‘I was sick’: Szolack tells students how bad drug use can get

Joseph Metz/The Sun
“Big” Al Szolack speaks to students at Pleasant Valley Elementary School during an assembly on April 12.

Pleasant Valley Elementary School hosted an assembly on April 12 where former basketball player and public speaker “Big” Al Szolack spoke to students about the dangers of drug use, alcohol, smoking and vaping.

Szolack himself is a former cocaine addict who used the drug to cope with the loss of his mother. A past member of the Washington Generals – a team that played exhibition basketball games against the likes of the Harlem Globetrotters – he told students not to make the same mistakes he did.

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“I lived to use and I used to live,” Szolack acknowledged to the students. “I was drinking and drugging every day. I used to live in a house with my all shades pulled down even during the daytime, because I would be constantly peeking out of my window just because I thought there was somebody out there chasing me.

“There was nobody chasing me of course, but these were the beginning stages of paranoia setting into my life,” he recalled. “I wouldn’t fall asleep at night, I would pass out. I wouldn’t wake up in the morning, I would come to … I had to do a line of cocaine just to get the energy to get out of my bedroom to brush my teeth.

“I was sick.”

To illustrate what drugs can do to a person’s brain, Szolack popped a basketball with his own hands and tossed it aside.

A conversation with the mother of his fiancé – who told him she would leave him because he was ruining his life – helped him turn a corner.

“I went over to an older woman’s house crying like a baby, and I said to this lady, ‘I’ve got a drug problem,'” Szolack noted. “She didn’t give me a big lecture, she didn’t scream and yell at me. She said, ‘That’s ok,’ and reached out to me and gave me a hug.”

After that, Szolack started Do Hugs, Not Drugs, a program that emphasizes simple gestures of help to others.

“That’s why my program’s called Do Hugs, Not Drugs,” he said. “Not because it’s cute. It’s because something so simple as some love, something so simple as a hug at that time, saved my life. There’s no doubt in my mind that if that lady were to give me a big lecture or if she screamed and yelled at me, that I wouldn’t be standing up here today at Pleasant Valley School.

“I would be dead.”

Szolack also addressed how drugs and alcohol can end a young person’s life, sometimes by suicide, which he pointed out it is not the answer. Principal Karen Russo also addressed the students about the reasons for the assembly.

“I want to emphasize that this is not to scare you,” she said. “Like ‘Big’ Al said, this is not to make you upset. This is an awareness feature. You hear me all the time on announcements say ‘Make good choices,’ and you may think, ‘Not me, not my friend.’ I’ve lost many friends because of these reasons, and in sixth grade, I lost my best friend because a drunk driver hit their car.

“So I know peer pressure is around and that it’s hard,” Russo added. “But you’re a good class and a good group of kids. Sometimes you just have to walk away and be the better person.”

During the school’s lunch break, Szolack took the time to interact with students, some of whom even joined him to sing a rap song.

“It was so great,” he enthused. “I wish I recorded it. We stopped another potential suicide. Thank God.”

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