Jon Cross was fully prepared to challenge the NCAA position on addiction. Then he found out the organization didn't really have a position on addiction. Not anything clear cut anyway. But that didn't stop him from stepping up to the challenge.
The Addict Athlete: Part One
Jon Cross came up in the culture of soccer. His two sisters played soccer. So did his brother. And the sport was an integral part of the family dynamic.
"To me, it's not even close to just a game," Jon Cross told WBUR. "This is my family's culture. This is what we love and do and talk about and grew up bonding [around]."
The Cross siblings were good at soccer too. Damn good. And the world took notice. The three oldest Cross kids played Division I in college. Sister Niki even turned pro. Jon, the youngest of the lot, was expected to follow in their formidable footsteps.
"It was a lot of pressure, I’m not gonna lie," Jon says.
Cross started using drugs to cope. Weed. Alcohol. Adderall. Jon didn't think he was much different from the other kids in junior high school. Except that he was. The difference was drugs.
"I was one of the better kids on my high school soccer team," said Jon. "Yet I couldn't stop smoking weed."
Jon started missing classes. His coach told him he’d have to sit out for one practice. Jon quit instead. Walked away from the sport he loved.
He never played high school soccer again.
The Addict Athlete: Part Two
Jon moved to Florida for college, but he was still drinking and doing drugs. In fact, he did even more drinking and drugging. And without soccer to serve as an anchor, Jon became unmoored.
Jon knew he needed to turn things around. Maybe a change of scenery would help. A return to the sport he loved would probably help even more. So he moved back to Massachusetts, enrolled in UMass Boston and walked on to the soccer team.
But Jon wanted to have his game and do drugs too. And the NCAA doesn't cotton to drug-using student-athletes. So Jon did some research. A drug test-beating site said opiates and cocaine leave the system relatively quickly. So that's what Jon started doing. Opiates and coke. Beating the system by omission.
Jon partied hard. Real hard. Whether or not there was a game the next day. After one particularly ugly all-nighter, Jon was too hungover to play. So he called the team captain and quit. Just like that.
Somehow, Jon convinced the coach to let him back on the team the next year. But Jon's opioid abuse was worse than ever. He showed up high at practice. He showed up high at games. Eventually, he just stopped showing up completely.
Jon did manage to graduate though. But only barely. And he never got to finish a college soccer season.
The Professional Addict
Jon took a job in high finance. A professional, in career, as well as addiction. Then one day in May of 2014, a friend who’d been sober for years stopped by.
"He sat down and he said, ‘Jon, how's it going man?’ I said, ‘Good.’ He said, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘No.’ "
The next day, Jon checked into rehab. Told he needed to re-evaluate his entire life, as well as how he looked at things, Jon did as suggested.
That’s when Jon realized he missed soccer. The field of play. Its grace. The camaraderie. In fact, he missed everything about it.
Back in the Game
Jon reached out to a bunch of local coaches, thinking maybe he could at least consult with a team. Anything to get back in the game.
Jon got one response. From the head coach at the University of Southern Maine. The coach invited Jon to help out with the team. Jon was 26 years old and 40 pounds overweight, but he was determined. The coach knew it too. Saw how much Jon loved to play. So, whenever the team scrimmaged, Jon was allowed to join in.
Players started teasing Jon. Daring him to join the team for real. By then though, Jon had read the NCAA regulations. You can't do that. You can't do this. Jon had done a lot of both.
Jon looked for some kind of loophole. One required him to attend graduate school at the same university where he finished undergrad. But that wasn’t going to work. Jon had graduated UMass Boston with a 1.98 GPA. Hardly the marks of a grad school candidate.
Jon asked Southern Maine's compliance officer to petition the NCAA for a medical exemption for his substance abuse. It's relatively common practice for a player who’s suffered a season-ending injury. Jon season-ending injury just so happened to be addiction.
"And he's, like, Well, that's not a thing. That's not a real rule," Jon says. "And I was, like, Well, we should make it one."
Jon Cross and Southern Maine filed the paperwork. Jon received a letter saying the request was denied. So did the compliance officer.
The compliance officer also got a phone call. The NCAA encouraged him to appeal their decision. Said Jon's case was interesting. And it might just set an interesting precedent.
Jon gathered letters from doctors. He also wrote his own letter. Explaining how much it would mean to him to finish a college soccer season. How much it would mean to his family. He wanted to walk on the field on Senior Day, take a picture with his parents and present his mom with flowers.
"I don't know why I was so attached to Senior Day," Jon says. "But I was. I was just, like, I really think it would mean something to my family and myself."
Jon waited. And waited. Jon's mom got sick. Real sick. So he started traveling back and forth between Maine and Massachusetts to help care for his mother. Working on his soccer skills whenever he had the chance.
Finally, Jon called the NCAA directly. Listen, am I playing or what? A pause. Congratulations! You're playing next year. You'll be first person to be granted a medical eligibility waiver due to past drug abuse.
All season long, Jon’s mom, Noel, was too sick to attend his games. She rallied on Senior Day.
"And I remember, I got up that day, it was freezing cold," Jon says. "My dad's, like, ‘Your mom's coming. She's coming. She has to be at the game, she said.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ "
Jon Cross walked out onto the soccer field at the University Southern Maine, carrying flowers for his mom. The P.A. announcer introduced him.
"Like, I can't believe I'm here. Because I thought I'd either be dead or in jail. Never thought I was going to be doing this that day.
"I gave flowers to my mom, my dad. Took a nice little picture. They got their day. And I'm just glad that I got to be a participant in their day, as weird as that sounds."
In the hours since she’d left the game, Jon's mom lost the ability to walk and speak.
"So the last time I ever saw my mom walk on her own was off that field — speaking fluently, like I remember her," Jon says.
Jon Cross left his soccer team again. But this time they knew exactly where he was — back home, spending time with his mom. And a few weeks later, when the team played an away game not too far from Jon’s hometown, his teammates insisted that he take the field.
He had finally finished a full season of college soccer.
"Like, we didn't win a lot," Jon says. "I didn't play spectacular. I was, like, ‘You just accomplished something you can be proud of. You were a good teammate this year. You were a good son.’ "
Noel Cross died a month later, on Nov. 25, 2015.
Jon Cross is now an assistant coach at St. Joe’s College in Maine, where all the players know his story. The story of a man who took the NCAA position on addiction and made it ripe for sobriety.