Saving Grace

Two friends, linked through alcohol, face the consequences of their actions and seek redemption.

This is a story about two good Catholic boys, Sam and Michael, who grew up near Cleveland.

Each settled in Akron, the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous. That is important to their story.

You might think they're nothing alike. Sam is a humble man, short and slight with dark hair, a proud Italian-American. Michael is tall, thick-chested and redheaded, a rowdy, robust Irish-American.

Yet alcoholism will bind them forever.

Their gifts for gab helped each become local legends. Michael became Akron's baddest rock radio personality — and a drunk. Sam became a priest who saved hundreds of lives, including Michael's.

Today Michael lives with his lovely wife and 5-year-old son in a 3,000-square-foot home in Hudson. Sam is free on bond, awaiting a prison sentence.

But this is not a story about injustice. It's a story about love.

Sam is the Rev. Sam Ciccolini. Father Sam. He began his life's mission in 1970 when he founded the Interval Brotherhood Home, a rehab facility in Coventry Township, near Akron's south side, where he grew up.

If you were a drunk or a drug addict, Father Sam offered you help. If you were successful and sober, he persuaded you to help those who weren't. Even the pope noticed.

"You do the work of Christ," Pope John Paul II said to him at the Vatican in 2000.

Michael arrived in Akron from Cleveland around 1979. He had played football at St. Ignatius High but loved theater even more. Akron provided him the stage of his life. He morphed into the character he'd play for three decades: Matt Patrick, morning mouth on WKDD-FM.

It was a grand performance for a while. No. 1 among those prized 18-to-35-year-olds. Six-figure income. Mercedes. Power boat. Two daughters. Several marriages.

But Michael carried the alcoholic gene. It killed his father, who died of cirrhosis at 52. And by the end of the '90s, Matt Patrick's act was on a high wire. He was divorced again, from his children's mother. The bar he owned in Stow went under as he drank away the profits.

He blamed everyone else. His days began with a swig of vodka at 3:30 a.m. During his 6 a.m. show, he hid a bottle in his briefcase. After work, he headed for a nearby bar. He didn't get drunk. He became numb.

Still, he hid it from almost everyone. Except Father Sam. Father Sam knew a drunk when he saw one. By then he had seen thousands. Cured many of them. Buried more than a few.

Michael and Sam met when Matt Patrick volunteered to help with IBH fundraisers. Good PR for the disc jockey. But maybe it was more than that. He needed Father Sam's help. Finally, he confessed to him.

"He never judged me," Michael says. "There was just something about that guy that was comforting. You felt he knew he could help you."

In 2001, the rock jock met someone else who wanted to help him — a young woman named Paula, who saw Michael, not Matt Patrick. "She held a mirror up to me and made me see that there was still someone good inside there," he says.

They married a year later. They moved into a Hudson neighborhood lined with two-story colonials and well-fertilized lawns.

There, he was Michael. He mowed the lawn. He bought a dog. He got counseling. He and Paula had a son. He told Paula he'd quit drinking. He hadn't.

On Nov. 22, 2005, Paula called the Hudson police. Michael was drunk, belligerent, out of control. The police took him to the city's new jail, where Matt Patrick had emceed the official opening.

So the night before Thanksgiving, he sat alone in a motel room in Streetsboro, like in a country music song, ready to put the bottle to his head and pull the trigger.

Instead, he called home and talked to Paula.

"Father Sam is here," she said. "Do you want to talk to him?"

Michael knew the calming message he'd hear.

"God loves you," Father Sam had always told him. "Paula loves you. I love you."

But he couldn't talk to Father Sam that night. He hung up the phone on Paula, cried himself to sleep.

Thanksgiving Day, he went home. He called Father Sam a couple days later. Father Sam convinced him to enroll in an outpatient program in Cleveland.

He was Matt Patrick on the radio, Michael the recovering alcoholic the rest of the day.

"I still wanted a drink real bad," he says. Yet it seemed almost every time the urge became unbearable, his cell phone would ring. "And damn, it would be Father Sam."

Michael stopped drinking. He and Paula made up. They moved to an even bigger house. He began rebuilding his relationship with his teenage daughters.

His radio career took off in a new direction -- conservative talk show host on WKDD's sister station, WHLO. He'd play music for the kids until 9 a.m. then bash Obama until noon.

But not so fast. The story's not done. Life is messy.

Last October, management at WKDD-WHLO announced it would not renew his contract. After 30 years, his last show was Dec. 18, the day after his 51st birthday. "Thank God I was sober then," he says.

Now, after filling in on WTAM and other stations, he's heading off to a new radio gig in South Bend, Ind. "God is driving the bus," he says. "I'll see where it takes me."

His career shock was nothing, though, compared to the news that unfolded this summer.

On July 23, the Rev. Sam Ciccolini, 68, pleaded guilty to evading bank regulations and filing a false tax return. Between April and June of 2003, he made 139 cash deposits at local banks, totaling $1,038,680 — all to avoid regulations requiring banks to report deposits of $10,000 or more. Father Sam told the court that the money came from his salary, gifts and bequests. The cash was "my way of having some security."

His sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 8.

Michael doesn't know what to think. But he knows how Father Sam would have advised him.

"He obviously did something wrong, and he will have to pay the consequences, like we all do," Michael says. "That's what I learned from him. You have to face the consequences of your actions."

But nothing, Michael says, will change what Father Sam has done for him and thousands of others like him. He gave them hope and faith that their stories could have a different ending.

"He, and Paula, saved my life. I will always love him," Michael says. "Always."

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