Unlike Caminiti, Muncie Mustered The Strength To Whip His Cocaine Habit

By Off the BASN Sports Wire
Updated: November 7, 2004

There but for the grace of God go I . . .”

SAN DIEGO, Ca. — Ken Caminiti, the great athlete and drug addict, is dead. Chuck Muncie, the great athlete and drug addict, is alive.

Ken Caminiti is dead because he couldn’t conquer his demons. Chuck Muncie is alive because he looked his goblins square in the eye and beat the living hell out of them.

Turns out the only person who ever had an easy time tackling Chuck Muncie was Chuck Muncie. So he was the only one who could wiggle free. Caminiti, the former Padres star who recently died in New York of a cocaine overdose, obviously did not have the strength and willpower to save Ken Caminiti.

Muncie, the former great Chargers running back, knows what happened to Caminiti could have happened to him. He, too, was a cocaine addict. He, too, went to jail – for 2½ years – because of drugs, handing cocaine to his “best friend” who had brought along two undercover cops. He, too, saw a marriage break up because of his addictive lifestyle.

Muncie’s drug use long had been more than suspected. While he was a Charger, the NFL sent him to a rehab facility in Arizona. It did no good.

Nor did six months in the San Diego Metropolitan Correctional Facility and two years in Lompoc Federal Prison scare him straight. He scared himself straight.

“I woke up every morning in that cell for 2½ years, looking at myself in the mirror,” Muncie says. “I had seen enough.

“It almost was like an epiphany. I was behind bars, pointing fingers at everybody but myself. I finally realized that I’m in charge, that it’s me with the addiction. It’s easy to fall off and blame other people. It’s your choice.”

Muncie, runner-up for the Heisman Trophy at Cal in 1975, now lives in Antioch, where he operates his Chuck Muncie Youth Foundation and runs combines for high school football players, identifying the top prep players in the country for universities.

At 51, Muncie seems happy and successful and says he has been clean and sober for 14 years. His problems led to a divorce, but he recently became a grandfather and has been with the same woman now for nine years.

And yet, he still has friends and acquaintances, former athletes, who are addicts, who could be Ken-Caminitis-waiting-to-happen.

“The sad part is I see a lot of guys like that,” Muncie says. “They’re still involved, still using. You try to help guys and they won’t go for it. They can’t separate themselves from the past.

“They hide in drugs. Guys I knew with the Chargers and Raiders are still messing around with the stuff. They can go into a ball and hide in a corner. Some guys are too embarrassed to get help or even want help. Their pride gets in the way.”

So, Caminiti’s death did not surprise Muncie. His surprise is that he doesn’t see more of it.

“I’m always telling myself that I’m going to be reading about an athlete dead from an overdose or in a hospital,” he says. “What could have been done before it got to this? Some guys in sports get no help when they’re out. A lot of guys feel discarded, so it’s easy to dive into the bottle or take drugs. They have to find something to do with their lives, but they can’t.”

During Muncie’s playing days in San Diego, there was speculation he was juiced during games.

“Never,” he says. “When I came to work and played ball or practiced, I was never loaded. After practice, yes, but only on my time.”

Drafted by New Orleans in 1976 – he was traded to the Chargers in 1980 – Muncie claims he was not into drugs before he joined the NFL.

“When I got to the NFL, that’s when I was introduced to it, in New Orleans,” he says. “So many of the guys were on it.”

And Muncie insists San Diego’s locker room wasn’t any cleaner, which is one of the reasons rehab sessions did no good for a vulnerable man not ready to be cured. He was not the only one.

“Oh, no,” says Muncie, who was suspended twice for drugs by the NFL. “That’s what (ticked) me off for so long. I kept saying, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ I needed help, and I got help from another program when I got out (of jail), but it wasn’t from the NFL. Back then, the NFL program was a joke. They send you away for 30 days and when you’re done they send you back to the same environment that got you there in the first place.

“Before you leave (rehab), they tell you to stay away from the people, places and things that got you in trouble, so they send you right back to the people, places and things that got you in trouble.”

I like Chuck Muncie. An affable man. And the Chargers – heck, the NFL – have known few greater athletes. I can’t say I’ve spent much time around a better one. Just last week, LaDainian Tomlinson broke Muncie’s team record for rushing touchdowns, and Muncie played during the Air Coryell days, when the ball was in the air most of the time.

But even he wonders. As screwed up as he was, Muncie was a terrific player. He could have been better. He could have been a Hall of Famer had his life been in order.

“My whole mentality was different,” he says. “I was a functioning addict while doing what I did pretty well. So I acted as though there was nothing wrong with me. I was a celebrity being a Charger. I didn’t blow my money on drugs. Everybody wanted to give you drugs. I didn’t have to pay for them.

“I see some guys in the Hall of Fame or in the Chargers Hall of Fame and it’s frustrating. I’m not there because of the choices I made. I think about what could have been – what would have been.”

What Muncie did was prosecute himself. The fighter inside still remained. It did not in Ken Caminiti.

“Was I going to continue to disgrace myself and my family or turn a negative into a positive?” Harry Vance “Chuck” Muncie says. “Everything I do today, everything I’ve done the last 14 years, allows me to wake up with a smile on my face.”

Alive. And with no gray bars on the windows or his mind.