Editor’s note: The Union Leader is bringing back some of the late Joe Sullivan’s Union Leader sports columns. This one was originally published on Sept. 13, 2005.
Dan Duval died in 2012.
THEY’RE rare, drug and alcohol stories that have a happy ending.
Sunday night, nearly 175 freshman athletes at the University of New Hampshire heard one. Dan Duval, the man who lives it, narrated it.
He made the young athletes laugh at times, cry at times. And listen all the time.
His first words sobered them. “My name is Danny. I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict.”
And he was an athlete who dazzled opponents on the basketball court and on the gridiron. He impressed his coaches, peers and fans so much that he became a first-year inductee into the Manchester Athletic Hall of Fame.
“I was a high school All-America,” Duval said. “Five years after I graduated, I was living on the streets. I slept in hallways, parked cars, anyplace I could find.”
DWI charges and a driving-without-a-license conviction led to a major fine and jail time. Still, Duval continued his life of drugs and alcohol.
His mother took him aside. Duval remembered her exact words and shared them with his rapt audience: “She said, ‘Danny, I have something to tell you. You’re my son. I love you. But I don’t like you anymore. You’re arrogant and you’re selfish.’”
Duval paused, took a swig of his chosen drink for the past 22 years, water, and continued.
“Alcohol and drugs took away my family, my friends, my freedom and my feelings.”
The 1976 Trinity High of Manchester graduate told of his high school drinking problem, which led to his post-high school drug problem.
“The first time I did cocaine, I paid $25 for a quarter gram. The last time I did cocaine, I paid $550 for a quarter ounce.”
Around that time, Duval lost a nephew to crib death. He went to the funeral while under the influence of drugs and didn’t shed a tear. He wanted to cry, but he couldn’t.
“I hurt a lot of people, no question,” Duval confessed.
Now he helps a lot of people, no question.
“They remember Danny,” Matt Drayton, director of life skills at UNH, said. “His remarks are tailored to the needs of student-athletes, and they stick with the kids. He’s down to earth and he speaks their language. I ask sophomores and juniors which speaker they remember and invariably the answer is Danny.”
Duval, who speaks approximately 50 times a year at high schools, colleges and universities throughout New England, said the first time he gives his speech and doesn’t become emotional, he will stop.
Using Sunday night as a barometer, he’ll be speaking for a while yet. Several times during his presentation, athletes in the rows in front of me dabbed tears away. So did the speaker. So did I.
“It was a great audience,” he said later.
It was a powerful speech, I say now.
Powerful, yet laced with humor.
“I took up golf a while ago,” the current assistant football coach at Manchester Central High said. “People told me it would help me relax. Yeah, right. I now know why they named the sport golf. All the other four-letter words were taken.”
He established his credibility as an athlete early, telling the story of the 1976 Class L state basketball championship game he helped Trinity win.
“We were tied with Portsmouth, 58-58, in the final seconds, and they called a time-out they didn’t have. They were hit with a one-shot technical foul. Our best free-throw shooter, Peter Reilly, had fouled out, so I had to take the shot. When I got to the line, the ref handed me the ball. I asked him, ‘Is this pressure?’ He nodded, and I told him, ‘I love it.’”
Duval then polled his audience of athletes. “How many of you think I made the shot?”
Most raised their hands.
“Who thinks I missed ?”
A girl raised her hand. Duval approached her, asked her name, then said, “Do you think I’d be telling this story if I missed?”
He then dipped his knees, snapped his wrist, arched an imaginary basketball at an imaginary rim. “Swish,” he said.
There were no swishes for Duval over the next eight years. He suffered miss after miss.
“I became an expert at conning people, lying to them, manipulating them. I was a compulsive liar.”
When he reached rock bottom, he entered a detox unit. He walked out of there on May 2, 1984.
“I’ve had nothing but positive things happen to me since that day,” he said. “I’ve been drug- and alcohol-free since then.”
He is employed as an outreach worker for the state Office of Youth Services.
On May 2, 1987, three years after becoming clean and sober, Danny Duval married his best friend.
“That day, 330 people toasted Debbie and me,” Duval said, “with ginger ale.”
Sunday night at UNH, nearly 175 young Wildcats toasted him again. This time they did it with a standing ovation.
Never has one been more deserved.