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Suffolk's $100,000 grant to help coaches and trainers combat drug abuse

Holding a photograph of her son Anthony, who

Holding a photograph of her son Anthony, who lost his life to substance abuse in 2017, Krista Bertschi joins Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, right, and legislator Kara Hahn, left, for an announcement of a new program that will provide substance abuse training to high school coaches. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The signs started slowly with Anthony Mazzella. The athletic Coram teenager started missing wrestling practice. He became withdrawn, pulling away from his family. And then came the anger and the lies.

 Pills had taken hold of Anthony and would not let go.

The road to recovery was rocky for the boy his family affectionately called "Bam Bam" from the Flintstones. Multiple trips to rehab and sober homes. Relapses and recovery. And then came the dislocated shoulder on Thanksgiving 2016. Anthony told the doctor he didn't want painkillers, but the injury persisted, and he eventually took a prescription. 

On Jan. 22, 2017, Mazzella relapsed and died of a fentanyl overdose. He was 21. 

Anthony's mother, Krista Bertschi, said no parent should ever have to live through her nightmare. "He was loving life," Bertschi said Tuesday at a news conference at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket. "He was in such a good place and thought he could get through this."

On Tuesday, Suffolk officials took the next step toward combating the region's opioid epidemic, announcing a new program to provide substance abuse awareness training to public school coaches and athletic trainers across the county.

The program, funded through a $100,000 county grant to the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (LICADD), began as a pilot program in three Suffolk school districts last year. The voluntary program will now be expanded to the coaches of all county middle schools and high schools, officials said.

County Executive Steve Bellone said he has no doubt the program will save lives. In 2018, there were 373 fatal overdoses in Suffolk, down from 430 one year earlier, according to county data.

"Coaches are in a unique position to identify the kinds of behavioral changes that would indicate any kind of substance abuse or addiction," Bellone said. "And that is critically important — giving us the ability to arm those coaches who are on the front lines is a major step forward in the ability to fight addiction."

Suffolk Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who helped conceive the program, said coaches are often the most influential adult in a student's life, serving as confidant and mentor. That relationship, Hahn said, provides coaches with an opportunity to identify subtle behavioral changes that may be out of character  for a student athlete, helping to detect problems with abuse before they spin out of control.

"There is an important role for coaches," she said. "There are moments of risk that are well known to those in the field."

The 75-minute course, developed in collaboration with Stony Brook University’s Center for Prevention and Outreach and LICADD, is designed to provide coaches with the tools to recognize the warning signs of not only opioid and alcohol abuse, but also marijuana and liquid nicotine.

For example, the course runs through a host of role-playing scenarios, from an athlete being prescribed painkillers to recover from a serious injury, to a bag of pills falling from a player's gym bag to an overheard discussion about an alcohol-fueled party.

“There has always been a drinking and party culture around high school sports," said Steve Chassman, executive director at LICADD. "We need to change that culture. At the height of this national crisis, when we are losing too many young adults, the seedlings of this substance abuse disorder start in high school." 

Alex Piccirillo, the boys varsity basketball coach at Ward Melville High School, said he never used to think about drug and alcohol abuse with his athletes. Now, after taking the training course last year, he feels more prepared to notice the signs of impending trouble.

"We are the first line of defense," Piccirillo said. "These kids will run through walls for us if we ask them. And … we are in a position of responsibility. Not only the X's and O's on the court or the field, but we are responsible for making sure their health and safety are our first priority." 

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