Thu, 06 Apr 2017 13:23:00
Eason Ramson, Bayview YMCA mentor. Photo by by Zak Huffaker.
“That ain’t never gonna happen,” “You stupid,” and “You better learn to be a good truck driver like me.”
Eason Ramson — once a young man with dreams of becoming a professional athlete — regularly heard and internalized this kind of harsh criticism when expressing his childhood aspirations to his father. Now, with regret, he admits that he inadvertently learned this behavior, and when he had two sons of his own, the cycle was repeated.
But today at age 60, he wants nothing more than to make amends for the mistakes he has made, leave behind the anger and resentment handed down from one generation to the next, and pay forward the kindness shown to him by those in his life who truly cared.
“The words my father said to me were initially motivation for me to show him,” Ramson stated, while recalling his upbringing in an impoverished Oak Park neighborhood in Sacramento.
So not long after attending Washington State University — with his father’s words still fueling his defiant determination — 22-year-old Ramson was “on fire to make the team” while vying for a position with the Saint Louis Cardinals alongside more than a hundred other hungry athletes. And after six weeks of grueling two-a-days, this motivation helped earn him a spot on the 1978 roster as a tight end. “When I made the team, I was stoked,” Ramson said. “My dream had come true. No one really believed in me but my mom. You know — my dad didn’t.”
Although Ramson’s goal had been achieved, the malign seed that helped bring his dream to fruition still lay buried deep within, where it had already begun to fester, and would soon manifest itself as an addiction that would consume not only the success realized on that day, but Ramson’s entire life.
Just after making the team and still riding high on a wave of excitement, several veteran players whom Ramson had long admired and respected approached him offering their enthusiastic congratulations as well as an invitation to join them at a popular discotheque to celebrate. So later that night, the elated rookie — surrounded by his new teammates and adoring clubgoers — was dancing, celebrating, and enjoying his newfound success.
About an hour after arriving at the club, one of Ramson’s teammates tapped him on the shoulder and said “Hey Ramson, we got something for you, man. Why don’t you meet us in the restroom in about five minutes?” Although Ramson had no idea what his teammates had in store for him, he did know that he looked up to them, and that was enough.
So well before five minutes had passed, the 22-year-old rookie paced nervously in the men’s restroom while waiting for his teammates to arrive. When they showed up, they entered one by one, formed a semicircle around him, and began to congratulate and praise Ramson for his performance in training camp. But as they congratulated him, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed one player reach into his pocket and pull out a small, clear, cylindrical vial with a black top, from which hung a chain and a tiny spoon.
“He screwed that top off and he dipped the spoon in, and he stepped in front of everybody and to me.” recalled Ramson intensely, as he remembered the words of the man who then introduced him to cocaine — “You know Ramson, like we keep telling you, we’re really proud of you man, and you one of us now. Welcome to the NFL. This is the rich man’s high.”
For an instant, Ramson was brought back to his youth in Oak Park in Sacramento, and the misery and pain that he knew was the result of drugs, which he had learned to avoid at an early age. But in that moment, Ramson thought to himself, “I’m with the guys who are successful. I’ve been watching these guys on TV. They have the fame. They have the fortune. They have the things I desire. I want to be accepted by them. I want to be like them.” With this in mind, Ramson took his first hit of cocaine, and immediately equated the drug with success.
“That drug was success.” asserted Ramson flatly. “And equating it with success, I quickly went from experimental stages to recreational. Because every time we won, we partied. And when we partied, you know, we did a little cocaine.”
Three years into his NFL career, Ramson and his new team, the San Francisco 49ers, finished the regular season with a 13?3 record. This league-best record meant a lot of partying, but for the Super Bowl bound tight end, who was growing increasingly angry in recent years for reasons he did not yet understand — it also meant a lot of cocaine. “At some point, before we got into the actual playoffs, I was doing the drug at a recreational level so much that I started to isolate,” Ransom said. “So I stepped back from going out, to where I was doing the drug by myself.”
The 49ers went on to win Super Bowl XVI that year, but Ramson’s recreational use had progressed to the stage of abuse, and at the peak of his addiction was costing him $1,000 per day. Although he did his best to hide his addiction from his teammates, both Ramson’s interest in football and his on-field performance had begun to diminish, and head coach Bill Walsh took notice.
“Bill Walsh called me in and he asked what was going on with me. He had noticed some changes and wanted to know if I needed some kind of support,” recounted Ramson of this 1984 meeting. “My pride got in the way and I said to him ‘Bill, things are going well. Everything’s good. Thank you for offering.’ and he accepted that.” The next morning, Ramson found out he had been traded to the Denver Broncos.
Just one year after being traded to the Denver Broncos, with his addiction and sense of anger still deepening, Ramson was again traded to the Buffalo Bills. “When I got to Buffalo, I had been snortin’, snortin’, snortin’ — and somebody talked to me about ‘crack’, and said, ‘You know, you only need a couple hits of this, and you’ll be cool.’ So I started smokin’ crack. And when I moved to crack, of course, that’s when things got totally out of control. I started missing games. Things got so bad that I said, ‘You know what? All I wanna do is smoke this crack.’ ”
By 1987, Ramson’s NFL career had come to an end, but his addiction had not.
He returned to his home town of Sacramento, and in the years that followed, his life was reduced to the sole objective of supporting his habit. His 8-year marriage to his high school girlfriend had already come to an end, and his relationship with his two young sons, Ramson Jr. and Joshua, became distant.
Having squandered his earnings on drugs and alcohol, Ramson resorted to crime, and would regularly wait for unsuspecting ATM users to make withdrawals, push them out of the way, and take their money. At one point, he was beaten and left for dead by a group of thugs for a debt he owed to a drug dealer, but immediately after being discharged from the hospital, he went right out and got more drugs.
Finally, Ramson was stopped by a security guard after attempting to steal a shopping cart full of liquor, and when the police arrived, they discovered that a warrant had already been issued for his arrest for the ATM robberies, and he was sent to jail.
Ramson subsequently spent roughly eight total years in prison as his life of crime and drug abuse continued, and at age 43, he found himself in a Sacramento courtroom — handcuffed and dressed in orange — facing 35 years to life for his “third strike” in a highly publicized case.
Shortly after the judge called his name for arraignment, Ramson, who had lost all hope at that point, heard a familiar voice from the back of the courtroom say, “Judge, may I speak to the court?” “When I heard that voice, if I could have crawled under the table, I would have, because that was Bill Walsh,” Ramson said. More than 15 years had passed since leaving the 49ers, but the head coach had come to his former player’s aid.
The judge asked Walsh to approach the bench and allowed him to speak about his former player and the man he remembered. “He talked about a man that I didn’t know,” recalled Ramson. Walsh told the judge of a player who inspired other rookies, helped the homeless, and participated in food drives. “He talked about a caring person that I was no longer,” he stated.
The judge, deeply moved by Walsh’s statement, brought the court to a recess that lasted nearly 45 minutes. The head coach then approached Ramson, who was now openly weeping, put his hand on his shoulder, and said “I came here today because I haven’t given up on you, and I just want you to know, Ramson, that I care.” At that moment, recalled Ramson, “A light came on inside of me.” The former NFL tight end then assured Walsh that, regardless of the judge’s decision, he was going to change.
When the judge returned, he called Ramson’s name and told him to approach the bench. Ramson said that he took a deep breath, got up, and walked to the front of the courtroom. “With great clarity,” he remembered, “The judge looked at me, and he had a smirk on his face. He said, ‘Mr. Ramson, based on the things I’ve heard today, the court is inclined to give you another chance.’ But then he stood up from his seat and he looked down at me with this mug on his face and he said ‘Mr. Ramson, get some help.’ ”
That same day, with the judge’s words in his mind and a sincere desire to “pay it forward” for Bill Walsh’s kindness and care, he returned to his cell and started to write recovery homes. Shortly afterward, he received an acceptance letter from one of them — Walden House — and upon release from San Quentin State Prison, he took public transportation directly to that San Francisco treatment center.
“That is when it was time for me to get clean and do the work. I was humble. I surrendered. I surrendered by recognizing I don’t know how to do life without drugs. I asked for help.”
In addition to getting clean, Ramson’s treatment included sessions called “catharsis”— through which he finally discovered that his internal anger stemmed from a seed of resentment for his father — planted through his inability to show the love, affection, and encouragement Ramson so desperately needed as a child. “I was also taught forgiveness. And with forgiveness, I was able to let go of resentments. When I was able to let go of resentments, the pain and the weight I was carrying went off my back.”
Although his father passed away while Ramson was still in prison, he later researched his father’s background, and found that “His daddy treated him the same way. It was learned behavior. He was the best father he knew how to be to me. And when I was able to learn that, I let go.”
Shortly after entering Walden House, during an activity called “Walk to the Park,” Ramson’s path serendipitously crossed with that a former San Quentin inmate with whom he had previously shared his story and his desire to change. Ramson had expressed that he was particularly interested in working with youths, and it so happened that this man shared his passion and was now a Director at the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center — an institution focused on helping troubled youths.
“He said, ‘You come see me!’ ” Ramson remembered, and a few days later, Ramson met with the director and had an in-depth conversation about his desire to “pay it forward” by helping youths in need. When the conversation came to an end, Ramson asked “So what do I have to do to set up an interview?” “You just did,” replied the director, and offered him an entry level position.
“I was working with truant youths. I was a case manager — helping them turn their lives around. Things started to progress for me. I started to design programs and I moved up to a director position,” recalled Ramson of his newly budding career. Word of his positive transformation was spreading, and through another chance meeting with an individual who had watched him play in the NFL, he was offered yet another position in transitional services with San Francisco Sheriff's Department. This position, however, served to reaffirm Ramson’s original belief that his true calling was to help inspire and motivate truant youths, and he continued to pursue this passion at Ella Hill Hutch Community Center for eight years. During his time at Ella Hill, he built an incredible reputation within his field and the community.
One individual who knew of Ramson’s reputation and with whom he had established an excellent rapport was YMCA Executive Director Gina Fromer. When funds became available to develop a program that would forge a partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District and provide truant youths with a school intended specifically for them, she gave Ramson a call and asked if he would be interested in designing the program.
Ramson eagerly pursued this opportunity, and went to work building the program from the ground up. And when it came time to name the program — with the kindness and care Bill Walsh had shown him still in mind -- Ramson new exactly what to call it: CARE — Center for Academic Reentry and Empowerment.
Today, after nearly 10 years as the director of the CARE program, Ramson comes routinely to his office at the Bayview YMCA — whose walls proudly display letters of encouragement from Bill Walsh; the pivotal acceptance letter from Walden House; numerous awards, including a “Local Hero” award from KQED, and the Jefferson Award; as well as memorabilia from his NFL career, such as his white framed #80 49er’s jersey, and joyful pictures of the many youths whose lives he has helped to change.
As the day begins, he welcomes a young lady who is behind on her credits for an “Exploratory” interview, in which they explore the possibility that the program might help her as it has done for so many struggling students. Upon meeting Ramson, his impressive physique and 6-foot, 3-inch, 235 pound frame may strike youths as a little overwhelming; but as soon as they engage in dialogue, a man of genuine kindness, concern and compassion is revealed.
On his left hand, Ramson still sports the striking Super Bowl XVI ring which he once pawned for drug money, but was later returned to him by the shop owner who graciously held onto it for him, and it now continually brings Ramson a feeling of gratitude — not only for his eventual success, but for those who supported and believed in him in his time of need.
It is this feeling of gratitude that compels Ramson to “pay-it-forward,” and he does so not only through the CARE program, but also through his nonprofit, “Pros and Cons for Kids.” In his workshops, he teaches youths, step-by-step, how to “trust their “feeling center” and equips them with “Ramson’s Playbook” so that they can handle the same peer influence to which he was subjected, and help to avoid the path of addiction and drug abuse to which he was led.
Ramson’s own addiction is now far behind him, and he has been clean and sober for 17 straight years by maintaining a healthy balance. As he explained, “I maintain a healthy balance — mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally — daily.” This routine includes preparing five nutritious meals each day and adherence to a strict exercise regimen — alternating between weightlifting and cardiovascular workouts.
When Ramson’s quest for this healthy balance began, and his battle with substance abuse and anger had finally come to an end, he also vowed to become a better father. So when his youngest child, Taylor, was just an infant, as her father, he was embarking upon a new chapter in his life and had just begun to take parenting classes.
Ramson now has a wonderful relationship with his daughter who is presently 19 years old, and is currently a student at San Francisco State University. With a GPA of 3.5 and the loving support of her father, she is well on her way to achieving her goal of becoming a doctor.
Although Ramson describes his relationship with his two sons — Ramson Jr. and Joshua — as “distant,” he has made an effort to reach out to both of them and has been in communication with them. “I can only hope, over time, things will continue to progress and get better,” he said.
Because of the individuals who showed Ramson that they genuinely cared during the most difficult time in his life, a sense of hope and purpose was restored in him. Indeed, things have continued to progress and get better, not only in his own life, but in the lives of those he has influenced. Today he continues in his commitment to “pay it forward” to youths by showing them the same care he was shown, and in doing so, has started a new cycle of encouragement, trust, and compassion.