Ray Ruby of the Portland Police Department heard him speak more than a year ago.

Jeff Thoreck of Cape Elizabeth High School caught the talk Tuesday.

Both came away singing the praises of John Underwood and his impassioned and thoroughly-researched analysis of the effects of drugs and alcohol on athletic performance.

“The whole conference was great,” said Ruby, Youth Services Officer for a law-enforcement gathering in Texas that focused on underage drinking, “but this was the shining star who really stood out.”

“It was a different take on the substance-abuse issues that our student-athletes face,” said Thoreck, the athletic director at Cape Elizabeth, where Underwood met with coaches in the morning, students in the afternoon and parents and other community members Tuesday evening.

“He wasn’t telling the kids how to live their lives. He’s giving them information. This is what drugs and alcohol can do to your brain and how it affects your performance.”

Underwood is a former NCAA All-America distance runner, Olympic trainer and founder of the American Athletic Institute, a sports-consulting firm in New York used by more than 600 colleges, the NBA and the NFL.

He helped develop a program called “Life of an Athlete” that has become mandatory for high school athletes in New York and New Mexico. Underwood will present the program at Deering High in Portland today — for coaches and athletic directors throughout Southern Maine and Deering High athletes — and tonight, with the public invited to the evening presentation.

“We want as many schools and communities to hear this message as possible,” Ruby said. “The whole premise is to deter underage drinking. People need to be open-minded and really listen that this is a problem in every community.

“We’re just using Deering as a starting point.”

Underwood’s approach comes out of his background as an athlete and as a coach rather than some overriding societal concern.

When he was a high school runner in New York, not many athletes dabbled in drugs or drinking. He said it was fringe behavior.

A generation later, according to a nationwide survey with a million respondents, 58 percent of high school athletes admitted to using alcohol during their sports season.

“So think about that,” said Underwood when reached Monday during his drive to Maine. “What are we going to do? Catch 58 percent of the student-athletes in the country and kick ’em out or kick ’em off? No. The goal is to identify kids who are using and try to educate them, try to help them.”

Rather than showing eggs sizzling in a frying pan or brain scans of a middle-aged alcoholic who died from cirrhosis, Underwood offers up brain scans of a healthy 17-year-old and another of a 17-year-old who’s been partying for four years.

He offers up hard data showing that one night of drinking can erase two weeks of training, that marijuana use can rewire the brain to slow the decision-making process, that a lack of sleep translates to a slower body on the field and a less-nimble mind.

“It’s not just what you’re willing to give,” Underwood said, “it’s what you’re willing to give up.”

He said today’s student-athletes want to be successful, and they understand success requires hard work and dedication, but they also feel compelled to do what everybody else does.

“And that’s not how you get there,” he said. “You get there by living your life in a different way than other people, if you’re an athlete. You can’t be at your best if you’re going to be doing the stuff these kids are doing. And it’s not just about drugs. It’s about sleep, it’s about rest, it’s about down time, it’s about proper nutrition.

“It’s about lifestyle.”

Underwood’s public presentation is scheduled for 6 p.m. tonight in the Deering High auditorium. The public is invited. There is no charge.

 

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

[email protected]