Chad Toocheck doesn’t remember everything that happened on those nights in late January 2008, but the 2006 Medina High graduate knows this with absolute certainty: They were among the worst of his life.
And they also may have saved it.
An All-Gulf South Conference wide receiver for the University of West Alabama, Toocheck’s story is a compelling triumph over drugs and alcohol, but the 6-foot-3, 212-pound senior with 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash first had to hit rock bottom.
Now 26, Toocheck hit it six and a half years ago. Hit it more than once, actually. Hit it harder than he had ever been hit on the football field at Medina or West Alabama, a Division II school located in tiny Livingston.
Living in Medina at the time, Toocheck had done some work for his father and gotten paid several hundred dollars. (David and Mary Alice “Sam” Toocheck separated when their son was a sophomore in high school and later divorced).
The first thing Toocheck did that Saturday was put gas in his vehicle, a 2004 Ford Explorer. The second thing he did was buy Ecstasy, cocaine and booze.
“Sunday morning I woke up and there were empty bottles everywhere,” he said. “I had a come-to moment: This is what my life is.”
Having convinced himself that his problems stemmed from not being in college like the rest of his friends, Toocheck, then 19, immediately packed up his Explorer and drove to Pittsburgh, where his mother was living. They had not talked for nearly a year when he showed up at her doorstep.
“There came a point when I realized I couldn’t reach him,” Sam Toocheck said. “He had gone to that level. I knew there was nothing I could do or say that was going to get through to him. I just had to give him to God.”
On Monday morning, Toocheck signed up for evening classes at the Community College of Allegheny County. On the drive back to his mom’s house, Sublime’s “Summertime” came on the radio.
Oh take this veil from off my eyes
My burning sun will someday rise
“All of a sudden, my head started spinning with all the things I’d done the last couple years, what my life was and wasn’t,” Toocheck said. “When that stuff happens, that’s when I start drinking.”
Back at his mom’s home, Toocheck went downstairs, put on some music and grabbed a bottle of tequila.
“Before I know it, the fifth of tequila is gone,” he said.
Realizing he had a class that night, Toocheck filled a plastic bottle with vodka and headed out. To this day, he remembers sitting at his desk thinking, “I’m drinking enough to put most people to sleep and I’m not drunk.”
At some point that night, Toocheck sent his mom a text message that he needed help. He had forgotten about it by the time he got back to her home, but he will always remember the look on her face.
“My mom said, ‘I’m either going to call the cops or you’re going to the hospital,’” Toocheck said.
Toocheck agreed to seek help. First, though, he wanted to drink more alcohol. What ensued was a scene where his mom was emptying one liquor bottle down the sink while he was running around trying to find another.
“I just needed to get him to the hospital as fast as I could and as safely as I could,” Sam Toocheck said. “It was one of the hardest nights of my life.”
Once at the hospital, Toocheck was placed in the psychiatric ward. After a few days, he didn’t feel he belonged. Then, even more quickly, he realized he did.
“I ended up in a hallway, in the fetal position, rocking back and forth, talking to myself,” Toocheck said. “That’s when I realized, ‘I’m no different than anyone in here.’ It hit me right between the eyes.”
Toocheck hasn’t used drugs or alcohol since Jan. 30, 2008. He’s grown nearly a foot and added more than 80 pounds since he was a 5-4, 130-pound junior receiver at Medina. By the end of the fall semester at West Alabama, he should have a degree in exercise science. He’s talked to people who help NFL teams formulate lists of pro prospects and USA College Football recently named him a preseason first-team All-American.
In short, life has never been better. But in order to completely understand what Toocheck has accomplished, you must first know everything he’s overcome.
Toocheck’s family — sister Jessica is two years older — moved to Medina from Pittsburgh when he was in fifth grade, and making new friends was not easy for him.
“In Pittsburgh, I was a goofball loser. We didn’t have any money, but I had no problem with it,” he said. “Then we moved to Medina and I didn’t fit in.”
The Toochecks weren’t poor, but money was tight, especially after the cost of moving was factored in. Sam was not working, while David was — and still is — employed as an energy and environmental consultant.
The way Toocheck saw it back then, his classmates were decked out in Tommy Hilfiger and Abercrombie & Fitch and he was wearing primarily “Wal-Mart clothes.”
“The stuff I didn’t have, I didn’t care about until it was pointed out by my peers that, ‘You’re a loser because you don’t wear shoes that have a Nike swoosh on them,’” he said. “That was a hard situation for me. I felt real different from everybody at that time.”
Early in high school, Toocheck made a new weekend friend: Alcohol. Soon after, he made another: Marijuana.
“I wanted to fit in,” he said, “and I definitely have a very addictive personality.”
Toocheck doesn’t blame his parents’ separation for any of his decisions or actions, but he does point out it made it easier for him to get away with things.
“I could manipulate my parents,” he said. “I’d tell my mom one thing and my dad another thing and be somewhere else.”
By his junior year, Toocheck was experimenting with LSD and various painkillers. He was also still drinking heavily and frequently using marijuana.
“If I could get it, I would take it,” he said.
Despite all that, Toocheck lettered in football at Medina as a junior, catching two passes for 28 yards. Having finally grown a bit, he had 15 receptions for a team-high 216 yards as a senior, but his heart wasn’t in the game anymore.
“The whole dream went away,” he said. “Once I started getting high and drinking all the time, that’s all I cared about.
“By the time I was a senior, I was getting high on a daily basis, every day, all day. I’d bring Aquafina bottles filled with gin and vodka to school.”
Toocheck, who was 17 when he graduated from Medina with a 2.1 grade-point average, looked into joining the Air Force, but said he failed 23 urine screenings. He was living in his father’s Medina home, but his behavior was getting worse, not better. Eventually, Toocheck was told to change his ways or get out. He left.
“What you’re doing is saying, ‘The kid I raised and have been protecting his whole life, I can’t do it anymore. You’ve got to do it on your own. I’ve got to kick you out into the wilderness,’” David Toocheck said. “That’s hard for anybody. When it’s your kid that you’ve raised since birth, I don’t think there’s anything harder.”
Toocheck packed up his belongings, jumped in his Explorer and drove to Pittsburgh to stay with his mom. His drug and alcohol use the same, so was the result.
“She just couldn’t take it anymore,” Toocheck said. “We had a big altercation and she kicked me out.”
Toocheck then stayed with a friend in downtown Pittsburgh.
“This whole time, the drug use is going up,” he said. “I’m doing coke almost every day, hallucinogens, still smoking weed and drinking.”
Eighteen and unable to hold a job, Toocheck quickly found himself looking for yet another place to live. He moved in with some college kids for a bit, but they tired of his freeloading ways and also sent him packing.
By the summer of 2007, Toocheck was headed to Akron to move in with some friends. On the drive there, he kept telling himself things were going to be different, better. Within hours after arriving, he was “black-out drunk.”
“When I woke up, this dude across the street had a bag of weed and a tall Bud Ice,” he said. “I went over and introduced myself and I was right back where I started.”
It wasn’t long before Toocheck started donating plasma, sometimes as often as three times a week.
“I’d get $25,” he said. “I’d buy a bag of weed, then I’d go to the drive-through and get some rolling papers and a 12-pack. If I was lucky enough to have a couple bucks left over, I’d get a double-cheeseburger from McDonald’s.”
The one positive, if it can be called that, was Toocheck was now using only alcohol and marijuana.
“It’s all I could afford,” he said.
Nothing much changed until that day Toocheck did some work for his dad and got paid several hundred dollars, which ultimately led to the trip to his mom’s home in Pittsburgh, final drinking binge and trip to the hospital.
“Those were not great times, but what do you do?” David Toocheck said. “The only way for him to recover was to hit rock bottom.”
Road to recovery
Checking into the hospital on that January 2008 night was just the first step in Toocheck’s recovery. It’s a recovery he knows will never be totally complete, which is why he continues to take part in a 12-step program.
It’s also why he is so willing — even eager — to share everything he has gone through. It’s why he has shared his story at rehabilitation and juvenile centers. It’s why the initial interview for this story lasted 76 minutes, with several more conversations after that.
“Some of the things I’ve done, I’ll never be able to make amends for — for my mom staying up crying every night wondering if I was going to come home alive,” he said. “Same with my dad. Me living the life I’m living now is the way to pay it forward. Me going and speaking to kids, that’s the way I can right the wrongs in my past.”
Toocheck began attending 12-step meetings while going through detoxification in the hospital. When his mom picked him up and took him to his first meeting outside the hospital, “it was nothing like it was in detox.”
“This little old lady came up and gave me a hug,” he said. “It was not what I thought it was going to be, but I kept going.”
In late February 2008, Toocheck met his sponsor, Scott Rice. They hit it off immediately and remain in regular contact to this day. After a number of months, the two concluded Toocheck had a grasp on sobriety and was ready to move forward. Toocheck started working as a cook, but felt his life still had “no substance.”
“I asked (Rice), ‘What do I do now?’” Toocheck said. “He said, ‘You’re sober now. You can do whatever you want.’”
In the summer of 2008, Toocheck’s mom moved back to Medina. He moved back as well. He ended up trying out for the Arena Football League and was offered a contract, but turned it down due to a sudden desire to pursue basketball.
After spending hours and hours working with former Medina boys varsity coach Keith Sooy, Toocheck tried out for the team at the Cleveland branch of Cuyahoga Community College in the summer of 2009. He made the team for the 2009-10 season, went to one workout and quit.
At about the same time, Toocheck met a woman he estimates was 6-4 and 300 pounds. She billed herself as a spiritual advisor.
“She told me God gave me a gift and it was to play football,” Toocheck said. “She told me I could speak to youth about what I went through in my spare time.”
There was one problem: It was already late summer. Actually, there were several other problems: Toocheck was already 21 years old and didn’t have eye-popping high school statistics.
But he pressed on, contacting hundreds of junior colleges, all of which had already started practice for the fall season. Then he found Santa Barbara City College in California. This was on Thursday. Toocheck was welcome to try out for the team, but practice started Monday.
Ironically, before leaving for a business trip the previous weekend, Sam Toocheck, who now works as a systems security specialist, had given her son a rah-rah speech.
“I told him if he was going to make his dreams come true, it was time he got off the sofa and did it,” Sam Toocheck said. “That was a Sunday. On Thursday, I got home and he said he had found a school and was leaving, that he was going to make it this time.
“I was nervous for him, but I knew he was determined and that he had been through so much, he could make it. If he wanted it, he could do it. I had to let him go.”
David Toocheck, who was in Brazil on a business trip when he learned of his son’s plans, was a little more taken aback, but he used his Southwest points to get Toocheck a flight to California and loaned him some money to put himself up for a while.
“The plan was sketchy at best,” David Toocheck said. “I’m a military guy. Everything has to be planned out for me. You have contingencies on how you’re going to recover. Essentially, there was nothing. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. How many community colleges do you fly over in the 3,000 miles to get there?’”
On Sunday, Toocheck put his belongings in three burlap sacks and left, ready to start a new chapter in his life.
Some nights, he stayed in a hostel. Other nights, he slept in a homeless shelter, which meant packing up his belongings at 5 a.m. and walking five miles to summer practice. When neither was available, he slept on the beach or a park bench.
“I remember I sent him a text at 3 a.m. California time and he responded right away,” David Toocheck said. “When he said he couldn’t sleep, I asked him why and he said, ‘The sprinklers.’”
Eventually, Toocheck moved in with a 46-year-old woman who lived a 20-minute bus ride from Santa Barbara. He made the football team as a second-string tight end. One day he got an opportunity in practice, made a diving catch in the corner of the end zone and was “promoted” to fifth-string wide receiver.
Toocheck didn’t play at all in Santa Barbara’s first two games, but one wide receiver became ineligible, a second quit, a third suffered a concussion and a fourth fractured his thumb.
“Then there was me,” he said.
Toocheck, whose dad helped him get a loan to pay the school’s out-of-state tuition, wound up catching 80 passes for 900 yards while earning first-team all-state honors.
The good life
Wanting to play for a bigger college as soon as possible, Toocheck took as many classes as possible at Santa Barbara. The goal was to graduate in a year, but that didn’t happen and he didn’t have the money to return for a second season.
Toocheck didn’t play football in the 2010-11 school year, but took classes to earn his associate degree in behavioral and social science from Santa Barbara while working for a landscaping company in Medina.
Along the way, he reconnected with DeForest Hart — they had initially met at the Arena Football League tryout — at a gym in Bedford. Hart had played college football at Delta State with Desmond Lindsay, then the wide receivers coach at West Alabama. After hearing from Hart, Lindsay eventually called Toocheck, who could understand virtually nothing the coach was saying due to a rich southern accent.
“The next day I got a Fed-Ex package with a full scholarship,” Toocheck said. “No questions asked, I went down to West Alabama.
“Oh, my gawd. At first it was cool, a second-chance kind of deal. It was in the middle of nowhere, but I thought, ‘I’ll just focus on football.’ After a week, I was going nuts.”
In Livingston, the nearest hospital is 30 minutes away. There are no stoplights. Cows are often tied to telephone poles. There are men riding horses.
Toocheck stayed in a small house with the school’s quarterback. There was no cable television, so they watched the same five movies over and over.
Then Toocheck, who thought he was in the best shape of his life, attended his first practice.
“We were lifting weights with chains, running hills, all that,” he said.
Toocheck called his sister to complain and perhaps get a little sympathy, but Jessica Toocheck, The Gazette’s 2004 Senior Female Athlete of the Year, a 2014 Medina County Sports Hall of Fame inductee and now the varsity softball coach at Medina, would have none of it. Virtually always an extremely polite and friendly person, she instead told her brother, “This is what you signed up for. Man up and let’s go.”
Toocheck wound up starting every game as a sophomore while splitting series with another receiver. He caught 28 passes for 388 yards and five touchdowns and earned second-team All-Gulf South Conference honors. West Alabama went 9-4 overall, 5-0 in the GSC and made it to the second round of the D-II playoffs.
Last season, as a junior, Toocheck had 43 catches for 729 yards and 12 TDs as West Alabama went 8-3 overall and 5-1 in the GSC, good enough to share the league crown with North Alabama.
“This whole journey,” he said, “has been to show people that dreams can happen.”
West Alabama has a new coaching staff as Toocheck prepares to start his senior season at the age of 26, but he’s now chasing an even bigger dream — getting a tryout with an NFL team and maybe, just maybe, making the final roster.
“Age is going to be something that holds me back, maybe, but something I’ve been instilled with is a work ethic,” he said. “That’s something I carry every day. I’m trying to prove to the scouts this year that I may be 26, but I’m working harder than any 21- or 22-year-old you know.”
Toocheck doesn’t want to think a whole lot about the possibility of falling short of his ultimate goal, but he does have Plan B: He’ll speak to anyone who will listen about all he has overcome — with his family’s complete blessing — while perhaps also working as an assistant coach.
Sharing his story, in fact, is a passion he plans to pursue even if he fulfills his dream of playing in the NFL.
“I am proud, but I also know that without all the people that have been pushing me along, I would be nowhere,” Toocheck said. “When I was getting high and drunk every day, my aspiration was to reach 21. All thanks to God and those people around me and the 12-step program. They have shown me my life can be much better than I ever dreamed it could be.
“If I had someone sit down and listen to my story and could motivate them to change their life, I’d do it every day. I’d do it all day, every day.”