Before we get to the gritty parts of this story — the day Alton Voss tied a shoelace around his arm and shot up crack in a Walmart parking lot; or how he started selling drugs to pay for his own addiction; or the time he stole a car, went on a joy ride and was caught by the cops — let’s start with the meeting.
Back when Voss was still in rehab.
It was held at a Panera Bread in Grand Rapids. Around the table sat an unusual collection of people. The college football coach. The lawyer. The booster. And two friends.
They talked passionately about this former high school football star who got hooked on drugs, and they made a strong, passionate plea for Grand Valley State football coach Matt Mitchell to give Voss a chance to play for the Lakers.
“He has changed.”
“As good as he is as a player, he’s a better man.”
This is a story about a veteran defense attorney, Voss’ “Michigan mom,” who opened up her life to a stranger and paid for him to get treatment in Argentina, while gaining a surrogate son in the process.
It’s about a college football coach who took a leap of faith and gained something far greater than another name on his roster.
And it’s about a recovering addict, a 28-year-old man still playing college football, who turned his life around and now dreams of playing in the NFL.
“I had no idea if he was going to be a good player,” Mitchell said. “His tape was like VHS. It was this grainy stuff. I put him in Google, and some stuff popped up.”
Still, Mitchell was skeptical. What were the risks? Would Voss have a relapse on campus?
“I sat there and listened to all of these people,” Mitchell remembers. “It was the power of all of those people and how passionate they were in their belief in him.”
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On a Thanksgiving Day when we give thanks, showing appreciation and gratitude, here comes a story about seeing something good in someone else.
It’s a story about transformation.
But ultimately, it’s how the person who helps someone else — the one who receives the “thank-you” — might just be the one who gets the most out of it.
Starting at the top
To understand how far Voss fell, you have to realize where he started.
In 2007, Voss was the 26th-ranked dual-threat high school quarterback in the country, according to Rivals.com — 24 spots behind Cam Newton.
Going into his senior season, Voss was 6 feet 2 inches and 213 pounds and could play either offense or defense. “Mississippi State wanted me as a quarterback, so did USF,” said Voss, who was born in Michigan and grew up in New Port Richey, Fla. “N.C. State wanted me to play a safety or nickel, and Florida wanted me to play H-back or linebacker.”
Voss wanted to be a quarterback and he decided to attend South Florida. “It was close to home,” he said. “They had an up-and-coming program. I liked their offense.”
After his senior season, while he was basically just killing time before going to college, Voss was hanging out with a friend.
“You should try this,” the friend said.
“What is it?” Voss said.
“Will it hurt me?” Voss asked.
“No,” the friend lied.
The pill made Voss feel incredible. Oxycodone, an opioid, took away his fears and anxiety and left him feeling euphoric.
It was easy to love that feeling.
It was easy to want to do it again.
Football couldn't compete
By the summer of 2008, after his first year at USF, Voss was drinking and using Oxy every day. He stopped loving football. All he could think of was drugs and he quit the team.
"My parents were in disbelief,” Voss said. “No one was really understanding what was going on. I don’t think I really understood.”
At one point, he tried to stop taking the pills, but he experienced withdrawal symptoms. “It scared me straight back to the pills,” Voss said.
He went to a pain management clinic with $500, concocted a phony story about a back injury and walked out with a month’s supply of Oxy.
“I got this on a monthly basis,” Voss said, “and that lasted for about 3 years.”
Three years of self-destruction.
He started selling drugs to pay for his habit.
“I’m not proud of this,” he said. “I’d sell to anybody, I didn’t really care. I just had to make sure I had money and drugs.”
'I’m not going to amount to anything'
After three years of steady drug use, he was tired of being tired.
He figured his only way out was sports. He tried to play football again, going to a junior college in California, but it only lasted a week before he returned to Florida and started using again.
Then, he tried to play at junior college in Kansas. Knowing that he would experience withdrawal symptoms, he brought along methadone so he wouldn’t be dope sick.
“I was over sleeping,” he said. “I wasn’t there. I wasn’t performing and just couldn’t do it.”
The coach kicked Voss off the team, and he returned to Florida. “I was probably at one of the lows of my life, feeling like a loser, can’t do anything right,” Voss said. “I’m not going to amount to anything.”
It was 2011 and Voss was hanging out with a friend, who was doing crack cocaine.
“I remember being in a Walmart parking lot, I stuck my arm out,” Voss said. “It had a shoestring on it, and he shot me up with a syringe full of crack. Some people inject crack. Right there, I was hooked. I did that every day for three months.”
Voss was trapped and all hope was gone. Each day was spent chasing his next high.
“One night, I had $50 and I went to my dealer and got $50 of crack,” he said. “I’m in my room. Go through the whole thing. I’m trying to hit my vein. I never had a steady hand. I had blood just running down my arm. Eventually, I hit my vein, shoot myself up and I immediately start feeling this pain in my chest. When I looked down, I swear I saw my heart trying to burst out of my chest. I was freaking out. I thought I was going to have a heart attack and die. But I didn’t. That night, I kind of sat in my room and kind of replayed everything that happened. I was thinking, ‘Man, I was close to dying.’
“At that point, I stopped doing the hard stuff. I stopped the pills. Stopped the crack.”
He started smoking marijuana to get through the withdrawal stage. “I really got to the point where I smoked so much weed over the next six months, I created a manic episode,” he said.
Mistake and a fateful meeting
In March 2011, Voss bought a one-way airplane ticket to Holland, to visit a friend in west Michigan.
Voss’ mind was filled with delusional, grandiose thoughts. He thought he could see things that others couldn’t see, he could connect things that others couldn’t connect, numbers and ideas and thoughts, a moment that a psychologist would later diagnose as a manic episode.
“The connections all made sense in a weird way,” he said. “And when I shared it with people they were like, ‘Dude, stop talking. You sound crazy.’”
On his third day in Holland, he went for a jog. He came up to an empty car that was running. “I was thinking, ‘Well, this car is here for me to take,’” he said.
Otherwise, it wouldn’t be there. He hopped in and went for a joy ride for 10 or 15 minutes. He got out of the car and continued jogging into a cemetery when something snapped. He experienced a moment of clarity.
“I’m looking around and starting to make sense that if I don’t change my ways, I’m going to be like the people in this cemetery and I’m going to be dead,” he said. “I got down on my knees and prayed to God for the first time in my life. I was crying my eyes out. I finished my prayer and got up. I got to the intersection, and three cop cars rolled up on me.”
He was arrested and sent to Ottawa County jail.
The case was appointed to a lawyer who was having a kidney transplant, so Jane Patterson picked it up for her friend.
Patterson, a former prosecuting attorney, was working part-time doing criminal defense work in Holland, and she met with Voss for the first time.
“So did you do this?” she asked Voss.
“Yeah, I did.”
He didn’t know.
“Come to find out, at that point, he had had a psychotic break,” Patterson said. “He grew up in a super dysfunctional family. No dad. Raised by Mom’s ex-boyfriend.”
She got the charges reduced, and when he was released he was taken to the airport, put on a plane and sent back to Florida.
A few days later, Voss called Patterson.
“Hey, this is Alton,” he said. “I want to thank you for what you have done. Would you like to keep in touch?”
“I’ve never done that before,” she thought. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know. Let me think about it.'”
Patterson had spent only about two hours with Voss, but there was just something special about him. A goodness. “He’s smart,” Patterson said. “He’s funny. He’s kind. When I met Alton, there was something different about him. God has protected his soul his entire life.”
'A future and a hope'
In April, she sent him a letter. She told him that if he ever needed help, if he ever needed somebody to talk to, he could call her. She included a Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
They started talking on the phone, sending text messages back and forth every day. He asked her for advice, this woman he had met in person for just two hours.
“The problem was, there were no boots on the ground to help him,” Patterson said. “I don’t know how to say this nicely, but where he grew up, it’s a cesspool. They are using marijuana regularly. They are in and out of jail. He had nobody down there to help him.”
He was trying to get a job and trying to get back in school.
“While this is going on, I’m lying in bed at night and I’m being tapped on the shoulder, saying, ‘Jane, if you don’t do anything, this kid is going to end up in the psych ward, prison or dead,’” Patterson said. “It was a God thing, there is no doubt about that.”
Patterson knew about a treatment center in Argentina called CMI Abasto, located in Buenos Aires. “A handful of people from west Michigan had gone down there,” she said. “CMI is a facility that treats mind, body and soul. And they get to the core issue. They get to the hole in your soul.”
Patterson and her husband, Bruce, offered to send Voss to the center for a diagnosis.
“I don’t know what it is, Mrs. Patterson,” Voss said. “We have just bonded or something. I just trust you.”
He went to Argentina and ended up staying for two years of treatment.
“It was 10 hours a day, constantly working on myself,” Voss said. “They get to the core of the person.”
Patterson visited him every six months.
“He’s just a delightful kid,” she said. “He’s just a kind, caring, a good person. He’s not perfect, but he’s good.”
After a year, he got the itch to play football again and started playing in a league in Argentina. The skill level wasn’t great, but he needed it. “I wanted to test the waters,” he said. “There was some rust I had to knock off.”
He finished treatment in 2013. “I fixed myself and now it’s time to move forward,” he said.
2nd chance at GVSU
After his treatment was done, Voss showed up at GVSU in the summer of 2013, as a 23-year-old walk-on, after the meeting with Mitchell and others. He started out at tight end because they didn’t feel he could quickly learn the quarterback position at GVSU. “Quarterback, at Grand Valley, isn’t something you are going to pick up if you haven’t played football in seven or eight years,” Mitchell said.
In his first game, Voss got on the field for one snap during mop-up time. Patterson was in the stands. “One thing he and I talked about was, you know what? Now, you need to learn to be humble,” Patterson said. “You need to learn how to work your way back in. So he just started working his tail off.”
He made his mark on special teams, and then he moved over to defense. He became dedicated in the classroom, on the field and in his social life. “I wanted to prove to everybody who had invested in me, their time and commitment that I was worth it,” Voss said. “I am a great investment.”
At first, Mitchell’s radar was up around Voss, keeping an eye on him, looking for warning signs that he was slipping back to that old life. But those fears are long gone. He has total faith in Voss. “He has been completely resolute,” Mitchell said. “He’s completely swung the other way. He’s become a huge advocate for the path he went down.”
For the last three years, Voss has shared his story with the team. “This year, as a senior, when he told his story, the freshmen, their mouths dropped and their eyes widened,” Mitchell said. “I think it’s a message of optimism. I think it’s a message, ‘You have an opportunity. Don’t waste it.’”
Voss has told his story at 21 different community events in west Michigan, primarily student athletes. He tries to tell them to make good decisions and to ask for help. “When I was making bad decisions, that doesn’t define me; it’s never too late to change,” he said.
'He loves them, and they love him'
Voss is now a 28-year-old defensive end — the oldest player that Mitchell has ever coached.
His teammates call him Grandpa. In fact, he’s older than his position coach.
“He does a great job in our locker room,” Mitchell said. “He loves them, and they love him.”
Recently, Voss was given the GLIAC’s 2016 Jack McAvoy Award, which is based on character, community service and leadership. He was also named first-team all-conference.
“He’s brought to our team a tremendous amount of leadership,” said Mitchell, whose No. 2-ranked Lakers won the GLIAC title and are getting ready to play Texas A&M Commerce in the NCAA Division II playoffs at 1 p.m. Saturday in Allendale.
Voss is majoring in communication and will graduate in December, the first member of his family to earn a college degree. Maybe he will go into sales. Maybe he will figure out to be an inspirational speaker.
But first, he hopes to play in the NFL.
Mitchell said “a ton of scouts” are coming through GVSU and watching his film. Voss is probably not as quick as Matt Judon, a defensive end who was drafted out of GVSU last year in the fifth round by the Baltimore Ravens.
“Being honest with you, the fact that he’s 28, that’s hurting him,” Mitchell said. “But it’s not like they don’t know about him.”
Voss is up to 260 pounds. He is strong and powerful, able to stop the run at the line of scrimmage. “He’s a wrecking ball, very explosive, powerful person,” Mitchell said.
Finding a family
Mitchell and Voss have developed a special bond. “I really believe that Alton and I will have a lifetime relationship,” Mitchell said.
Voss has also developed a special relationship with Patterson. She treats him as her own son.
“He is family,” she said. “My girls call him their brother. He spends the night with us on Christmas Eve and he gets up with us and does stocking and comes to all of our family functions. He comes on family trips with us. We pay his rent. We take him to the doctor. We help him with his banking.”
Voss calls Patterson “my Michigan mom.” “Whatever a mom does, she does,” he said. “She is my rock. She is a mentor. She’s a friend.”
And that is why she attends every one of his games, the defense attorney who feels as if she is watching her son.
“You start out thinking you are helping somebody,” Patterson said. “I’m helping Alton, but the blessings have come back to us a thousandfold.”