EBENSBURG – Tony Hoffman emphasized that he didn’t intend to give a “don’t-do-drugs speech” to high school and middle school students at Central Cambria High School on Thursday morning.
Instead, Hoffman, 35, shared his story and how choices he made and attitudes he had led him from success as a BMX racer at 18 to prison in his 20s.
Hoffman traveled from California to speak to Central Cambria students Thursday as part of a grant from Operation Our Town earned by the Central Cambria girls golf team last year when they won the Operation Our Town Tournament.
Operation Our Town is an organization that promotes healthy neighborhoods and prevention of drug use and resulting crime in Blair County.
Golf coach Keith Gilkey said the team was excited to win the tournament, but “now we get to impact the entire student body.”
With budget constraints, Gilkey said it’s harder for schools to bring in motivational speakers such as Hoffman.
“Anybody who can come in and make a difference in these kids’ lives is awesome,” Gilkey said.
Hoffman said he began having a “shortcut mentality” when he was a middle school athlete.
He then began to hate his gift of athleticism when anxiety and depression issues arose.
He encouraged students to talk about those types of issues rather than keep them in, as he did.
“It doesn’t make you weird, it doesn’t make you weird,” he said. “It means you’re pretty smart.”
When Hoffman was kicked out of school in seventh grade, he said he started BMX racing with his brother and earned a contract with Fox Racing by 11th grade.
He eventually gave up BMX when he was 18 to take a job as a network administrator, which is when he decided to try drugs and alcohol “one time.”
He then found himself smoking marijuana daily.
“There’s a doorway that exists” when someone walks through when they begin using drugs and alcohol, Hoffman said.
“You don’t turn around and walk yourself out because you think you’re done. You have to change every single thing about your life to get out.”
When his job ended and one of his best friends got into a car accident, Hoffman said he returned home and began using prescription painkillers that temporarily eliminated his anxiety.
That addiction led to him robbing, at gunpoint, the mother of a friend who had multiple sclerosis and had approximately $14,000 worth of prescription painkillers in her home.
Hoffman ended up serving five months in jail for the crime, was supervised under felony probation for five years and spent 90 days in a treatment facility.
Shortly after, Hoffman was given fentanyl during surgery for an arm infection and sent home with a prescription for pain medication.
For the next two years, Hoffman recalled using a mixture of drugs to keep withdrawal symptoms at bay and eventually slept on the street for six months.
“I had never been so ashamed of myself,” he said.
Hoffman was then arrested in 2004 for a home invasion and was sentenced to prison, where he became sober, changed his mindset and began to set goals for himself.
He was paroled in 2008, started BMX racing again and began speaking to public schools about his journey in 2010.
Although he now spends more than 200 days each year reliving his struggle with addiction, Hoffman said it’s worth it.
“I enjoy that because of what (the students) get from it,” he said.
After an ACL injury ended his BMX career, he started a nonprofit organization – the Freewheel Project – which mentors youth through action sports such as BMX and skateboarding.
He also began coaching BMX racers and achieved his ultimate goal of going to the Olympics when, in 2016, his client, BMX pro Brooke Cain, competed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the summer games.
“I’m not supposed to be alive,” Hoffman said, adding that 12 of his friends have died from drug overdoses, most of which did not involve intravenous drugs.
“The only reason I’m alive is to hold this microphone. I came here to tell you one choice can change the rest of your life.”