Teaming Up to Tackle Substance Abuse
At 6’5”, 255 pounds, Ikaika Alama- Francis cuts an imposing figure. But he instantly puts everyone at ease, with his wide smile, a handshake and his trademark “Aloha!” You are in the company of a confident, charismatic, compassionate man – one who’s transformed his life off the football field. His first name – Ikaika – means “strong warrior.” And today Ike, as he’s known to all, is living up to that by devoting his passion and energy to helping children and youth in Naples and elsewhere.
The Hawaii native recently joined Drug Free Collier as a Community Ambassador. Now he’s spreading the message about making smart choices, especially drug-free living. He’s out and about in the schools and at many youth-serving agencies and events.
His motivation comes from his own story. “Football is the hardest thing,” said the former defensive end and linebacker who played for the Detroit Lions, the Miami Dolphins and the San Francisco 49ers. “You see the players on Sunday but you forget they are living everyday with injuries. You have to put everything you can into it or you get hurt and won’t last long.” NFL practice camps were called “Hell Weeks.” “They break your body down and it’s a real physical grind,” he said. Ike suffered a broken shoulder and hand, had concussions and back surgery. He took pain pills and soon struggled with addiction.
“You go down a dark hole,” he said. “You don’t feel good about yourself, you start losing everything and life goes into a slow fizzle.” That’s why Ike has joined forces with Drug Free Collier, a local non-profit and countywide coalition of concerned citizens working together to protect children from substance abuse since 2005.
And Ike just might be the best not-so secret weapon to tackle the stigma around addiction.
He’s hitting it hard. “My prevention message is about the choices you have to make,” he said. “You have to have knowledge about what those choices mean. I can talk from experience. It’s like giving them a heads up. Our coach used to say it’s a lot easier to know what the play is if you get a heads up.”
Ike towers over most people and it’s hard to believe the self-described nerdy little kid has become such a powerful figure. “My shoulder pads were bigger than I was,” he laughed. He had surgery on his legs and spine as a child. That’s why he’s still devoted to help out the Shriner’s Hospital, where he was once a patient. “My heart was calling me to do it,” he said.
Those around him say he’s all heart.
“Ike is just a fantastic person,” said Rey Pezeshkan, Drug Free Collier Board President. “The way he shares the message with kids and even adults strikes a chord about the importance of making good choices. All you have to do is listen to him and a smile crosses your face and you feel charged up to go do the right thing and make a positive difference.”
He shared his message with Lely High School CORE Society members. Drug Free Collier oversees the CORE groups, which offer students drug free alternatives and the support needed to maintain a healthy, safe lifestyle.
“It was so inspirational,” said Alberto DeLeon, a Lely CORE member, who was thrilled to meet an NFL player. “He shared his personal experiences.” Karen Barrera, also a CORE member and Lely senior, applauded Ike for “coming back to participate in the community and make things better for the schools and students.”
Ike was recently named President of the NFL Alumni – SWFL Chapter. Ike, 31, was also asked to participate in “Dancing with the Stars – Naples.” He’s been practicing twice weekly. All the practice will culminate in November.
Since he’s been learning the dance moves, he’s been hobbling about from the blisters on his feet. “It was never this bad on the field,” he said, laughing.
When he’s not out in the community, he’s home with his wife, Maina and daughter Elana, 4. They enjoy relaxing and taking in the outdoors whenever they can. He also spends time in Hawaii visiting his family, including his two daughters, Leilani and Aislynn.
“I am blessed,” he said.
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