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The Heartbreaking Fall of Steve Sarkisian

There's no joy in the public disintegration of a man's life, even if that man coaches a hated rival. My heart goes out to Steve Sarkisian and everyone suffering from alcoholism.

Remember that these are human beings, not just football coaches.
Remember that these are human beings, not just football coaches.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Alcoholism is a disease. It's one of those things that we repeat so often that we're all deadened to the true meaning of it, like "in a pinch" or "a stitch in time" or the Our Father (admit it, your mind wanders sometimes). Yes, we get the general idea, but we parrot it thoughtlessly at each alcohol-related incident, often with a ruefully gentle shake of the head. Did you hear about that DUI yesterday? Yep, that alcoholism, it's a disease. Man. Anyway, pass the potatoes.

According to the Center for Disease Control, excessive alcohol use accounts for 1 in every 10 deaths of US adults aged 20-64. One in ten. How many of us can read that statistic and think, there but for the grace of God go I? Personally, I could well number among them - if not for the intervention of a few observant and caring people during my freshman year of college, my life might have taken a very different turn. My parents met in Alcoholics Anonymous (they make no secret of it, and I never have either); obviously they had their razor's edge moments, and knew many who rode that edge and fell to one side or the other. More recently, I've seen it claim the life of a close family friend who went far before her time and left many heartbroken people behind her.

Which brings us to the parallels in the terribly sad saga of Steve Sarkisian. A year ago today, Sark seemed on top of the world. He had recently been hired in one of the top jobs in his profession, that of head coach at the storied University of Southern California. He had a beautiful wife, three little children, money, and fame, and he had all of this while a mere 40 years old. His first year at the helm of the Trojans was rocky, but his exuberance was authentic and infectious. He seemed like a little kid living out his dream.

Unfortunately, that public image began to unravel very quickly. In April of this year, he and his wife issued a statement announcing their impending divorce; there were rumors of unfaithfulness during his time at Washington, rumors that gained new life with that announcement. In August, he took the microphone at an alumni dinner and slurred profane references to USC's rivals, later blaming the incident on an interaction between medication and alcohol. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin tweeted a reference to "Sark After Dark," ostensibly unintentionally, and the public stockade was on. I don't exempt myself here - I had a good laugh at it and repeated the line many times myself. Why not? Tipsiness is funny! Cutty Sark! Ha ha ha!

Except Sark was far beyond tipsy on the odd occasion. After USC's shocking upset loss to Washington on Thursday, Sarkisian was unexpectedly absent from USC's practice yesterday; USC responded to media inquiries by saying that Sarkisian was on an indefinite leave of absence, and now the feeding frenzy was on. Snippets of tales of past transgressions began to leak out of Heritage Hall with startling consistency - Sark was passed out on the plane back from Arizona State, his players had smelled alcohol on him at practice before, on and on the stories flowed. This was very interesting, primarily because none of these were things that happened over this weekend; his alcohol use must have been widely known at USC for some time. If the rumors are to be believed, it was likely common knowledge at Washington too.

What does that mean? We don't know. We don't know what went on behind the scenes. We don't know if USC is kicking him to the curb now in a vain attempt to save face, or if they have been trying to help him straighten out and have finally given up. Either is equally likely. We don't know how much Washington may have tried to help him out. What we do know, though, is this: Alcoholism is a disease. A deadly, cruel, unfathomably brutal disease that kills people and destroys lives. Sure, people make choices, but alcoholism is a psychological and physical disease that locks its victims in a hellacious grip and usually removes the element of choice. People often can't escape that grip on their own.

One in ten, man. One in ten. If you know the one, be concerned; have the difficult discussions with your friend that may save his or her life. If you are the one, please find the help you need to walk  the path that will lead you out of the darkness. And whoever you are, take no joy in the very public dissembling of Steve Sarkisian; rather, have sympathy for the man who has a long road ahead to piece his life back together. And the next time you hear a story about a drunk teenager running off the road or a 35 year old who dies of cirrhosis, go ahead and say that alcoholism is a disease - and be damned sure that you mean it.