Cook: Pitt player from the '90s has tale to tell
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Three of the great orators of college basketball are in Atlanta this weekend for the Final Four, Dick Vitale to analyze the games as only he can, Rick Pitino to dream about cutting down the nets with his young, on-the-come Louisville team when everybody gathers a year from now in San Antonio and Chad Varga to ...
Wait a minute.
Who's Chad Varga?
You know your college basketball and have a good memory if you remember Varga played at Pitt from 1994-97, a pretty fair power forward during the Ralph Willard era, long before the Petersen Events Center, the Sweet 16 failures and even the come-to-be-expected NCAA tournament appearances. Those Pitt teams were pretty bad.
Varga was good enough to play professionally in Spain after getting his college degree, but that's not what makes him such a compelling motivational speaker. It's the story he has to tell, one that no one at Pitt knew, one that he was too embarrassed to share back then.
"I don't feel like I went through everything that I did for no reason," Varga said last week. "I always thought I'd give back."
Varga does corporate speaking because he has a wife and two children in the Atlanta area and -- let's face it -- there's big money in it. Vitale and Pitino make in the neighborhood of $50,000 per speech. That's a very nice neighborhood. Varga makes something less.
But it's Varga's talks to teenagers in public schools and churches that he finds most rewarding. In the past six weeks, he has spoken to kids in eight states. Sadly, many can relate to his tale of child abuse.
"My story used to be abnormal, but today it's normal," Varga said. "I hear a lot worse when I talk to these kids.
"Sometimes, we're numb to what's out there. We want to believe these problems are a million miles away. But they're not. There are a lot of kids hurting. They need hope. They need expectations. They need to realize the impact of the choices they make on the rest of their lives. They're scared to stand up for what's right because they're so worried about what their friends will think. 'At some point,' I tell them, 'you've got to get over your fear of what people think.' "
That wasn't always easy for Varga, a product of a broken home. His mother, Kathie, is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. It's not the beatings that he and his sister, Wendy, took from her that he remembers so much. It's the trips as a pre-schooler with her in the middle of the night to Detroit crack houses. It's watching her nearly die from a cocaine overdose and seeing her go to prison. It's her getting drunk and forgetting his 11th birthday party. It's being chased down a street by her and stabbed in the arm with a butcher knife. It's watching a murder -- a man blowing off another man's head -- at one of her drug parties. It's the many fights he had with her boyfriends, who routinely beat her. As recently as the summer after his senior year at Pitt, he broke his hand in a fight defending her and lost a chance to make it with the NBA's Dallas Mavericks.
"The police and I were on a first-name basis. They were at our house five and six nights a week," Varga wrote in his self-published book, "If You Only Knew ... " (Vitale and Pitino provided blurbs on the back cover; "Chad's life story is proof that success must be deserved," Pitino wrote).
There's something else Varga clearly remembers from his youth: His thoughts of suicide.
How many of the hundreds of thousands of teenagers he has spoken to have had the same thoughts?
"I tell the kids, 'Regardless of what's happened to you, it doesn't give you an excuse to give up or quit,' " Varga said. "There's a real connect there because they know I had every reason to fail ...
"Sure, I contemplated suicide. But what if I had done that? I'd have never known what I have in my life now. I'm not talking about material things. I'm talking about my relationship with God. I'm talking about the love I have for my family. I'm talking about the teenagers I've been able to reach.
"It's like I tell the kids. 'You can't quit. You don't know what's 10 years ahead.' "
Varga has a pretty good idea what he'll be doing 10 years from now. He recently sold his house and will move his family to Johnson City, Tenn., in September. He has been given 150 acres of property, on which he plans to build a youth home, a $3 million project. Details can be found on his Web site, www.inspirenow.com.
"As great as it is to talk to teenagers, I have to leave them when I'm done," Varga said. "The only way to have a true impact is through relationships, and relationships take time. This facility will enable my wife and me to mentor kids on a weekly basis."
Varga says that's his calling in life.
It's why he walked away from a big-money contract to continue playing basketball in Europe in '99 and hooked up with Dave Roever, a Vietnam War veteran and one of the country's top motivational speakers.
He was 25 then.
"I decided there was more to life than dunks," Varga said. "Everybody thought I was nuts. They still do."
His family and friends, maybe.
But the kids he has touched in a positive way?
First Published April 1, 2007 12:00 am