A stroll through the halls of Grand Island High School is a walk down memory lane for Alex Neutz. "It's crazy. You just go back to a different world.", said Neutz. "Sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday."
When he graduated in 2009 Neutz was the definition of the "Big Man on Campus". He was a straight "A" student, a popular classmate, and a superstar athlete. His school records in football still stand and items honoring his achievements are still on display.
But on this night, as a crowd gathers in the auditorium to hear the now 26-year-old speak, the focus is not on football. Instead Neutz is using his story to provide a familiar face to mental health issues, and the opioid epidemic. "I hated myself. I hated my life. I didn't want to live anymore", Neutz tells his audience.
To understand Alex's road to addiction is to understand the inner struggle he dealt with growing up.
"From an outside looking in perspective a lot of people would say I was the kid that had everything. I had a great family. I got A's in school. Athletically I was always the star football player"
But behind the smile and the all the success was a young man battling severe anxiety and bouts of depression.
"I was never satisfied", said Neutz. "Never happy. I always thought what could have I done better? Why did I drop that pass? I never congratulated myself"
Even when he found out he had earned a division one football scholarship to U.B.
"I was more second guessing what I was doing. What kid in their right mind is second guessing getting a D1 scholarship for football?"
Despite his unhappiness and a nagging back injury from high school Neutz immediately turned heads at U.B. Following a redshirt season he was a breakout star in 2010 and in 2011 was looking to build on an MVP performance when everything changed.
"9th game of the season I broke my wrist against Miami of Ohio", Neutz recalls. "I had to get surgery a couple of days later. That's when they said here are some painkillers. This will take the pain away. Take the edge off."
The painkillers helped more than the wrist.
"It numbed the wrist. I numbed my back but it also numbed and the depression and anxiety and it put me in my own little world where I was like. I'm happy"
Time would pass and the wrist would heal but Alex was already on a slippery slope.
"I wasn't taking my script anymore but other guys on the team had surgery. The didn't need them, didn't take them, so they gave me some of theirs"
His painkiller use continued through his junior and into his senior season. While Neutz was leading the Bulls to success on the field, off of it things were spiraling out of control.
"I was taking them six out of seven days a week. Easily. I definitely was going down a path and didn't realize it"
Even with painkillers in the background Neutz still put together a celebrated career at U.B. An effort that earned him a shot at the NFL. He was signed as a free agent by the Cincinatti Bengals only to be cut a short time later. Having to deal with life after football led to Alex having an identity crisis before hitting rock bottom.
"I woke up (and thought) I'm either going to die, commit suicide or I need to go to rehab."
"How do you tell your parents that you are a drug addict?"
After years of hiding addiction Neutz finally made his desperate cry for help. Asking a friend to reach out to his parents. And his family responded.
"It was my 25th birthday. They had an intervention at my house just me my mom and dad. (They said) "It's ok. We know" The weight of the world was lifted off my chest."
Now 26, Alex is on the path to recovery. He's been sober for more than 500 days and goes to counseling twice a week. A big part of journey, opening up for the first time publicly about his issues on social media. The post instantly went viral and while it shared his story it also promised that he would help anyone also fighting the battle of anxiety, depression and addiction.
"I meant every word of it. That is why I'm out in the community speaking to teams and speaking at schools"
On this night Alex returned to his alma mater a new man with a fresh outlook anxious to tell his story to those in attendance.
"This is the first time I'm doing something that I'm extremely passionate about. I'm doing it for myself and hoping to help others in the process"