by Jenni Carlson (The Oklahoman)
Reggie Whitten shows pictures of his son to strangers.
He tells them stories about him, too. How he was such a happy boy with these big brown eyes and this ever-present smile. How he became an All-American kid in high school, a football standout and the homecoming king. How he planned to go to law school, then come home and practice alongside his dad.
But he also tells them stories about how his oldest son, Brandon, started mixing pain killers and alcohol.
How he became a different person when the drugs changed his brain chemistry.
How he died.
As a successful trial lawyer in Oklahoma City — he once won a class-action lawsuit resulting in a $130 million verdict — Reggie has built a career out of making sense of situations. He researches and rationalizes, then comes up with a plan of attack.
When his son died, he didn’t know what to do.
“I didn’t have the luxury,” he said, “of dying.”
His pain became his motivation. He never wanted another parent to suffer what he suffered or another family to endure what his endured. He never wanted another addict to say “nobody ever warned me” like his son had told him.
The best way to do that?
Tell Brandon’s story.
Reggie has done so for nearly a decade, speaking to hundreds of groups and sharing with thousands of people. It is an adventure that started in one of the saddest corners of Africa where he found one of the happiest places in the world. He became friends with the likes of Adrian Peterson, Gerald McCoy and Curtis Lofton, then became a role model for them. He dug for fossils in Nebraska and camped with aspiring scientists in Utah. His charitable foundation has already provided opportunity for many, but at the heart of everything is Brandon’s story.
Every time Reggie tells it, he relives the most painful days of his life in the hopes that it might save someone else the same suffering.
“I don’t want to be doing anything that I’m doing really,” Reggie said, sitting in a conference room at his law offices, a Pros for Africa T-shirt, a Pros for Vets hat and picture books from ExplorOlogy’s trip to Nebraska and Native Explorer’s excursion to Utah spread across a table in front of him. “I would’ve liked to have had a normal life.”
This is his fate, a fate he has chosen.
Reggie grew up poor in Seminole. No one in his blue-collar family had ever been to college, but when he was in high school in the small town just east and south of Shawnee, he became the state debate champion.
That got the attention of David Boren, then the state representative from Seminole. He wanted Reggie to go to college, so he got a debate scholarship for him at Oklahoma Baptist University. No way Reggie would’ve been able to go otherwise.
He never forgot that.
Yet as he went to college, then to law school, he became immersed in his own world. He worked crazy hours. He built his law practice. He became a successful litigator, suing on behalf of insurance companies and becoming a wealthy man.
Then, he became a father.
Reggie loved being a dad. Brandon was always popular at school — he was homecoming king at Westmoore High in 1995 — but he had no bigger fan than his dad. Reggie admired the young man that his son was becoming. Brandon was a leader, a football player, a thinker, an All-American kid.
When Brandon went to Southwestern Oklahoma State in Weatherford to play football, Reggie believed his parenting job was done.
“There’s a point when … if you do it right, they morph into your friend in addition to being your kid,” Reggie said. “That’s what he had done. He had gotten old enough to where he was my buddy. He was really my best friend.”
Father and son talked about everything, Brandon leaning on his dad sometimes, Reggie returning the favor other times.
When Brandon decided he wanted to be a lawyer like Reggie, it only seemed natural. They would work together. Brandon would learn from his dad. Reggie would dote over his protègè. They had everything planned out.
“I figured he’d live down the street from me and have grandkids and all those things, you know?” Reggie said. “None of it came true.”
The call from the hospital came after midnight.
Brandon and his girlfriend had been driving on Interstate 40 when his car went off the road, flipping and landing upside down in a creek. They were suspended from their seatbelts, and both nearly drowned in the murky water.
Brandon was in bad shape — doctors worried that he might lose his right arm — but even though his girlfriend had to be intubated, she didn’t have a scratch on her. She was sitting up, writing on a tablet when Reggie first saw her, so his worry focused most on Brandon.
That was only amplified when he discovered the reason for the accident: Brandon had taken prescription drugs and chased it with alcohol.
The truth was, he’d been taking prescription drugs with alcohol chasers for years. He told his dad that he started at Southwestern; football teammates took the mix when they were in the weight room. Brandon said they told him it helped them cope and convinced him it was just part of the training.
Brandon became addicted.
“I had no clue,” Reggie said. “This kid showed no signs of being an addict. If Jesus Christ had come down and said, ‘Reggie, he’s an addict,’ I would’ve never believed it.”
Reggie was reeling, and things only got worse. Six weeks after the accident, both Brandon and his girlfriend were still in the hospital. He was improving. She was not. She had contracted a staph infection and was deteriorating.
Finally one day, her mom called Reggie and told him to bring Brandon to her daughter’s room. The kids needed to say goodbye.
As soon as they saw each other, both started crying. They hugged. They talked.
A few hours later, she died.
“And he was never the same after that,” Reggie said of Brandon. “It just killed him.”
Brandon needed help.
Reggie knew nothing about addiction. When he was growing up, the worst thing kids did was drive out to a deserted country road and drink beer.
Doctors and friends told him to send Brandon to a rehab facility. Reggie settled on a 30-day program.
“My god, that’s a long time,” Reggie thought. “Thirty days will fix anything.”
It didn’t fix Brandon.
The next three years were a roller coaster of sobriety and relapse. On Valentine’s Day, 2002, the entire family gathered for dinner. Brandon was doing better, and Reggie remembers him helping load sister Hannah into her car seat, then making plans to watch the Bedlam basketball game together the next night.
But around noon that day, Brandon called to say he wasn’t going to be able to make it.
Reggie realized that Brandon was slurring his speech ever so slightly. That meant he was drinking again, and because he only drank when he took prescription drugs, that meant he was using again.
“You can’t keep doing this,” Reggie told him, using the tough-love approach others had encouraged. “You’re killing your mother. You’re killing me. You’re killing your siblings. We’ve been through three years of this. If killing your girlfriend wasn’t the bottom, I don’t know what is.”
Brandon began to cry on the other end of the phone.
“You’re going to end up killing yourself,” Reggie said, “and when you do that, I’m going to die. You know that.”
“Dad,” Brandon said, “I would never hurt you.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m at Chili’s.”
“Chili’s in Edmond?”
“OK. You wait right there. I’ll be right there.”
“Dad … “
Reggie hung up, not wanting to hear any objections. He left his downtown office at Leadership Square, but when he arrived at Chili’s, Brandon wasn’t there. Reggie drove all around Edmond looking for him, finally heading toward his house in Oak Tree.
When he pulled into the neighborhood, there were emergency vehicles everywhere. A mangled motorcycle lay in the street in front of Brandon’s pick-up.
“Oh, my god,” Reggie said, “Brandon has killed some poor kid on a motorcycle.”
What Reggie didn’t realize was that the indistinguishable motorcycle was his. Brandon had been driving it while a buddy drove Brandon’s truck, and only a few doors down from Reggie’s house, Brandon had swerved off the street and smashed into a brick mailbox. Police estimated he was going about 65 miles an hour.
By the time Reggie got to the hospital, Brandon was dead.
“I held him, and I held the back of his head,” Reggie said. “The back of his head was just crushed in.”
Brandon was only 25 years old.
“He didn’t want to hurt me,” Reggie said, voice straining and eyes reddening. “He couldn’t help it.”
Reggie was a walking dead man.
Memories of his son haunted him. When Brandon would stay at Reggie’s house, he was always coming out of his bedroom and running into his dad in the small hallway. He was much taller and broader than Reggie, so his dad was forever making jokes about getting bumped into.
After Brandon died, Reggie would approach Brandon’s door and instinctively look up “knowing there was a pretty good chance I was going to run into him. It gave me the creeps. It was so sad.”
Even though Reggie, who was divorced at the time, went to work and took care of his three other kids — then 4, 9 and 16 — he wasn’t sleeping or eating. His weight dropped. His health deteriorated.
“My friends were just watching me die,” he said.
Nine months after Brandon died, a couple of Reggie’s friends dragged him to Africa. He’d never been and really had no interest in going, but they knew that he had to get his mind off Brandon. One of the places they traveled was the St. Monica Girls’ Tailoring Centre in Uganda, a refuge run by Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe for women and children displaced by decades of civil unrest in the country.
Reggie met several of the children and heard some of their stories, stories of young girls being made sex slaves, stories of little boys being forced to do drugs then serve as child soldiers, stories of horrible and brutal atrocities.
Yet, there were so many smiles, so much laughter.
“What give me the right to feel sorry for myself?” he said. “Helping Sister Rosemary was like taking medicine. The more I helped her kids, the better I felt.
“It gave me a lifeline.”
When he returned home, it dawned on him that he’d never really extended a helping hand. He’d never done pro bono work. He’d never done community service. But what exactly should he do?
About that time, his teenage daughter, Crissy, asked him for some help. She had a friend who was struggling with drugs.
Would he tell her friend about Brandon?
Reggie was still in a fog, but he agreed to meet with the young man. Reggie remembers how sad he looked sitting across the desk from him, and yet, he had a feeling that Brandon’s story was resonating.
That’s when he realized what he should do — tell Brandon’s story to young people.
Reggie started speaking to any school or class or team that would have him. He talked about the peer pressure that turned Brandon from a leader to a follower. He talked about the brain chemistry that changed once Brandon started using and made him believe that he needed more to feel normal. He talked about how it all came to a terrible, horrible end.
You could hear a pin drop as Reggie told Brandon’s story.
Reggie founded Fighting Addiction Through Education, or F.A.T.E., an organization dedicated to educating people in Oklahoma about substance abuse and drug addiction.
But he didn’t stop there. He got involved a program that shows kids how fun science can be, two programs that expose minorities to everything from archeology to medicine, a program that works to reduce drug abuse in military veterans, a program that takes professional athletes to Africa to work with the same children who inspired Reggie on his first trip there.
The Whitten-Newman Foundation now serves as the umbrella organization for nearly a dozen programs.
“He doesn’t just fork out money; he’s hands on,” said Roy Williams, the former Oklahoma safety who has been to Uganda with Reggie and Pros for Africa. “I don’t think Reggie truly understands the impact he has. He has impacted so many people. He has done so much.
“It’s like a whirlwind.”
Reggie said, “I plead guilty to being obsessed with trying to help kids. I’ve taken sort of a shotgun approach.”
He is hitting his targets.
Reggie has no way of knowing exactly where fate will lead him next.
There are big plans for a drug-awareness program that focuses on athletes; Reggie wants to start in Oklahoma, then take it nationwide. There are plans to expand F.A.T.E.; its website now includes testimonials from the likes of Tommie Harris and Charles Howell III. There will be another trip to Uganda with Pros for Africa, more archeology digs with Native Explorers, even a fundraiser next week featuring handmade art from Africa.
But who knows what other opportunities might come along?
Everything, after all, always comes back to one simple yet devastating thing — Brandon’s story.
“We’re just hard wired to save our kids,” said Reggie, who now sues insurance companies instead of representing them. “I would’ve done anything (to save Brandon from his addiction). I think if I’d have known what to do, I could’ve done something different.
“You have no idea the guilt that I have.”
Still, he sees evidence of the power of what he has done every day. Sitting just down the hall in a small yet tidy office is Harrison Lujan. He is an associate lawyer at the Whitten Burrage Law Firm. He is tall, clean-cut, impressive.
He is the same young man who once sat on the other side of Reggie’s desk looking sad, the friend of Crissy’s who was having trouble with drugs, the first person who ever heard Brandon’s story.
“Reggie is a great influence on a lot of people,” Lujan said.
Reggie Whitten wishes he didn’t have to share the pictures and the stories and the pain of Brandon’s story. He wishes he could go back to the days when he thought drug addicts were bad people doing bad things, before he learned that drugs change the chemistry in people’s brains and make good people do bad things. He wishes he could be oblivious to the fact that prescription drug addiction is still growing at alarming rates in Oklahoma.
But he can’t go back.
He can only go on.
“Now, I just know — this is my fate,” he said. “This is my fate to try to get the word out. This is my fate to do this as long as I live.”