Erik Ainge has found his calling. The irony is that it has everything to do with taking calls.
Now host of his own sports radio show based out of Knoxville, Tenn., Ainge has turned his back on the drug and alcohol abuse that marked not only his NFL career, but also his formative years.
Ainge, a fifth-round pick in 2008, spent three seasons with the Jets, primarily as a backup. He came to New York best known as the nephew of former NBA star Danny Ainge, but his selection in the NFL Draft was justified by an impressive college resume at Tennessee.
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The success he experienced in Knoxville, including throwing seven touchdowns in a 52-50 win over Kentucky in 2007 and winning the Outback Bowl as a senior, didn’t follow to the NFL. Ainge never stepped foot on the field for a regular season game during his three seasons with New York.
In June 2010, Ainge checked into rehab while still a member of the team and never put on a helmet and pads again.
“I still think about it every day; it doesn’t run my life. I’m not constantly sitting there, not trying to screw up,” Ainge said. “That’s something I don’t want to do again. The reason I got so bad off on drugs — it started from an injury. With my bipolar disorder, I was so depressed, I was so unhappy, it seemed like the only way to fix it. I’m a happy guy now.
“Getting to the point where you’re not a self-loathing person and don’t hate yourself as a person, that’s the hard part.”
There were times he wasn’t sure he would make it, overcoming a dependency on painkillers and drug and alcohol abuse that dates back to middle school.
It has been 18 months “clean and sober.”
“I didn’t think I’d make it at six months,” Ainge said. “I was close a few times to slipping up, but I didn’t. It’s progress, not perfection.”
His retirement last season due to shoulder and foot injuries has opened a door for Ainge to follow a new career on the Tennessee Sports Radio Network, an AM station in his college hometown. Ainge is hosting his own show, talking sports with a Volunteers twist and some NFL talk as well.
“It’s not a surprise he’s having the success he’s having. Erik would be a natural on the air,” former teammate Kevin O’Connell said. O’Connell was part of the Jets practice squad during the 2010 season and is now the Jets No. 3 quarterback. “He’s got that natural ability for it.”
Five days a week Ainge hosts the morning drive show and while his career in the media puts him in the spotlight and with a new focus, he won’t call it an addiction.
“One of the things I try to live by now is moderation now in everything. I started working out again, but I’m not going to go out a buy a bunch of supplements and work out three times a day, getting hooked on my body,” Ainge said. “I’m the guy now that when I set my mind to something, that’s what I do, 100 percent of the time.”
He’s had his former head coach with the Jets, Rex Ryan, on his show as a guest and he envisions someday doing television work as a color analyst, perhaps for SEC football. Ainge also is training young quarterbacks and makes frequent motivational speeches in the Knoxville area.
He fields calls from fans and gives the insight only a former player and quarterback can provide — “more than just what is wrong or what is right, I try to analyze it.”
Lessons have been learned, he readily admits, the hard way.
“My dream from the time I was a little kid was always to make it to the NFL. I didn’t dream about winning the Super Bowl or being a Pro Bowl quarterback or a starting quarterback. I just wanted to say that I was a professional athlete and that I could make it to the highest level you could make it to. Once I became a New York Jet, I became complacent,” Ainge said. “You can’t fake desire; that’s not something you can pretend. You either want it or you don’t. I didn’t want it.”
And now, Ainge wants it.
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.