YAKIMA, Wash. -- For a long time, former CBS sportscaster Pat O’Brien thought he was a normal drinker.
But when normal drinkers would stop, he wouldn’t. His drinking escapades eventually led to public embarrassment when a decade ago voice mails he left seeking sex became public.
Although he sought help at the time, he continued to drink himself into oblivion. Then on Election Day in November 2008, he was found face down on a Nantucket beach after consuming 14 bottles of wine that day. He was taken to a hospital and eventually a substance abuse treatment facility, where he learned he was drinking himself to death.
That’s when the light came on, the 68-year-old said.
“I finally realized that I was in trouble and that I needed help,” he said in an interview Thursday morning in the lobby of the Hotel Maison in downtown Yakima.
He’s been sober for eight years.
O’Brien, best known for his work as a CBS sportscaster from 1981 to 1997, was the featured speaker at the annual Merrill Scott Symposium Thursday night at the Yakima Convention Center.
The symposium — sponsored by substance abuse treatment center Sundown M Ranch in Selah — is held annually in memory of the late Merrill Scott, known for his laborious work in providing substance abuse treatment in the Yakima Valley.
On Thursday morning, O’Brien met with a Yakima Herald-Republic reporter and photographer and offered a glimpse into his story.
He grew up in Sioux Falls, S.D., and remembered having a good childhood before embarking on a media career that landed him on the national stage. In addition to his work as a CBS sportscaster covering the Super Bowl and World Series, O’Brien was the anchor and host of “Access Hollywood” from 1997 to 2004, and “The Insider” from 2004 to 2008. He also worked for Fox Sports Radio, where he joined Steve Hartman and Vic “The Brick” Jacobs on the “Loose Cannons” show, which later was renamed “Primetime.”
But the career and the celebrity status that came with it, was a key factor in his alcoholism, he said.
“That’s part of it — you want more, more, more,” he said. “There’s no less to a celebrity. And you think you’re too big to fail.”
But in 2005, several sexually graphic voice mails seeking sex that he left on a woman’s phone became public.
O’Brien said he was in a blackout.
“I embarrassed myself — nobody got hurt — and I embarrassed my son,” he recalled. “How many people have done that? But it was my voice, and I realize that it was part of my drinking problem.”
He began seeking help, attending four rehabs. But he continued to drink.
About two years later, when he was found face down on a beach. It was his turning point.
“And I’m lucky I didn’t die; I almost died, he said. “My last few drinks were 14 bottles of wine in one day.”
He said he learned that recovering from alcoholism would be an inside job.
“If you want to get sober, it’s an easy process,” he said. “Staying sober is a little more difficult because it’s not just about the alcohol. It’s about the ‘-isms’. It’s about who you are, how you were raised when you were a kid, what happened last week, which girlfriend broke up with you, that sort of thing. So it’s all these personal problems, your inside problems that come into play.”
O’Brien found solutions in recovery, which allowed him to take a deep look inside himself.
“All you need to do is stop drinking, get to know yourself and figure it out,” he said. “For me, I had no choice. It was that or die. And I’ve got things to do.”
He said he works with other alcoholics, helping them to get sober and into recovery.
O’Brien said he jumped at the chance to speak here when asked by officials at Sundown M Ranch.
“They always say you have to give what you learn, give it back, so I speak a lot to recovering alcoholics who just got into the program,” he said. “I’m very interested in helping people with addictions, alcoholism, mental health.
“As long as I’m the poster boy for alcoholism, I might as well use it,” he added. “And I’m doing well. I’m eight years sober.”
But he’s careful not to tout his sober time too much, saying he takes it a day at a time.
“The world record is 24 hours, so there’s nothing special about being eight years sober,” he said. “If I can stay sober until tomorrow, I’ll be fine. And by the way, I will.”