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His Greatest Comeback

San Marino High School graduate Chris Hazell serves as admissions coordinator for The Gooden Center, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center that helped turn his own life around.

Chris Hazell arrives at work each day, sits down, looks across his desk and sees…himself.

“Yeah, that’s fair,” Hazell said, smiling, as he sits on the other side of my desk, which may or may not be relevant to this story.

It’s doubtful that many outside of a very small circle know the legend of Chris Hazell. By the time he graduated from San Marino High School—well, more about that later—in June 2004, Hazell was the most-decorated athlete in the history of the institution, that designation courtesy of a source no less than the late Mickey McNamee, who for more than four decades saw every athlete who walked the hallowed halls of SMHS.

“It was during baseball season of my senior year,” Hazell says. “He told me I had received more varsity letters than any other athlete in the history of the school.”

Twelve in all: four in basketball, where he got the nod as starting varsity point guard while still wet behind the ears as a freshman; three in football, where he quarterbacked the Titans and—until fellow lefthander Carson Glazier duplicated the feat in 2015, was the last signal-caller to beat Monrovia (in a monumental upset, by the way); three more in baseball, where the speedy centerfielder displayed defensive range from foul pole to foul pole and occasionally pitched; and two more in track, where he was part of the Titans’ 4 x 100-meter and 4 x 400-meter relay teams, events he often ran while wearing his baseball pants during breaks in practices or games, with McNamee’s blessing, of course.

He was a rare, if not unprecedented all-Rio Hondo League selection in football, basketball and baseball and, at least for a while, held the Huntington Middle School record for the mile run.

Curiously, he seems more proud to mention that feat than the remainder of that most impressive list. A steady girlfriend rounded out the portrait of what appeared to be a perfect life.

And while Chris Hazell was taking the responsibility for a good deal of the school’s athletic fortune on his back, he was also taking his first drink. As a freshman. In 2000. Shots of tequila.

“I was a straight-edge kid,” he says. “An athlete. And I remember that warmness. And a feeling of ease. I remember it distinctly. And I liked it. That warmness.”

Alcohol turned to marijuana and weekends melded into weeks, but his strong, young body deflected the effects of his increasing use. While Hazell was able to fool others on the field of play, it was a different story in the classroom. Because of a bushel basket of absences,

Hazell was not allowed to participate in his own graduation ceremony, and was banished to a seat in the same Titan Stadium bleachers that many had paid cash money to watch him perform. He didn’t stay there long.

“I think that was the start of realizing that things were going to change,” Hazell says, pensive now. “It was the first time that I was seeing the consequences of my actions. I had a premonition that my friends and classmates were going on to make good in their lives, and I had an inkling of regret. My friends were talking about all of the colleges they were going to and I thought, ‘yeah I’m not going to do any of that.’ The next phase of life was going to happen and I was not going to start on the right foot.”

Hazell enrolled in a San Diego community college, lived with an aunt, lived with some buddies, endured a painful break-up with his first love, began drinking daily, gained weight due to his estrangement from sports, and finished exactly one class in two years.

After three months of odd jobs, Hazell turned to the Marine Corps, until three months went by, and he turned away. His civilian clothes tucked under his uniform, he “bounced out” during a night drill, over the barbed wire of Camp Pendleton, spilling onto the 5 Freeway, northbound.

“I hit the highway,” Hazell says. “I’ll tell you, I never knew until that night how far apart the freeway exits are near the base!”

A smile, then a laugh. Then this…

“I took the train home, and when I got there the next morning, my dad was waiting for me. He should have been at work, but he heard I had left. The look on his face…it was a new low. It was another thing that I had failed at, a new low. I really respect the military and being a part of it gave me a reason, it looked like I was doing something, it got people off my back. And then I was AWOL. I had to go before the military board and was fortunate to get a general discharge.”

Chris’s story is not unlike that of most addicts, and includes a series of fresh starts and failures. Progress, followed by, in his words, “loneliness that I cannot describe.”

On more than one occasion, Hazell ended up at The Gooden Center, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility that was created specifically for men. Chris has spent time at sober living facilities where he was subjected to random drug and alcohol testing and strict curfews. Hazell last took a drink on April 2, 2016. Notice we didn’t say “took his last drink,” because that might be tempting fate.

Hazell says he “no longer has the itch” to drink, but quickly adds “I know damn well how it is going to go for me if I have another drink.”

Through a counseling program at The Gooden Center, Hazell has encountered his demons. Notice we didn’t say “slayed his demons,” because that might be tempting fate.

“I have done my best to come to terms with everything,” Hazell says. “I am learning to see value in myself, to believe in myself again. I am learning to complete things, to look for little ‘wins,’ and to slowly build myself back up.”

After spending “parts of, like, eighty years” at Pasadena City College, Hazell enrolled in an online program at Arizona State University—he wears a Sun Devil baseball cap to our meeting—Chris has about a year left before he will earn a Bachelor’s degree in Communications with a minor in Business.

He credits his supportive girlfriend, who also battled addiction, for his recent progress.

And he’s on the other side of that desk. While speaking as an alumnus to clients at The Gooden Center a couple years ago, Chris was asked if he wanted a job.

“I was really excited,” Hazell says. “I started as a program assistant, which basically means I handed out medications and everybody vented at me. Now I am the admissions coordinator, the gatekeeper. When I deal with addicts and alcoholics, I deal with them truthfully. It opens a dialogue.”

Chris Hazell returns to compete in San Marino on Saturday, October 26, when he participates in The Gooden Center’s “Run For Recovery,” a recreational 5K walk and run that will be held in Lacy Park at 7:30 a.m. Like life, Hazell is only interested in finishing, not setting any records.

“I am tired of running from my past,” Hazell says, with a healthy dose of resignation. “I think I can help Gooden Center.”

So can you.

 

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