“Don’t make the choices I made,” recovered drug addict tells seniors at Lions Club football banquet
By Greg Phipps
The annual Peabody and Saugus Lions Club Banquet that precedes the Thanksgiving Day clash between the two rival schools typically focuses on the subject of football.
But senior players and other attendees heard a more serious message from guest speaker and former Peabody High School baseball standout Joel Levine.
Levine, who was born and raised in Peabody and played on the 2003 Tanners baseball team that challenged for a state title, battled drug abuse as a teenager. Now clean and sober for nearly 15 years, Levine spoke last Wednesday, Nov. 14, at the Holy Ghost Hall in Peabody.
He shared his story with seniors from the Saugus and Peabody High School football teams – about falling into the throes of addiction and his subsequent road to recovery. It marked the 46th time that players from both schools sat down for a meal together, a tradition initiated by the Saugus Lions Club as the “Annual Football Meeting and Dinner.” This was the first time in many years that the event was hosted by the Peabody Lions Club.
“I was a good baseball player but my passion became getting high. My addiction to opioids took over my life and it got me into a lot of trouble,” Levine recalled. “I thought I was invincible and untouchable, and everything suffered as a result.”
“My life was a mess”
Levine said he got addicted to OxyContin and talked about losing close friends to drug overdoses. He emphasized the seriousness of the drug problem in present-day society.
“These drugs are out there and they’re easy to get. Don’t make the choices I made. Don’t think you’re invincible. The choices you make will affect you for the rest of your life,” he said. “I was raised with good values, but I decided to put my own spin on life. In seventh and eighth grade, I started veering off track and rebelling – stealing liquor from my parent’s liquor cabinet and smoking weed.”
Levine said he became a person nobody wanted to be around, “shooting heroin, sharing needles. My life was a mess. It wasn’t pretty.” He said that with the help and support of many people he was able to turn the corner to recover.
Now a teacher in Everett and married with three children, Levine speaks to high school and middle school students about recovery and the dangers of drug abuse.
Peabody head coach Mark Bettencourt called Levine “one of the unsung heroes” in the community. “I have so much respect for Joel. He got himself help and never quit. He kept fighting. I’m very proud of him.”
“This is the game you’ll remember the most”
On the subject of football and the annual Thanksgiving game, both squads entered this year’s contest with 4-6 records. Peabody owned a 44-28 series lead and had won the last four Turkey Day clashes. The last victory for Saugus came in 2013.
Saugus head coach Mike Mabee, a 1996 graduate of the school, took over the position when Anthony Nalen was suspended a week before the season opener. Nalen was eventually terminated.
Despite the turmoil surrounding them, the Sachems have been competitive in most of their games and pulled off a playoff upset of Weston in round one of the Div. 5 North tournament.
“I played in three Thanksgiving games myself and never experienced a win. Hopefully, that changes this year,” Mabee said.
“Being the last game of your high school careers, you seniors will miss things like the bus rides to games and the hard practices, but you’ll probably miss your buddies the most. This is the game you’ll remember the most. It’s something you’ll never experience again, even in college.”
On the other side, Peabody head man Mark Bettencourt praised Mabee and the Sachems for their toughness and resilience under difficult circumstances. “I have the utmost respect for Coach Mabee and what the Saugus program has been through and what it has accomplished. But I represent our guys and I want to come out [on Thanksgiving] and get a W.”
Bettencourt also recalled playing in two classic Thanksgiving contests against Saugus, particularly his senior year when Peabody edged the Sachems, 14-13, in horrendous conditions at Stackpole Field. He remembered stopping Saugus on a two-point conversion at the very end.
“I played in two Thanksgiving games. What’s most special is what [the seniors] remember about this game because it’s [their] last,” Bettencourt said.
This fall the Tanners qualified for the Div. 2 North tournament and lost to Reading in the opening round. They had a chance at a second-straight winning season but dropped a close 28-24 decision to Woburn back on Nov. 9 at Veterans Memorial Stadium
Saugus presented its annual Heisman trophy honor to co-captain Jake Morgante. Other senior players honored for the Sachems were Dante McGrane, Michael Florentino, Ryan Beliveau and Trini Altschul.
Peabody awarded its Heisman trophy to Evan Bun for his commitment and dedication despite limited playing time – “He showed up for practice every day without any assurance that he’ll play on Friday night. It’s important to recognize players like Evan who come out and give their all.”