WATERTOWN — Tony Hoffman went from being featured on the cover of the largest BMX magazine in the world at the age of 18 to robbing someone at gunpoint in their home in pursuit of drugs a few years later.
Now 35 years old, Mr. Hoffman travels around the United States sharing his story with various audiences, spending about 200 days a year for the past nine years recounting the tale of becoming addicted to drugs and eventually landing in prison before turning his life around.
Fifth- and sixth-grade students from both Wiley and La Fargeville schools packed the auditorium of the Watertown High School Thursday afternoon for the second of two sessions featuring the former pro BMX athlete as the guest speaker.
Mr. Hoffman, of Clovis, Calif., has struggled with social anxiety and depression for most of his life, with his mental health issues manifesting into suicidal thoughts when he was only 12 years old.
“I never really took care of those because we didn’t talk about mental health, so I wasn’t reaching out and talking to anyone about how I felt different on the inside,” he said. “I began, like anybody else, socializing at parties where people were smoking and drinking and at that age, I didn’t understand how addiction really worked.”
Later he would come to learn that addiction ran in his father’s side of the family.
On Thursday afternoon, beginning at 1 p.m., Mr. Hoffman spoke to the gathered students about how he got to where he is today and shared with them the story of how he became addicted to drugs. Due to the age of his audience, he opted not to share the full story he gives to older students, but made sure to give them a real look at what addiction can do to a person.
John Morgia, chairman of the Jefferson County Businesses Against Drugs, a coalition that’s working in the community to help educate kids about drugs, was responsible for bringing Mr. Hoffman to Watertown, and knew he wanted him specifically.
“He’s giving his life story, he’s seen the ups and downs of this whole program, he knows what he’s been through,” Mr. Morgia said. “He was a drug addict and cleaned himself up, he straightened his life around.”
To be like the “cool kids,” Mr. Hoffman began to experiment with marijuana at high school parties, something that would turn out to be the beginning of a long road of drug abuse over the next few years.
“When I was introduced to stuff that came out of the orange bottle, called an opioid medication, a painkiller, that stuff is the stuff I couldn’t get rid of, it’s the stuff that took over my life,” he said. “Within four years of walking through the door I was homeless, completely homeless.”
He warned those in attendance on Thursday that everyone thinks something like what he went through won’t happen to them, but it very easily could be anyone. Unfortunately, not everyone makes it back like he did.
His friends started dying when he was 25, and every year since then he has lost at least one to two friends from a drug overdose. He said only one of his friends, out of a total of about 30, has gotten sober and back through the other side of the door that is addiction.
Many of his friends are now 35 years old like himself, but are in and out of rehab or jail and cannot stop.
“Three years ago, a lot of my work was about my story, now I tell people it’s not even about me anymore,” he said. “It’s becoming less about what I’ve accomplished and more about how what I’ve accomplished is giving me a stage to helping other people.”
One of those people was Jordan Grover, who heard Mr. Hoffman speak when he came to his high school. Once he started paying attention to the speech, he realized he needed to make a change in his own life to avoid any negative outcomes. At the time, his county in Ohio was losing three people a day to opioid overdoses.
Now, Mr. Grover is a member of the United States Marine Corps.
“I get people reaching out all the time, but his story just kind of stuck out because of where he came from, his story is special,” Mr. Hoffman said. “He decided to pay attention, but his friends didn’t, and three of them had died within a year of graduating high school.”
Homeless and cold, Mr. Hoffman broke into a house that was up for rent to sleep in the winter of 2007. He woke up to four police officers with guns drawn on him and was arrested. Thirty days later, he was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for the armed robbery he had committed back in 2005.
On the ceiling of his cell were some words written in pencil, words that have never left him: “Be careful what you think, because your thoughts become your words. Be careful what you say, because your words become your actions. Be careful what you do, because your actions become your habits. Be careful what you make a habit, because your habits become your character, and your character becomes your destiny.”
This quote made a lot of sense to him, and he decided to reshape his thinking, thereby rerouting his future. He decided that when he got out of prison, he would do four things: Become a professional BMX athlete, go to the Olympics, start the Freewheel Project, and become a professional speaker.
Though officers at the prison told him he would never accomplish his goals and that he would end up right back in the prison system like everyone else, he remained committed to his new outlook.
Five months after being released from prison, he took part in his first professional BMX race after not having touched a bike in seven years and placed third. That first year, he won five races at the lower pro division and moved to Olympic level.
One year after getting back on his bike, he was invited to the Olympic training center to train with the best athletes in the world.
In 2010, Mr. Hoffman picked up a microphone not to make it a career, but to inspire people, and he has done just that ever since.
A year after sustaining a knee injury in 2011, ending his BMX career, he started the Freewheel Project, a program that brought access to action sports to hundreds of kids in his community, and over the years he has become one of the most sought after addiction speakers in the nation.
He made it to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 after receiving a call from an athlete he had been coaching telling him to pack his bags.
Despite the odds stacked against him, he accomplished all four of the goals he set for himself while he was in prison.
Now, Mr. Hoffman’s new goal is to start his own treatment center: The Tony Hoffman Wellness Center, a rehab facility to help people get their life back on track.
To learn more about Tony and his projects go to tonyhoffmanspeaking.com.