Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine, Steve (not his real name).
This story begins when I was about eight or nine years old. I met Steve (again, not his real name) I think during a street hockey game or something. He was a friend of one of my other friends at the time, but he lived pretty close by. We didn't go to the same school at the time, but we got to know each other a little bit.
When I was around ten, Steve moved to a house that backed on to my school, and he transferred so that we were classmates. We shared interests in hockey, baseball, and memorizing statistics and not much else, but at that age, that's enough to make you best friends. For about three years, every day after school, I'd go over to his place and we'd play hockey or baseball, or trade sports cards, until it was time for dinner and I'd bike home.
For whatever reason, Steve didn't start out playing ice hockey when he was five like I did; I think he was preoccupied with soccer and lacrosse. He was certainly more athletic than I ever was, though, and when his parents finally put him in hockey at around eleven, he excelled. His dad had always been an athlete, and hoped Steve would follow suit. Now, Steve's dad was one of these hardcore, "live vicariously through your child"-type parents, and even when I was a kid I thought he was a bit of an asshole. He was sure that Steve was destined for the NHL, notwithstanding the overwhelming odds against that.
As we went to high school, Steve and I stayed pretty close, but new friends and girls started getting our attention. Though we didn't hang out after school every day like when we were younger, we'd probably still get together once or twice a week. Even after I switched schools (within the same city, mind you) in Grade 10, we kept in touch.
The NHL never did call for Steve, but he played for the local Junior B team, then moved up to a Junior A team on Vancouver Island, and, after graduating, was able to get a scholarship at what I think was a Division III NCAA team at a college in one of those Northeastern states that likes hockey a lot. My competitive hockey days were long over, but with the advent of the Internet, I was able to follow his progress in hockey, and keep in touch across a continent, online. I had moved to the big city for school as well (though, closer to home), and I didn't really see as much of the old gang as in the past, but it was nice to be able to feel somewhat connected.
Well, he did fine throughout his first few years in college; he was one of the team's leading scorers each year and was made alternate captain in his junior year. The few times I spoke with him, though, it seemed like his dad's influence had really seeped into his mind. I think Steve truly believed that somehow, some NHL scout was going to randomly see him play, as a 22-year-old, at a school that had never produced an NHL player, and sign him to a contract on the spot. It didn't help that one of our mutual buddies from minor hockey had recently broken in with a Sun Belt NHL team (although he had taken the more traditional road of, you know, being drafted).
It was probably towards the end of his senior year that the reality finally hit him. I stopped hearing much from him, and only heard tales from mutual friends and acquaintances. What I heard, though, wasn't good. Steve had always been more into the party scene than I had, but it sounded like he was getting into some pretty hard drugs towards the end of his college life. I heard that he graduated, but that some strings might have been pulled in the athletic department to make that happen.
I didn't really hear anything about him for about a year and a half until I ran into an old high school buddy who told me that Steve had gone completely off the rails. Heroin addiction. Dumped by his long-term girlfriend. Couch surfing and wearing out his welcome with old teammates. Homeless. It was stunning to hear; I couldn't believe it.
Flash forward about another year, and I had moved back to my hometown and was starting my legal career. One day, while my wife was expecting our first child, I was leaving the grocery store, when I saw a disheveled man slumped against the back of a traffic sign with a "HUNGRY - PLEASE SPARE WHAT YOU CAN" sign. Shit. I couldn't believe it. It was Steve. In the intervening years, his family had moved out of town, and I couldn't figure out what the hell he was doing here. I didn't stop and talk to him in that moment, because what the hell could I say? I was in shock.
Over the next couple of weeks, through phone calls and Facebook messages to old friends, I learned that Steve had managed to hitchhike across the continent, and had roomed with a couple of old friends for a little while back at home, but his shit was too much to handle. He was a junkie, he was stealing stuff for drugs, and they kicked him out. It was crazy.
I'm not sure if "luck" is the right word here, but as something would have it, I happened to receive a modest inheritance right around this time. It was enough to put a down payment on our first home, and to have a little put aside for a rainy day. Well, I told my wife about Steve, and we agreed that we had to see what we could do. Through a connection with the local Salvation Army, I was able to track down where Steve was living. I knew he'd hate it if he found out I knew about his situation, but I was able to discreetly provide some money, and arrange for Steve to be picked up and sent to a local detox-ish facility. It wasn't the Betty Ford Center, but it was a place where he might be able to get some help, and, if all went well, get back on his feet.
Through my contact, I was able to keep tabs on his progress from a distance. Despite some stumbles, Steve seemed honestly determined to make the most of an opportunity that he never knew he'd receive. After about seven months, he got (and stayed) clean, got some local volunteer work experience through the Sally Ann, and was actually able to land a job with a construction company.
Moving ahead about a year and a half, and Steve was doing great. He was still clean, was living in a decent apartment with a steady girlfriend, and had gone in with a couple of buddies to start their own home renovation company. The guy hadn't ever gone to trade school or anything, but he still had enough people that knew him from when he was a hotshot local hockey player, and either didn't know about his troubles or were forgiving of them, that he could drum up business like a boss. Things were going great.
I had tried to stay in the background of everything, partly because of not wanting to hurt his pride in any way, but also because if things got fucked up in any way, I was afraid that I'd somehow be blamed. It was a weird situation to start with, and I didn't want to make it weirder. Still, I couldn't help but feel good. I'm not gonna lie, when I heard he'd started up a business and it was going well, I cried.
About four months ago, I attended a local Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting. As I'm doing my usual glad-handing and chumming around, I look across the room, and, guess who was there. It was the first time I'd seen him in the flesh since that day outside the grocery store. At this point, I knew it would be weird if I didn't say hi, after about five years since our last meaningful conversation.
I walked over to him with a big smile, and shook his hand. "Hey, Steve, how's it going?", I said.
He just looked at me with a blank stare, that suddenly turned to a frown.
"You asshole," he said, "we were best friends as kids, and you can't even remember my name?"