After years of addiction and tragedy, former star recruit Zeke Pike is finding his way back

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Monday December 26th, 2016

Zeke Pike sat on the patio behind his home in Murray, Ky., and tried to work up the courage to kill himself. He held a 9mm pistol in his right hand. He hadn’t slept in three days; the amount of Xanax he’d consumed kept him in a fuzzy haze.

Pike was once an All-American quarterback at Dixie Heights High School in Northern Kentucky. For a brief time, he was compared to Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton at Auburn. Murray State was Pike’s last chance at redemption after dismissals from Auburn and Louisville, but an arrest on drug charges seven months before this March 7 morning ended his football career.

The shame and guilt of throwing away his athletic ability weighed on his conscience. A lingering drug habit had forced his parents, Mark and Sharon Pike, to cut him off financially. He hadn't spoken to them in months.

It’s better to be dead than alive, Pike thought. He switched the pistol off safety and raised it to his head. His heart raced and his mouth went dry.

“Lord, if you’re out there show me. If you’re out there help me. Give me some type of sign. Otherwise this is the end.”

He took a deep breath and shut his eyes. Then his phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number but answered it anyway. The voice on the other end needed a score, but Pike hung up. It was then that he decided he didn’t want his parents to find him on his patio with his head blown off. Instead, he’d drive his gray Ford F-150 to the backwoods of Murray—where he and a few friends used to shoot guns—and end his life there. It could take days for anyone to find him so deep in the woods, which is what Pike wanted.

He took more Xanax before getting in his truck. A baggie of cocaine rested in his pocket and he stashed more marijuana behind him. Pike was blacking out from the drugs as he turned onto South 16th Street. As he glanced into his rearview mirror, he saw blue and red lights flashing. He pulled the car over.

“Mr. Pike, can you step out of the vehicle?” the police officer asked.

It was Pike’s fourth arrest since 2012. He would spend six months behind bars, but in that moment, he couldn’t remember another time when he felt such relief. Zeke Pike knew he was not ready to die.

*****

Where did it go wrong for Zeke Pike?

Let’s start in a park. Pike was in his second year of seventh grade and most of his friends had moved on to eighth grade or high school. He struggled to fit in with his new classmates. Pike was with a friend when he saw a high school-aged kid he recognized smoking pot in President's Park. Pike tried the drug and instantly loved it. This, he thought, made him cool.

Pike continued to smoke weed and drink alcohol at parties through high school. Occasionally he’d try a pain pill. But it was on the football field where Pike made his name. He had the pedigree; His father Mark played 13 seasons as a defensive end for the Buffalo Bills and went to four Super Bowls. Zeke played defensive end until his junior season and then moved to quarterback, a perfect match from the start.

“A lot of schools that recruited (Zeke) loved that he wasn’t trained (at quarterback),” Mark Pike said. “He kinda had that skill set more naturally.”

Pike passed for 18 touchdowns and rushed for 17 more in his first season as starter. What followed were dozens of offers from college football royalty, and defending national champion Auburn stood out to Pike. Everyone knew the high school All-American quarterback when he visited The Plains.  

“I got caught up in being treated like a superstar,” Pike said. “I got caught up in girls. I would go out to eat and sign autographs. I would take pictures with babies. I was just treated like a rock star.”

Pike (left) arrived at Auburn touted as a potential successor to Cam Newton. He would never play a game for the Tigers.
Dave Martin/AP

Finally, Pike found the approval he’d longed for since he was 13. After committing to Auburn his senior year, fans told him he would be the next Cam Newton. Pike enrolled early and made it through his first semester without any trouble off the field. Almost.

On June 6, 2012, Pike spent the night drinking with some friends at the lake before heading with two teammates to the bars in downtown Auburn. The three were stopped by Auburn police around 1 a.m. after a night of drinking. Pike said there were no altercations—he admits he was “probably obnoxious”—but five minutes later he was handcuffed and booked for public intoxication.

The next morning, Pike was bailed out of jail by a coach while news of his arrest flooded social media. For the first time his life was exposed publicly. After a meeting with Auburn coach Gene Chizik, Pike never returned to Auburn.

“I really wasn’t ready for what I got myself into,” Pike said. “I didn’t adapt quickly. Everything from school to just the lifestyle. I didn’t handle it well.”

*****

Pike sought a fresh start and the University of Louisville offered it. He redshirted during the 2012 season and moved to tight end because future first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater was the starting quarterback. Pike finished with one reception in limited playing time during his freshman season.

It was off the field where Pike found happiness. He fell for Dani Cogswell, a cheerleader who transferred to Louisville from Arizona. She became Pike’s best friend. “We were really active,” Pike said. “We loved working out, going hiking. Really anything outdoors and adventurous.”

There was just one problem: Pike started using Xanax. In the beginning he took enough to catch a buzz before going out with friends. But after a few months Pike was addicted. Instead of one 2 mg Xanax bar he’d take two or three. It’s not just Pike; Cogswell also struggled with Xanax addiction. The two were together one night in 2013 when Pike drove home after taking Xanax. He blacked out on the way home and a telephone pole divided the car when he woke up. Miraculously, neither were injured.

“After I saw the car I just wanted to come and see that you were really alive,” The officer told them. “Neither one of you should be after seeing that car.”

Pike was charged with DUI and suspended from the team for the rest of the 2013 season. His name resurfaced in the media, and this time Pike read the headlines.

“I really am a screw up,” Pike said. “I really am a waste of talent. I really am blowing out. I started to believe those things.”

Chris O'Meara/AP

Pike was suspended at Louisville when coach Charlie Strong left for Texas, and he was not retained by incoming coach Bobby Petrino. Without football there was nothing to keep him from falling deeper into addiction. Xanax soothed the sting of scathing media criticism. Soon, Pike would frequently blackout, often unable to speak or function properly. His parents finally offered an ultimatum.

“You either go to treatment or you don’t come home and we’ll be done with you,” Mark Pike told his son.

Pike left for Sober College in California in March 2014 and after five months, was clean for the first time in eight years. Pike did so well in California that he could go home for around a week in July. “We had a great time,” Mark Pike said. “He was just Zeke again.” They spent the week golfing, bowling and riding roller coasters at nearby Kings Island. Cogswell spent most of the week with him. She was with the family two days before Pike was to travel back to California.

Cogswell planned to drive to Louisville to get clothes and go back to Pike’s house, but she decided to stay in Louisville that night and return the next day. Pike agreed to call her at 9:30 the next morning.

“I woke up at 9:33 and called her but she didn’t answer,” Pike said. “Dani always answered the phone even if she was sleeping. She would hear her phone and wake up, so I called her again and she didn’t answer. Then I called her again and she still didn’t answer.”

Concerned friends texted Pike to see if he knew of Cogswell’s whereabouts. One friend said police were outside of her home.

“I told my dad that we needed to go to Louisville because something inside me said something wasn’t right,” Pike said.

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His gut was correct. A police officer at the Louisville Police Department called Pike and informed him that Cogswell died from an accidental overdose. Heroin, amphetamines, marijuana and Xanax were in her body when she died according to toxicology reports, but heroin was the cause of her death. Cogswell’s death on July 28, 2014 occurs when Pike was slowly putting his life back together.

“That kind of was like ‘Man, my life is going great, why is this happening to me?’” Pike said. The pain was too much for Pike. He turned to marijuana for comfort, ending five months of sobriety.

*****

Pike received one last shot at football a year later when Murray State, an FCS program in Western Kentucky, offered him a scholarship to play quarterback. He stopped taking Xanax, but he continued to drink and smoke marijuana. In August 2015 he was arrested for another DUI, resulting in four days in jail. Murray State subsequently dismissed him from the program.

His father couldn’t take it anymore. Mark and Sharon supported their son financially his whole life, but now everyone outside the family advised cutting Zeke off. Zeke was Mark’s best friend, but how much pain can a father endure? “You get into this mode where all you want to do is protect,” the former Buffalo Bill said. “You just want to protect your son. You love your son so much and you see so much for him. I fell into the trap.”

For months the only relationship between the two was when Zeke needed money. But that stopped after Zeke’s arrest in August. He began to sell marijuana, cocaine and Xanax a few months later. Zeke also bought the pistol for protection. All the while Xanax had Pike in a stranglehold. He often sat alone and only left the house when someone paid him or he found a drug to make him feel better.

In March, Pike climbed into his vehicle and drove to the woods to end his life. He was arrested and charged with four felonies before he could get there. Pike’s first two days in jail were hellish as his body fought to remove the toxins from drugs out of his system. For seven straight hours he lied on the floor of an isolated jail cell, covered in his own feces and battling seizures every 10 minutes. On his third day in prison Pike was allowed to make one phone call. He phoned home and Sharon picked up.

“Your dad doesn’t want to talk to you,” Pike remembers his mom saying. “You got yourself there, you can figure out how to get yourself out.”

Photo by Michael Reaves

Where did it go right for Zeke Pike?

On a recent Wednesday afternoon in December, Pike sat in the conference room of his father’s gym and explained Number8 Ministries. He founded the ministry in October, just a month after he left prison. The name represents new beginnings.

“New beginnings are possible,” Pike said. “New beginnings can be created any day. You just have to choose to start a new beginning.”

Pike’s new beginning came in the Marion County Detention Center. He took the time to repair his relationship with God while incarcerated. He grew up in church and his grandfather, Harold, has been a baptist minister for 50 years. In prison, Pike, the youngest of 40 men in his block, wrote detailed sermons about his life and held bible studies for other prisoners.

“I was able to help a lot of people in there,” Pike said. “It was humbling. To be able to get away from the world for those six and a half months while I was in Marion was much needed.”

But when those six and a half months were over, Pike needed something that would keep him on the right track in his new life.

“That’s kinda how my ministry came about,” Pike said. “‘What am I going to do for the rest of my life that can help me remain accountable but give back to others and help others not have to suffer or go through the same things that I’ve gone through or make the same decisions that I’ve made?”

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Pike has shared his story with 12 Kentucky high schools to this point. He’s scheduled to travel to more schools in Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama in January. Pike’s message focuses on addiction, redemption and motivation. Cameron Racke, a quarterback at Simon Kenton High School in Northern Kentucky, heard Pike’s message earlier this fall.

“What stuck with me the most was just seeing him grow,” Racke said. “I was a little kid (in the area) and really looked up to him. He played quarterback just like me so it was pretty awesome to have him talk to our team. He told us ‘Don’t be like everyone else, just be yourself.’”

Pike has come to grips with how his football career ended. He wishes he understood the opportunities he was given, but said he was too young and immature to take advantage of them. Pike hasn’t totally ruled out playing again. He’s looked into options at the Division II level or perhaps trying for an NFL tryout, but if not he’s content in ministry.

“He’s found a purpose,” Mark Pike said. “Are you making a difference? That’s what it’s really all about. I think he gets that now. He gets that this was a hard road. But I feel that he clearly knows there’s a purpose for his life that’s bigger and better than anything football could have given him.”

Mark and Zeke recently closed on a house and plan to turn it into a sober living home where six to eight men will live. The name of the home, Zeke said with a smile, will be Dani’s House.

Derek Terry is SI's campus correspondent for the University of Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter.

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