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Gorman: An athlete comes clean about drug use

| Friday, April 26, 2013, 11:15 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Seton-La Salle's Joe DelSardo sits at his locker on Sept. 10, 2002.
JC Schisler | Tribune-Review
Former Seton-La Salle and Pitt football player Joe DelSardo is now working as a motivational speaker.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Seton-La Salle's Joe DelSardo catches a touchdown against Mount Carmel during the 2002 PIAA Class AA championship game at Hersheypark Stadium.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Seton-La Salle's Joe DelSardo celebrates the Rebels' victory over Mars in the 2002 WPIAL Class AA championship game at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Joe DelSardo makes a catch infront of Notre Dame's Mike Richardson in September, 2005, at Heinz Field.

Joe DelSardo experienced the highest of highs on the football field, from his record-tying performance in the PIAA Class AA final to his ridiculous catch against Rutgers that was “SportsCenter” Play of the Day.

His lowest of lows, however, came from getting high.

It started with a high-ankle sprain and a painkiller, a simple equation that soon led the former Seton-La Salle and Pitt receiver into serious drug addiction.

“I felt the need to play was so important and put so much pressure on myself to play so I could get a scholarship,” DelSardo said of taking Vicodin for the first time as a high school senior. “I'd never felt anything like that before. From there, it just escalated.”

DelSardo is quick to note that, prior to using painkillers, he never drank alcohol or smoked marijuana. But he started using Vicodin and Percocet daily, which led to heroin, cocaine and OxyContin.

Now 28 and clean for five-plus years, DelSardo believes his drug abuse led him to his calling. Through his website, www.standupchangeit.com, he is booking speaking engagements at Western Pennsylvania high schools to raise awareness about the dangers of drug use and the importance of decision-making at a young age.

“I really think I was truly called, that I went through all of this so I could come back and make a difference,” he said. “I'm much more of a role model now, going out to speak at these high schools, than I ever was when I played at Pitt.”

DelSardo is candid about his drug use, which started with taking painkillers before games his senior season at Seton-La Salle, when the Rebels won the 2002 WPIAL Class AA championship.

After re-injuring his ankle in a WPIAL playoff game, DelSardo tried heroin for the first time. On the day of the PIAA final in Hershey, DelSardo was up until 4 a.m., taking pills and snorting heroin. Hours later, he tied a PIAA AA final record with nine receptions.

“The crazy thing is, nobody said anything,” DelSardo said. “Things were going good, so people didn't know. If they did, they weren't saying anything.”

DelSardo recently shared his story before an assembly at Montour, where his former Seton-La Salle coach, Lou Cerro, now works.

“It was powerful,” Cerro said. “That's something, as a coach, as a mentor and a friend, you really don't want to hear. It touches you because I didn't know the whole story. You hear bits and pieces for years. You hear the whole story, and it awakens you a little bit.”

Amazingly, DelSardo stopped using drugs long enough to walk-on at Pitt and earn a starting job and scholarship. As a sophomore, he had 49 catches for 573 yards and four touchdowns, including a one-handed catch against Rutgers where he pinned the ball between his helmet and right shoulder.

But DelSardo's world spiraled out of control his junior year. He was benched after an overtime loss at Ohio and went on a bender.

“The way I saw it, I reached my goal of playing big-time college football,” he said. “I'm thinking, ‘If I have a couple more years like this, I'll have a shot to play in the pros.' Once I got benched, I started to feel sorry for myself.”

Soon, DelSardo was experiencing withdrawal symptoms and started taking OxyContin just to function. Rumors swirled about him swiping an iPod from the Pitt locker room, but DelSardo denies that he ever stole from his teammates even though he admits taking from his own family. He estimates spending six figures on drugs over a five-year span.

“You're living the life of a drug addict,” he said. “It was a full-time job. I would pray every day: God give me the strength to quit.”

A late-night text message from T.J. Connolly, the oldest of his first cousins, caused a breakthrough. Connolly promised not to give up on DelSardo, who broke down crying. Days later, he confessed his drug addiction to his family.

“It was out of control,” Connolly said. “When someone gets to that point, you're dealing with a different person. You can only hope that nothing catastrophic happens to them. He put himself in situations he would never in a million years be in if he wasn't using drugs.”

Like going into the projects to meet with drug dealers for when DelSardo had only a phone number. One man shoved a gun into his mouth. It was a depth to which he never imagined sinking.

“I thought I was taking a pill so I could play football. I never thought when I took a pill that I'd be going into the projects to get drugs and having a gun stuck in my face,” said DelSardo, clean since June 25, 2007. “I ask kids to tell me what they dream of becoming when they grow up. No one ever wants to become a drug addict. It's a result of the decisions we make. Speaking to kids, I think it's a success if I can affect one person's life.”

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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