Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

How heroin felled a hero

Mack Herron's struggle with drugs continues

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The phone call and the news tip came on April Fools' Day, which is always suspicious timing in a newsroom.Clearly, though, this was no joke.

A former Winnipeg newspaper reporter of my acquaintance had been reading the Chicago Tribune website Monday morning when he clicked on what is undoubtedly one of the online edition's most read features -- Mugs in the news.

He began scrolling through the first of the 150 police portraits of the latest Cook County arrests when, a third of the way through, he stopped at a familiar name, if not quite as familiar an old face. It was a photo of "Mini" Mack Herron, a former Chicago high school football star and one-time Winnipeg Blue Bomber bowling ball of a 5-foot-5, 180-pound halfback. He had been charged with possessing a small amount of heroin.

Herron didn't look the same, of course; not after 40 years and all that time in prison.

He will be 65 this year.

But back in the local football day, when he played briefly for the Bombers in the early 1970s, Herron was a sensation as a halfback. That was before he ran off to star in the National Football League for the New England Patriots. In fact, in 1974, he would set an NFL 14-game record with 2,444 all-purpose yards.

But his departure two years earlier from the Canadian Football League and Winnipeg had nothing to do with his prodigious talent and everything to do with another police mug shot, and why it was taken.

In May 1972, Winnipeg police raided his East Kildonan apartment where they tackled Herron before he could toss the evidence off his balcony.

It was a small amount of marijuana, and police would also find traces of cocaine.

The Bombers released him.

Five months later, Herron pleaded guilty to two drug-possession charges and was given a choice: four months in jail or pay a fine and costs totalling $1,000. It was a stiff sentence, even back then, but the judge considered Herron's residual stature in the community. At the time, the little man was still a big man in Winnipeg, and before he left the courtroom that October day, he spoke directly to young Bomber fans.

"Unfortunately, I became involved with drugs," Herron said, "and it has caused great harm to my career.

"I lost the opportunity to play in Canada for the Winnipeg team and become part of a wonderful community. I have been given a second chance to play for the New England Patriots on condition that I have nothing further to do with drugs. I will not become involved again. If there are any football players amongst the young Manitobans, I urge them to profit from my mistake. Stay away from drugs of all kinds."

But all that promise turned out to be as hollow as a hashish pipe.

Two years later, just a few months before breaking that NFL record for all-purpose yardage, Herron said something similar in a Time magazine story: "I feel safe saying my troubles are over."

But soon, drugs would drag him down and out of professional football permanently. By 1978, Herron was sentenced to five years in prison on cocaine trafficking charges. He would serve shorter prison terms in 2000 and 2003. The Chicago Tribune reported that Herron has been arrested about 20 times since his football career ended, mostly for drug offences.

The Mack Herron who once had so much promise, and made so many promises, has been receiving public assistance in recent years and fighting with the NFL over pension payments. He does landscaping around the neighbourhood, said the Tribune, "usually for free."

He has diabetes, and, like so many old pro football players, is in constant pain. His, at least the physical kind, comes from his leg and ankles, his mother told the Tribune.

"Sometimes," she said, "he can hardly walk."

She said that two years ago, just after her son was arrested again, allegedly in possession of a small amount of heroin -- which is the charge he is facing yet again after last month's arrest.

The arrest in 2011, when he was 62, seemed to shock his family.

Herron is a devout Muslim, they said, who didn't drink or smoke. They pointed out that he mentored children against drug use. They thought his troubles were behind him.

My colleagues at the Free Press chased another news tip on April Fools' Day that might have interested Mack Herron. Funding had run out for the Winnipeg Drug Treatment Court that helps put people charged with non-violent drug offences into rehab programs and out of jail. The funding was back in place by the end of the day.

But it made me wonder what Mack Herron's life might have been like if, back in the day, he had been "sentenced" to a program like that, instead of prison sentences and jail time. Maybe it wouldn't have made any difference, but this much I assure you. People like Mack Herron are addicts.

They shouldn't be treated like criminals.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2013 B1

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