New Castle News

December 14, 2013

High on Hope, Part 1: Former football star battles back from heroin overdose

Dan Irwin
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Doctors gave it straight to Red and Pat Shimrack: Say goodbye to your son.

No one, then, could have been more stunned than the Neshannock Township couple when weeks later, their youngest boy — 33-year-old Randy “Bear” Shimrack — looked at them from his nursing home bed as they entered his room and said, “Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad.”

“For the first time in my life, I was speechless,” recalled 71-year-old Red, a former police chief. “He was talking. We were in shock.”

It was something neither he nor his wife, a retired Wilmington High School secretary, could even begin to hope for months earlier.

On the night of Sept. 11, Randy — a first-team all-state pick at defensive end following his senior year at Sharon High School — was back in Sharon “chasing the dragon,” a term used to describe inhaling the fumes of heated heroin. When a friend was unable to wake him in the morning, Randy was rushed to the emergency room at Sharon Regional Hospital.

Eventually, he was transferred to Pittsburgh’s Allegheny General Hospital, where the Shimracks were told that their son was brain dead and was not expected to live through the night.

“They said his brain had absorbed it like a sponge,” Red recalled.

In addition, Randy’s liver and kidneys had shut down, and he needed the help of a ventilator just to breathe.

“They told us they’d seen three cases like this,” Red said. “One is now in a nursing home, and the other two are in the ground. If he did survive, he’d be on dialysis the rest of his life.

“When we met with neurology, it was like a wake. They told us don’t expect anything.”

But what doctors didn’t expect, the Shimracks say, was the amount of prayer that was being offered then and for the weeks that followed on Randy’s behalf. From as far away as North Carolina and New Orleans, friends and family were on their knees, and with each week of prayer that passed, Randy showed signs of battling back.

Though he remained in a coma, the Shimracks were told that hearing is the last sense to go, so Pat also reached back to Randy’s days of gridiron greatness to challenge her son.

“I would tell him, ‘Bear, it’s fourth and goal. You’ve got the ball. What are you going to do with it?’ ” Pat said. “He’d look at me, but I didn’t know if he understood what I was saying or not.

“But every time I went down, I was telling him, ‘It’s fourth and goal. What are you going to do?”

A week before Thanksgiving, Bear’s answer stunned them all.

ADDICTION

At age 18, things could not have looked any better for Bear Shimrack.

The 6-foot-4, 235-pound high school senior was a two-way star for the Sharon High Tigers, catching 26 passes for 548 yards and 12 touchdowns as a tight end and making 50 tackles, including nine for loss, at defensive end. In addition to the all-state team voters, he had caught the eye of New Castle native John Latina, now the assistant head coach at Duke.

In 1998, though, Latina was the offensive line coach at Clemson, and he had arranged for Bear to receive a full ride to play for Tommy West at the NCAA Division I school in South Carolina. But before Bear could matriculate, West was fired, and the school’s new coach compiled his own list of scholarship players.

When Bear ended up going to Slippery Rock instead, the lights already had begun to dim on what had seemed a bright future.

Red Shimrack recalled that his son had begun dabbling in alcohol and drugs while still in high school. The problem was exacerbated, he believes, by a back injury Bear suffered on the gridiron at Sharon, which left him relying on powerful painkillers such as Vicodin and Oxycodone, an opiate similar to heroin. While in college, Pat Shimrack said, Bear admitted that he smoked marijuana.

Eventually, his drug and alcohol problems earned him an invitation from Slippery Rock head coach George Mihalik to leave the team, Red lamented.

“We tried everything we could to help him,” Red said. “We had him in drug rehab.”

But that, Pat said, was far from helpful.

“It was the worst thing in the world for him, because that’s where he met people who taught him things he didn’t know before he went in,” she said. “He met a girl there, and she would shoot him up with heroin. We didn’t know that until afterwards.”

DISASTER

And the downward spiral continued.

Not only would Bear incur multiple brushes with the law as the years passed, but he also did not exclude his family from his attempts to find money to support his addiction.

“He’d steal from us,” Pat Shimrack said. “He’d pawn my jewelry, his wedding ring — anything to get money.”

Inevitably, jail entered the picture. Accused of taking $1,000 from a West Middlesex tavern where he was working, Bear pleaded guilty in November 2012 to theft by unlawful taking and criminal trespass. He was sentenced to at least 11 months behind bars, with credit for time served.

He was released Aug. 7 — Red’s birthday — and from all accounts, appeared to be reclaiming his life.

“He was telling his friends, ‘I think I have my life together. I’m really going to get straight,’ ” Pat Shimrack said. “Everybody was telling me, ‘He’s really looking good, and he’s giving himself a lot of encouragement.’ ”

Then came Sept. 11. Both Red and Pat talked to their son that day, and each came away feeling that something was not right.

“All he told me was that he was going to Sharon,” Pat said. “He was all dressed up, his hair looked good. I thought maybe he was going job hunting.

“I figured, he’s 33 years old, I don’t have to know where he’s going every minute. But I probably should have.”

(Coming Monday: A brush with the miraculous.)