Greg McNeil wasn’t prepared. His son Sam’s addiction to painkillers started in the emergency room after a New Year’s Eve brawl in 2007 and spiraled into a heroin addiction. But Sam was sober, holding a steady job as a sales leader and expecting his first child when he died from an overdose of fentanyl-laced heroin Oct. 23, 2015. He was 28.
The next day his family flew to Florida to settle his accounts and bring his body home. But a packed memorial service and a string of heartfelt eulogies halted their plans. McNeil didn’t plan a speech. So when he stood to thank the crowd, he muttered the words that set the stage for his son’s legacy.
“The words just came out,” he says. “I told everyone that we know how Sam passed, and we’re going to do something. We’re going to make a difference.”
The family returned to Twinsburg and started Cover2, a nonprofit that includes a podcast and online resources to educate families about opioid addiction, alternatives to painkillers, recovery and national programs to aid in the fight. The name Cover2 pays homage to Sam’s favorite NFL defensive alignment as well as the family’s tragic mistake.
“We thought we had this covered,” says McNeil. “We were woefully underprepared for this challenge.”
The podcast was a chance to change the narrative for other families and communities, he adds. “It’s like a second shot.”
In 2016, when he released the first podcast, McNeil was looking for answers: Why didn’t Sam’s treatment work? What improvements can be made? As he scoured for successful resources and tore through a two-podcast-a-week schedule of interviewing politicians, medical practitioners, people struggling with addiction and other experts, he was confronted with both the breadth of the epidemic and his shortsightedness.
“What we didn’t know is that relapse is a part of recovery. We didn’t realize it’s a lifelong battle. That it’s a brain disorder and a disease,” he says. “There are so many issues. It’s ever-expanding.”
In December, Cover2 expanded from an educational resource to a catalyst for change in Northeast Ohio. McNeil partnered with the County of Summit Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board and opioid task forces to host a workshop on quick-response teams and how to implement them.
In Hamilton County, for example, the public safety initiative pairs a police officer, firefighter and social worker. It decreased overdoses by 35 percent in one year by knocking on the doors of those who recently overdosed and offering assistance. The workshops produced 10 quick-response teams in Summit County.
Since then, McNeil has partnered with Drug Free Clubs of America to create high school clubs where students opt in for random drug testing. He’s also working with syringe exchange programs to provide test strips that detect fentanyl and help individuals with addiction change their habits. Whether it’s preventative or harm-reduction resources, McNeil emphasizes the need for support and compassion to keep people from becoming addicted and users alive until they’re ready for help.
“Sam was a giver,” says McNeil. “He wanted to do whatever he could to help others not go down that path. On a daily basis, I’m working with my son and I’m inspired by him.”
Powerful Cover2 Soundbite
Ep. 87: Increased Border Screening To Keep America Fentanyl Free, April 13, 2017
“All of us have heard far too many stories like Sam’s, where families struggle,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown. “That’s one of the reasons, I think, [for] what happened in the House of Representatives not too long ago on the Affordable Care Act repeal, why it collapsed their repeal effort. Because in our state alone, 200,000 people are getting opioid treatment right now who have the Affordable Care Act. We all realize that we can’t — and again, Gov. [John] Kasich and Sen. [Rob] Portman and I are in the same place — don’t repeal that ... without replacing it with something else.”