Standing in a high school locker room surrounded by teenage football players, it might seem that Zeke Pike has stepped back in time.
Just five short years ago, he could have been one of them.
But today instead of talking touchdowns, the one-time Division I recruit is sharing his story of addiction, redemption and lost opportunities in hopes of keeping young players from following in his footsteps.
Zeke Pike, 23, heads up Number8 Ministries and shares his newly found gift for public speaking with audiences that look remarkably like his younger self. It isn’t the position he dreamed of playing, but it is the position he is now certain he was always meant to fill. Speaking to students—some athletes, some not—across the country, Pike details his quick rise to local celebrity and his subsequent fall from grace. He provides full disclosure of the drug use that got him kicked off not one but three college football teams, his multiple arrests, his depression, his planned suicide and the jail stay that helped him turn it all around.
Nothing is off limits.
“Zeke was able to hold the attention of our players because his message is powerful. He is speaking to students about real problems facing our community. I feel like our players took his talk to heart,” says Jeff Marksberry, head football coach and athletic director for Simon Kenton. “I was impressed with Zeke’s message. He was honest about the mistakes that he made, where those mistakes led him, and his current path of recovery.”
The son of Mark Pike, a 12-year veteran of the Buffalo Bills with four Super Bowl rings, Zeke Pike was football royalty. Expectations were high for him and he delivered. In high school, he played defensive end like his father had until his junior year when he was moved to quarterback. It was a pivotal move that proved to be a game changer. Pike was a natural, passing for 18 touchdowns and rushing for 17 more in his first season as a starter. He stepped out of his father’s shadow and beyond it.
He was named an Army All-American. He was compared to Auburn’s Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. He was recruited by multiple Division I schools. He signed autographs.
And he got high.
It wasn’t the stardom of his budding football career that led him to drugs; he’d started smoking marijuana at 13. By high school he’d started drinking and occasionally experimenting with other drugs.
“When I look back now I think I put more pressure on myself than anyone else. My dad pushed me and supported me, but there was pressure, not just from dad, but from the community,” says Pike. “When I was getting recruited, ‘Zeke Pike’ was in the paper every day. I got attention beyond what Dad had as an NFL player. I was young and I didn’t handle it well.”
As a senior, Pike discovered Spice, a synthetic marijuana, being sold legally in local stores. Pike thought he was being smart by trading in his pot for this new legal high.
Word got out at school and Pike was suspended for violating team rules. His suspension made headlines across the state, putting his scholarship in jeopardy.
In January 2012, Pike left high school behind, but not his addiction. He enrolled early at Auburn University where despite failing his first drug test he was permitted to participate in spring training. An arrest for public intoxication that June led to his dismissal from the team before his first season even started.
The University of Louisville presented a second chance to play Division I football. He was moved to the tight end position and finished his freshman season with just one reception. Off the field, he found happiness with girlfriend Dani Cogswell.
“We had a great relationship. We were really close. She was struggling with things herself; she faced her own demons,” says Pike. “She was a U of L cheerleader. I was a U of L football player. We had to almost put on a front on the field. Off the field, we were just trying to be normal. We were smoking weed and partying like normal college kids. We had a year of just that.”
The drug use caught up to them. Pike failed his drug test in week six of the 2013 season and was suspended from the team. Soon he and Cogswell were hooked on a new drug—Xanax.
“I loved it. It took away any emotional thoughts I had. I let it be a security blanket. I needed it,” says Pike.
Pike was quickly addicted, taking the drug multiple times a day. Cogswell struggled as well. The two were together the night Pike blacked out and hit a telephone pole. Surprisingly, neither was injured. Pike was charged with a DUI.
“We got bailed out the next morning and went right back to it,” he says.
Another DUI seven days later resulted in his dismissal from the U of L team.
His parents demanded he go to treatment. In March 2014, he traveled to Sober College in California where he got clean for the first time in eight years. It lasted five months.
On a weeklong visit home, he reconnected with his family and Cogswell. Two days before he was set to return to Sober College, Cogswell died of an overdose.
“My world was ripped in half again. I’d been sober for five months and I lost my best friend,” says Pike who returned to Sober College for just one day after her death. “To be out there on my own was too hard for me. I wanted the support of my family. And I wanted to get high.”
A year later, his football dreams were sparked back to life with an offer from Murray State to play quarterback. This dream, too, was short lived. A DUI in August 2015 resulted in four days in jail and a dismissal from the team. His parents cut him off financially. This time Pike turned to drugs for comfort and income.
“I got to the point where I was just done with it. My family and I weren’t speaking. We hadn’t talked in months. I was a drug dealer to support my habit and to pay my bills. I was depressed, paranoid,” says Pike. “I got to the point where I thought I was better off dead than alive. It was for the best. I wouldn’t have to deal with the guilt and shame for blowing all of the opportunities I’ve been given. This is it. I’m just going to kill myself.”
On the patio of his Murray, Ky., home, he raised a 9mm to his head and said a prayer asking for a sign, any sign, he shouldn’t end his life. His phone rang—someone looking to score.
“I thought maybe this is God. When I look back, I have no doubt that it was. I was seconds away from shooting myself in the head,” he says.
In a Xanax-induced daze, Pike took the gun and got into his truck with a new plan to kill himself in the woods. Before he got there, he saw the familiar blue and red lights flashing. He was relieved.
He faced 15 years in prison but was given, instead, the option of entering a treatment program. At the Marion County Detention Center he got clean and renewed his relationship with God.
“I thought California was bad until I went to jail. There were 40 men on my block. I was the youngest. I remember meeting so many good people who drugs had taken over their lives, taken everything from them—their kids, their jobs. I started reconnecting with God. I thanked him for intervening. When I called out for help, he answered,” Pike says.
Pike held Bible study classes for the other prisoners and delivered sermons about his life. Number8 Ministries was born. He served just over six months and was released in October 2015.
Like a Monday-morning quarterback, Pike looks back and sees clearly the opportunities he lost due to his addiction, but he’s made peace with his past. He stays in touch with many of the men he met in jail and works a 12-step program.
“I catch myself saying I got my son back but I got so much more than that” says Mark Pike, who now serves on the board of Transitions, a drug rehabilitation center in Covington. “I have someone now I’m just getting to know.”
Together, father and son have been speaking with NCAA officials about developing programming for college players struggling with addiction.
“I know that if any second I’m not taking this seriously and working the program, I can go right back to where I was and I’m not willing to let that happen,” Pike says. “I get more joy from working with students than football ever brought me.”
March 7 will mark his one year of sobriety.
Anyone interested in learning more about Number8 Ministries or having Zeke Pike speak at an event can find additional information at number8ministries.com.
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