Editor’s note: Point Park University student Derek Malush created this multimedia package about a friend and former teammate who became addicted to drugs and who has worked to overcome that addiction.

Tyler Szymanski was loved by many in his younger days as a kid. He had nothing but triumphs and success in the sports he played and the friendships he kept. He just about had all a kid could ever ask for.

Until one day changed his life forever.

I grew up with Tyler as we played the same sports, were on the same teams and were good friends outside of the sporting world. His parents were even close friends with my parents, which made it easy to connect with him. We even have a handshake that we made up years ago that we still do when we see one another. When Tyler graduated from Baldwin High School near Pittsburgh, Pa., in 2011, I began to lose touch with him. I had one more year of high school left and he had gone off to college somewhere. At least that’s what I thought.

April 2016.

This year was the first time I had seen Tyler since he graduated high school five years prior. We attended the funeral of a 22-year-old friend of ours who had passed away from a heroin overdose in the late weeks of April.  After saying goodbye to our late friend, we began to reminisce about the good times we used to have. Basketball tournaments, sleepovers; we couldn’t stop ourselves from bringing up the nostalgic moments of our pasts.

Right before he left the funeral home, he told me that he was two years clean. With no hesitation, I laughed and thought he was just talking about smoking weed or drinking too much.

Tyler Szymanski as a youth basketball player. Submitted photo.

He told me that he has been two years clean of heroin and then slowly meandered to his car in the parking lot without saying goodbye. I could only conclude that my laughing was a sign of carelessness that he took to heart.

However, that was the complete opposite of my intent. I was in utter disbelief as I couldn’t even picture him being addicted to something so serious. Something that takes peoples souls and diminishes them into nothing but despair and turmoil. I have seen many people I know pass away from this drug since graduating high school in 2012, and my mind could not wrap around the fact that he was suffering from an opioid addiction. He just wasn’t that person I remembered from high school.

I began to keep a closer eye on him, texting him every so often and asking him to hang out occasionally.

But he never responded. And when he did, it would be short sentences and he wouldn’t even address my invites to get together. I had given up on Tyler. I’ll admit it. Heroin can do things to your mental and physical health that can permanently alter who you are as a human being. He didn’t want to help himself and I wasn’t going to let myself go down that road of suffering.

Tyler Szymanski as a basketball player at Baldwin High School. Submitted.

It wasn’t until he found solace in coaching that he wanted to turn his life into something positive. Something that his friends and family could appreciate and admire.

S.K.Y Development, is a training program in Pittsburgh that takes high school kids and personalizes their training in various sports. There, Tyler found himself coaching women’s volleyball. In high school, Tyler always used to play volleyball. I had no interest in it, however, he always was talking about it. So, I know his passion for it ran deeper than just talking about going to his older sisters’ volleyball games.

After talking to Tyler in an interview, I came to just one conclusion. That if it weren’t for S.K.Y. Development, I might not have ever seen him again after that funeral. 

Tyler told me that S.K.Y. was his crutch. He leaned on them to help divert his impulses into something constructive and was open to his team and coaches about his discouraging past. Those people helped Tyler heal. They treated him like family and he credits them as the ones who made him who he is today. A healthy, successful, inspiring human being.

Photos of Tyler Szymanski from his playing days. Submitted.

After revealing his dark past to his team and coaches, they thought nothing of it. They did not judge him, mock him or look at him any differently than the day before. And that is what a family does. They help build you up to your fullest potential and respect your efforts when you execute your dream.

In Tyler’s case, his dream is to run a sports company. And S.K.Y. is helping make sure that dream becomes a reality. Because when you think about life and all the different paths it takes us down, it’s ironic that they all aspire to end on the same road: Success.