Steels, who became addicted to cocaine when he had time, money and an ego so far out of whack that it ended his four-year professional football career that included one year in Buffalo and another in San Diego.
Instead of Donating a Kidney, He Learned of Prostate Cancer
Meet Anthony Steels today, and you would never imagine the drug and alcohol demons he’s had to chase away, let alone the prostate cancer that surfaced last July just a few days before he was to donate a kidney to his father, Willie J. Steels, in a Riverside, Calif., transplant center. That diagnosis led to surgery, and Steels is now cancer free, just like he’s drug and alcohol free.
“The year 2008 has been a rough year, but a great year,” said Steels, in his third year as a licensed alcohol and drug abuse counselor. “I work in a structure that helps me understand the obsession of my mind and the allergy of my body.
“Every day, I retrain my mind and my behavior,” Steels said, adding that he’s made two important discoveries on his way to recovery. “First, you can’t think your way into acting – you have to act your way into thinking. And second, the only way you can change your thinking is to change your spiritual mind and be in contact with a higher source. My spiritual mission is how I serve God and other people. I’m busy almost every single day, helping people who need it. I counsel children and inmates professionally and help everyone else I can personally.”
Steels works every day on his physical, mental and spiritual fitness. Last week, in an interview for HuskersNside, a premium video subscriber offering on Huskers.com, he decided to put a tough year behind him and focus on Good Cheer for a New Year. The one-time professional entertainer put his own spin on a holiday favorite, and it’s definitely worth checking out.
“Anthony was the only football player we’ve ever had here who was asked to sing the National Anthem at Memorial Stadium on the same day he was playing,” Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne pointed out. “He was a good singer and a very fine player – a good blocker, receiver and ball carrier. He had a great career here, and has really battled his way through some substance abuse problems since he left.”
Steels Walked On All the Way from Zaragosa, Spain
Steels came to Lincoln as one of those famous early-Osborne era walk-ons. “My dad was in the military, so I played my last year of high school football at a military base in Saragosa, Spain,” he explained. “My high school coach was from Bellevue, Nebraska, so he contacted Coach Osborne and several other coaches around the country, explaining how he thought I was scholarship material. Coach Osborne was the only one who got back to me. He told me Nebraska didn’t have any scholarships available, but if I decided to walk on, he’d give me a fair shot.”
Osborne often was the only meaningful contact in Steels’ shattered life. “One of the biggest reasons I never gave up on myself is because Coach Osborne never gave up on me,” he said. “He’s been well aware of my struggles and provided great support. He was a major influence in my life in college, and he’s been more a friend than a coach since. When I was in treatment, he was the only person who ever came to visit me. I can’t thank him enough for his understanding and support.”
Osborne shrugs off his role in helping Steels to bounce back. “We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and from time to time, I worried about him and how things might end up,” Osborne said. “But he seems to be doing quite well, and I’m really proud of where he is today.”
Societal judgment too often is instant judgment. “We tend to think that we’re okay and this guy over here is beyond repair, so we pre-judge him when really, the difference between the most respected citizen in society and one who may be in prison, down-and-out or homeless is just one decision that was very bad and probably made on impulse,” Osborne said. “It could be a random chance event, so I’ve come to understand that good people do have trouble, and it doesn’t mean they’re bad people. By putting time and effort into others, you’ll find that they will come full circle, and I think Anthony has done that.”
Randy Gobel, Nebraska’s assistant director of athletic facilities, roomed with Steels in college. “I was a strength coach back then, and we’d work out together,” Gobel recalled. “Whenever he saw us, Mike Rozier always called us Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. Anthony was a great guy, a great roommate, a great athlete and a great singer. He sang ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ at our wedding, and people still say it’s the greatest version they’ve ever heard.
“Unfortunately, Anthony came from an addictive family, and he fell into the trap of that pro football mentality,” Gobel said. “It was sad to watch. We had to distance ourselves from him when he couldn’t shake the habit. He had to hit rock bottom before he could turn it around. Now that he’s been straight for four years, we’re starting to get back together. I’m eager for my family to get to know the Anthony I knew.”
Now He’s Doing What He Always Wanted – Helping People
Interestingly, Steels is using some of his pro football training in his recovery. “The last four years have been like training camp every day,” he said. “I had to retrain my entire thinking and get into the regimen of some serious life skills training – then do it over and over and over again. I knew I needed a long-term recovery, so I established work hours, curfews, hard-and-fast rules. I came down from that self-centered ego and decided to come back to earth, so I could do what I’ve always loved to do – help other people.”
Anthony Steels talked to Nebraska’s football team last year about his addictions, and he talks to schools, prisons and any other groups willing to listen.
“As long as I stay away from substances, I’m fine,” he said. “I’m just getting started on the most wonderful journey of my life. A lot of doors are beginning to open up for me. People are starting to refer me because I respond well to and with children. I never forget those few times in the ‘90s that I spent in jail. That keeps me grounded and motivated. Every day, I focus on honesty, wisdom, humility, courage, perseverance, faith and hope. I’m in transit. My life is manageable. I destroyed a lot of relationships, but I still have my foundation, thanks to people like Coach Osborne, Irving Fryar, Turner Gill, Mike Rozier, Mark Mauer, Jeff Quinn, Derrie Nelson . . . they’ve all supported me and inspired me.”
Now that you know how well Steels performs, you might want to hear him sing the National Anthem when the Nebraska women’s basketball team hosts Arizona State Dec. 28 and the Husker men’s basketball team hosts Texas on Feb. 7.
“The University of Nebraska is still home to me – it’s the place I feel most comfortable,” Steels said. “It’s been an incredible blessing to me since I first came here and remains so now. I have a new lease on life. I’ll be 50, but I feel like I’m 25. I’m in good shape because I work out and exercise. Just like I had a playbook in football, I have a playbook in life. It’s the blueprint that God put there for me – a set of guidelines to live by.”
Every morning, Steels meditates before he prays. Then he’s on the phone, talking and texting to all those people he wants to “bring back to life.” He knows and understands the journey they’re on, and he’s thrilled to help get them out of the darkness and back into the light again. “I share my message and give them hope,” he said. “I tell them it’s all about accountability, and that accountability begins every day with the person in the mirror.”