Ex-Harrison star Rudy Arcara finds happiness after drug addiction | #teacher | #children | #kids

Nancy Haggerty
| Rockland/Westchester Journal News
Rudy Arcara had a lot going on. He attended grad school, pursuing his master’s in teaching. He worked as a substitute teacher at Harrison High, where he’d gone to school. And once a star on the varsity football team, he was now one of its assistant coaches.

That schedule didn’t leave him tons of time. But Arcara, who ran for 1,486 yards and 20 touchdowns his senior year at Harrison, always made time to run to the city to see his doctor.

His title was pain management doctor. But Arcara knew exactly what he was.

“He was a licensed drug dealer,” he recalled. “I was paying cash each visit. I don’t think he took insurance. It was just like a drug store.”

Rudy Arcara, a one-time hometown hero and two-time state football champion, was 23 years old. And he was an addict.

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This holiday season many people will talk about counting their blessings. Arcara’s family will start with the fact Rudy’s still alive now at age 35 and when the phone rings at an odd hour, there’s no longer automatic dread.

He used for six years; first those prescription meds, then cheaper street drugs.

Arcara can tick off the names of friends and acquaintances who overdosed and died.

He and they shared a bravado: “That’s not going to happen to me.”

“I think I got lucky every time I got high,” he said. “I should be dead. … I think of all the bad situations I’ve been in and, no doubt, something was out there, looking out for me.”

The beginning

It wasn’t always that way, of course. At one point, a bad situation might have been being dropped in the backfield or coughing up the ball.

At 5-11, 210 pounds, Arcara wasn’t overly big. But his game was big.

And maybe, to some extent, so was his sense of self-worth, of invincibility.

Arcara was a big football star on a small-town stage that stretched 100 yards long – a place where, for a talented athlete, the lights seemed to shine brighter than anywhere else.

The field at Harrison was Mecca to kids like Rudy and the younger kids they inspired.

Back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, many little boys growing up in Harrison wanted to wear the Huskies’ maroon and white jersey and dreamed of making Friday nights and Saturday afternoons their own.

They wanted to be like and run like Rudy, who was a member of both the 1999 and 2002 Harrison state-champion teams.

Some did go on to play and some even to star for Harrison. By then, though, Arcara, had graduated from Iona College, where he’d payed for its now-disbanded Division I program. He was only a handful of fall seasons removed from Husky glory, but he no longer had a place on the stage.

And that changed everything.

“Football is what made me feel alive,” Arcara says. “Once I graduated from college, it was like, ‘Now what?’ … It’s almost like a void (at a) real crucial time.

“I was in the spotlight my whole life.  I was not a nobody. I’d graduated from college. But I was no longer in the spotlight.”  

Special players, special treatment

Things were very different not long before.

“It was a football town. We were winning state championships. Things were going well,” Arcara remembered. “Teachers were a little more friendly in class and would let things slide a little bit. That was really cool as a kid.”

It wasn’t a perfect four years. During the spring of Arcara’s junior year, a teammate died, succumbing both to injuries sustained by a small, alcohol-fueled altercation involving another teammate and to the clumsy assistance his peers subsequently rendered.

Arcara and eight teammates were also suspended a game his senior year for underage drinking at a home where Arcara got a bad cut punching through glass.

But for the most part, the athletes’ teenage indiscretions went overlooked.

“I grew up in that town, have roots in that town. The night before a game, a cop would (catch you) with beer, alcohol, and take it and pat you on the back and say, ‘Have a good game tomorrow,’ “ Arcura recalled.

Arcara almost always did.

That was true, too, for a time at Iona, where he rushed for 1,200 yards as a sophomore.

He’d play through just about anything in order to play. His return to the field in the 2002 state championship game, despite a first-half knee injury, helped fuel Harrison’s come-from-behind win.

In college, the injuries piled up.

Still, on the occasion when he took painkillers, he did so without problems.

Depression, back injury, addiction

That changed after college when he sustained a back injury doing construction.

Depressed over no longer playing football, he discovered that the pills that eased his pain also helped lift his mood.

Arcara vividly remembers the day his local doctor told him he wouldn’t prescribe him any more pills. He recalls returning to Harrison’s two-a-day practice and feeling terribly sick.

He called a friend who spelled things out for him: He was addicted and could either go to rehab or get more pills from a pain management doctor.

Door No. 2 took him on a six-year journey from a “high-functioning” addict to an arrest and the loss of his Harrison jobs to multiple rehab stints. After a few more minor possession arrests, he finally found peace with a life-changing, life-saving, family-initiated exile to Florida.

Downward spiral

Rudy’s stepdad, Vin Nicita, Harrison’s longtime wrestling coach, remembered how things evolved and dissolved.

He wasn’t a total ostrich. He thought Rudy might be experimenting with drugs.

Stuff just seemed off, like when he’d sometimes sneak off for long visits to the bathroom.

But there was never a huge red flag and, at 26, Rudy had never seemed happier. He was coaching alongside Art Troilo Jr., his old Harrison coach. His kid brother, Vin, who looked up to Rudy, was the team’s quarterback.

“He was coaching with Art and coaching his brother. He seemed to be doing really good,” Nicita said.

That illusion ended with Harrison’s Breast Cancer Awareness game. Rudy’s mom, Kate, is a breast cancer survivor, so the cause has special meaning to Arcara and his family. But after Nicita arrived at the game, Troilo asked him where Rudy was.

“My heart sank. I just kind of knew something was wrong,” Nicita said.

Soon, a friend called to tell him police were at the family’s house.

Arcara was driving when police stopped him. The cops, he said, knew he had drugs in his car. Arcara was arrested. No game. No more coaching.

“It was devastating to my family,” Arcara remembered.

Hurting them might have killed him on some level but it didn’t change him.

“The sad reality is if you’re wrapped up in addiction, everything else takes a backseat,” Arcara explained.

Multiple rehab stints followed, mixed in with those minor possession arrests.

His stepdad tried to appeal to the competitor within.

“When he was struggling, I’d remind him (he) always played his best when the pressure was on. I told him this is it – the time to rise to the occasion. He’s done that all his life.”

But rehab wasn’t where Arcara went to change. It was more a place to go to “quiet everyone up.”

“The hardest thing for a parent is knowing enough is enough,” Nictia said, noting that friends advised him to kick Rudy out of the house.

“You’re trapped,” he said. “It’s hard. It’s your kid. You try to keep giving second and third chances.”

But finally, his family drew a line. While Arcara was at what proved to be his last rehab center as a resident, his sister, Dana, found a halfway house in Florida for him. His family had concluded Rudy wasn’t going to get better remaining in the local area.

So, when he was released from the center, he was handed an airplane ticket. His stepdad took him to the airport and told him he didn’t want to hear from or see him for six months.

“I knew if I got high and kicked out (of the halfway house), I’d be homeless in Florida. I knew my family was not helping me,” Arcara said.

Still, this was no magic bullet.

“My thought process was ‘I’ll stay sober for six months, then just control it,’ ” he said. “I was 29, broke, had nothing, had to use food stamps and my first job was as a busboy. … I’m a loser at 29 with a master’s degree.”

Finding hope

The last time Rudy might have been truly happy was running the ball for Harrison.

But halfway house staffers took residents to AA meetings, where he heard other recovering addicts talk about their careers, families, homes – essentially, their happiness.

“It was the most humbling thing,” Arcara said. “I didn’t necessarily want to be sober, but I wanted to be happy.”

He got a sponsor and started “coming to believe, ‘I don’t have to live this rat race anymore and put myself and my family through pain and suffering.’ ”

And his two sisters, brother, mom and stepdad had suffered.

“It never ends,” Nicita said. “It’s every day. When the phone rings late at night or early in the morning, it could be that call (that he has overdosed and died). You’re petrified of this.”

Arcara remembered four or five months into his stay at the halfway house he decided to end his cycle of rehab, use, rehab, use, etc., etc.

“One day I was at the beach and I felt content,” he said. “I honestly had real relationships. You talk about having a God moment. I remember believing, ‘I can do this I’m actually happy. I don’t need a drug or a drink to get by.’ “

More than he could imagine

Much has happened since that day 6½ years ago.

The halfway house became more a relaxed three-quarters house, then became shared apartment and finally home ownership.

The busboy became an alumni coordinator at a detox and rehab residential treatment center, who then became a part-time fitness center teacher and personal trainer with his own business.

“If you told me 6½ years ago where I’d be today, I would not believe you. I sold myself way short. My life is beyond my wildest dreams,” Arcara said.

He doesn’t consider his a battle won. Working three years at a rehab facility, where his job included contacting and, if needed, helping alumni, reinforced this idea.

“The sad reality is most people don’t stay sober,” he said.

But any thoughts of smoking a joint or having a beer are “fleeting,” he said, because he knows himself and that would turn into an “everyday thing.”

Noting he wouldn’t otherwise have the friends and life he cherishes today, he said, “I’m super grateful for everything I went through. … I don’t regret anything. I’m a firm believer everything happens for a reason.”

“My family is back in my life and, actually, they sometimes call me for advice,” said Arcura, who speaks lovingly of visits home and of spending time with nieces and nephews.

“He’s come full circle,” said Nicita, who gets choked up talking about his stepson. 

Nicita knows nothing is guaranteed. Troilo lost his stepson, who was good friends with Nicita’s younger son, to addiction. And Nicita believes Rudy’s battle to stay sober will be life-long.

But he’s optimistic.

“He seems more together and more happy than ever. He seems so confident,” Nicita said. “We realize we’re a lucky family. He’s survived so far and conquered it so far. I’ve had friends and family who’ve lost children to this disease. So far, he’s been a miracle.”

“I know there have been plenty of nights when every single one of my family members had trouble sleeping,” Rudy said. “Now I know they’re sleeping good. They’re not worrying. That’s the biggest gift, the payback I can give to them.”

Nancy Haggerty covers cross-country, track & field, field hockey, skiing, ice hockey, girls lacrosse and other sporting events for The Journal News/lohud. Follow her on Twitter at both @HaggertyNancy and at @LoHudHockey. 

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