Alex Neutz seemed like the kid who had everything going for him, but for some reason, darkness overshadowed all the bright spots. Moments that should've brought great joy only created more dread.
"I had straight-A's. I had records, and catching touchdowns and was a star football player at a Division I college," Neutz said. "A thousand kids would trade my life for theirs, but at the end of the day, I was emptier and more miserable than ever."
The Grand Island product became one of the most prolific wide receivers in the history of UB football and the program's all-time leader in touchdown receptions. That success led to a shot at the NFL with Cincinnati Bengals. A dream for many became a nightmare for Neutz, leading toward a path of addiction, crippling depression, but eventually healing and sharing his story to potentially offer hope for others.
For Alex, it started with anxiety issues as a kid. He remembers crying over going to Little League games, and skipping modified basketball tryouts because the stress was too much. The pressure grew along with his stature as a star athlete in high school. Volleyball was his first love, but coaches convinced him to play football. After an illustrious career at Grand Island, he found himself with a scholarship to play for the college team just down the road.
"Even getting the call from Coach (Turner) Gill that night, I was sitting there and everybody else was hugging and celebrating and high-fiving. I can just remember being terrified about the pressure just added to me and what I'm about to go through over the next five years here."
Even though he wanted to call it quits several times, he fought through bouts of depression and a back injury from high school and forged ahead with football with more convincing from coaches. He never wanted to let his teammates down.
"It just became this goal of making myself and doing what I want to do, it became a goal of not letting others down and just making others happy."
It in was his third year at UB when he broke his wrist and had surgery that drugs became a part of his life.
"That's when I had my first script of painkillers and that immediately took away everything," he said. "It took away the pain, the back pain, and it also took away the depression and anxiety that I lived with every day."
On the outside, Alex was on the rise, but his secret downward spiral sped up right before his senior season when his longtime girlfriend left him, and the stress of being a team leader took its toll. Few teammates or friends knew about his issues, let alone the extent.
"I'm supposed to be a team captain for guys to come to, and I'm sitting here living this big lie where I should be having the time of my life, enjoying every moment of it, but I have to take drugs to be happy."
In the meantime, Neutz helped UB to one of its best seasons ever in 2013 with a trip to a bowl game, but it was a blur.
"There wasn't many times that year that I can even remember being sober. I look back on my senior season, I don't really remember much of it."
After the Bulls final game, Alex wanted his football days to be over, but then the NFL came calling. More training. More demands. Another injury with a torn hamstring at his pro day. He ended up signing with the Bengals as a free agent after the draft.
"I don't think there's a picture of me smiling from Cincinnati. I think that was one of the darkest places."
After the Bengals released him, Alex knew his football career was finally over, but that was just the start of his new life, and an identity crisis.
Spiraling, hitting the turf, and lining up again
Who was he without football? What would he do next? Alex found his answer in his addiction to pain pills.
"I couldn't even look in the mirror and recognize myself anymore. I was literally just a shell of who I used to be."
He lost weight. He lost money. He lost friends, and he hated the isolated person he had become, but last year, he found the strength to seek help. After telling a friend about his problems, his family held an intervention on Alex's 25th birthday.
Through rehab and continued counseling, he's been clean for almost 500 days.
"I definitley couldn't have imagined it back when I was going through everything of ever dreaming of 500 days sober, so it's defnitely been an amazing experience and I definitely completely reinvented myself over the last year and a half."
Now he's decided to let the world know what he's been through. Not because he wants sympathy, but in hopes others will hear his message of opening up about mental health, and asking for help much sooner than he did. He tweeted a note last week, sharing his story. Since then, hundreds of people have responded with words of support, and thanked Alex for raising awareness and potentially saving the life of someone else dealing with drugs and depression.
"If you could help one person realize their true potentional in life or help them through a dark point in life it will make all the difference for that one person, then that's enough for me right now."
He's repairing relationships with support from family and friends, and while he's not sure exactly what the future holds, he's captured a sense of calm about it all, so he stood proud on a dock in the Niagara River at his family's home on Grand Island, watching the water on a quiet afternoon.
"This is a good metaphor for where I'm at now in my life, and what I want to bring to other people in their lives."