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‘They Did Everything, But Nothing Could Ever Save Him’

The excruciating struggle to break Colt Brennan’s endless cycle of addiction: drinking and drugs, arrests and alienations, apologies and promises. Repeat.

Colt Brennan’s parents were in Mexico for a wedding on a Saturday in early May when they started worrying about him again. A friend who fed their pets while they were away had been surprised to find a backpack in their foyer and heard music coming from somewhere inside the house. Colt’s parents called and texted him. He didn’t answer.

That Sunday, Colt’s last day alive, Betsy and Terry Brennan flew back to their home in the hills above Orange County, where a sign by the door announces ALOHA! Inside, they heard noise coming from the kitchen and found their 37-year-old son sprawled across a small sofa. Drunk and high, watching TV, he was surrounded by two bottles of vodka, some beer cans and several nitrous oxide containers.

Betsy groaned. Not again.

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Colt, one of college football’s all-time great quarterbacks—and one of the game’s truly beloved figures—had struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction. He tried everything to get sober, and then, recently, seemed to get there. To those close to him, in the few months before his parents returned, he appeared as healthy as he’d been in a decade.

Back in Irvine, though, Terry guided Colt to his SUV and drove off. Father and son didn’t speak. The silence felt like a scream. Overwhelmed with emotion, Terry wanted to cry, to “kick his ass,” to hold his son—to do whatever he could to stop the thing that kept driving Colt back to this. The sun was setting. Terry didn’t know where to go or what to do. He wondered, as so many addicts’ parents and families and friends have at some point, maybe many times over: Is this ever going to end?

Statistically speaking, Colt Brennan’s getting sober would have been an aberration, not the norm. Twenty-two million Americans have active substance abuse disorders. Only 10% get help. And of that group, only 10% stay sober after finishing a treatment program. While that’s a lot of people getting sober, there are tens of millions more who remain addicted. In 2020, the number of U.S. deaths by drug overdose hit an all-time high: 93,331.

But Colt had seemed to be doing well. He was four months into a five-month program where a reported 64% of graduates stay sober, and he believed he finally had a sense of what caused his addiction, and why it was so damn hard to stay clean. Much of it came down to one thing: “pain,” says a friend from that program. “Heartache. Misery. Feeling alone in the world. Specific traumas and feelings that you don’t want to talk about until you get the strength.”

In a journal he began writing during his last few months alive, Colt said he believed that he wasn’t addicted to any substance in particular, but to what any given drug might provide him: “Escape.”

Colt had been a happy kid with a big heart; one who loved hard—“so passionate,” says his older sister, Carrera. He loved animals, especially Poncho the family beagle. He loved In-N-Out, always ordering fries, a Coke and the off-menu “3x3” burger. And he loved the man he called “Papa”—Boyd Jefferies, the father of Betsy’s first husband. On Papa’s ranch in Aspen, Colt rode horses, fired guns and camped under the stars. Papa took Colt on a cattle drive once, guiding a herd from Utah to Colorado, and later Colt, weighing his whole life, filled pages of his journal with story after story about the man who taught him to trust himself. Who braved hurricanes to save sea turtles in St. Martin, and tipped waiters hundred-dollar bills, and one day, in Anguilla, decamped for hours with Colt at a beach shack, musing on island life, listening to Bob Marley and drinking beer. “He would inspire into me that life was all about experience to the fullest,” Colt wrote. “He was the most influential relative in my life.”

All of that, and he loved football. He went to his first game when he was 3, in a full Los Angeles Rams uniform, watching a cousin play for Mater Dei High in Orange County, running around the field afterward and begging Terry to buy him the stadium. By 4 he was a Monday Night Football obsessee. Show-and-tell was always about the sport. His teachers would call his parents and say, “He’s doing great—but we gotta get off the subject of football.” And his passion for the game made him great at it. At Mater Dei himself, as a junior, Colt backed up future Heisman winner Matt Leinart. Named the starter his senior year, he couldn’t wait for Papa to see him play.

Brennan was football-obsessed as far back as his parents can remember.

Brennan was football-obsessed as far back as his parents can remember.

That never happened. Shortly after the beach day in Anguilla, two weeks before Colt’s senior season began, Papa suffered a fatal aortic aneurysm.

Mater Dei started 1–3 as Colt bounced passes off the ground. Nothing felt right. His head pulsed, as if a broken heart had bruised his mind. College recruiters lost interest. He graduated, spent a year at a Massachusetts prep school and walked on at Colorado, three hours from Papa’s old ranch, where Colt thrived on the Buffaloes’ scout team until he drank too much one night and made some catastrophic decisions. According to a police report, he entered the dorm room of a female student he knew. She said he exposed himself and forced himself on her until he was interrupted by her roommate. He was later arrested.

As the legal process played out over the course of a year, Colt moved back home with Betsy and Terry in Irvine and played for Saddleback Community College.

A charge of unlawful sexual contact was ultimately dismissed, but felony first-degree trespassing and second-degree burglary charges were not, and Colt was sentenced to 60 hours community service, seven days in jail and four years of probation. He was a convicted felon, and would be all his life. He served his sentence over spring break, one night sharing a cell with a man who’d been convicted of attempted murder. “He never really got over [that incident],” Carrera says. “It weighed on him a lot. It kind of haunted him.”

He would get a shot to move forward. Hawaii coach June Jones was watching film of a Saddleback receiver when he noticed Colt’s mobility and gunslinging accuracy. Reminded of a young Dan Marino, Jones offered up a walk-on spot. And Colt—in love with Hawaii’s run-and-shoot offense, and seemingly born for island life—made the most of this second chance. He proved nimble and electrifying, more than capable of tucking and running for quick gains; and he was a brilliant passer, throwing with a fluid, snappy, almost-casual side-arm.

As a junior he set a single-season NCAA record with 58 passing touchdowns, leading pundits to project him as an early-round NFL draft pick. Then he shocked everyone by saying he wasn’t ready to leave Hawaii yet. “I’m so grateful for this place,” he gushed about his adopted home.

In 2007 he became Hawaii’s first Heisman finalist (he finished second), and he led the Rainbow Warriors to their first undefeated season and first BCS bowl game. In the end, he walked away with 31 NCAA passing records, including 131 career passing touchdowns. On the islands, says Davone Bess, Colt’s primary receiving target, he was treated “like a rockstar.”

His engagement schedule eventually grew so full that he needed an assistant. He gave motivational speeches at schools and at juvenile detention centers, about making good choices and growing from bad ones; and he helped promote local businesses. “He always did everything for everybody else. … He just wanted to make everybody really happy,” says Jacky Bruder, who got Colt to help out with his lifestyle and apparel brand, Barefoot League, and volunteer for the youth football team he sponsored. “In Hawaii, his legacy will always live because of what he did for us.”

Along the way, Colt even found love with a local girl named Shakti Stream, a fellow student who’d been raised in the jungles of Kona, the Big Island. He seemed happy.

But Carrera saw hints of trouble. When her brother would visit, he’d start most days smoking weed; and when they drank together, he’d always “go next level,” she says. He told her he felt traumatized by what happened in Colorado. Anything good, he said, could turn to pain. “He just never seemed comfortable being sober,” Carrera remembers.

In his final season at Hawaii, Colt hurt his hip and his ankle, and he suffered at least one concussion. His draft stock dropped and Washington scooped him up in the sixth round, only to discard him after two years, following two hip surgeries, two knee surgeries, and not a single regular-season snap. The Raiders signed him in 2010 … and released him a month later. One source with knowledge of Oakland’s dealings around that time says that coaches had already picked up on Colt’s budding struggles with addiction.

Brennan's Hawaii totals: 14,193 passing yards, with 131 TDs.

Brennan's Hawaii totals: 14,193 passing yards, with 131 TDs.

Waiting for another bite, Colt moved back to Kona with Shakti, where they lived without electricity on Hualalai, an active volcano. “A simple but incredibly fulfilling lifestyle,” Colt wrote. “[We] seemed content and happy.”

In so many ways, the morning of Nov. 19, 2010, captured that. Colt and Shakti woke up and went to yoga at 5:30 a.m. They shared a coconut with their teacher and headed off to play volleyball. On the way, they stopped for breakfast, then Shakti drove her Toyota 4Runner while Colt ate—and as he browsed through pictures on her phone, Shakti said she wanted to show him a video. She took the phone, scrolled, tapped.

And then Colt woke up a week later, an island away, in Queens Hospital on Oahu.

According to the accident report, Shakti had drifted into oncoming traffic and hit a car at 60 mph. Everyone survived, but Colt broke an eye socket, a leg, a collarbone and every rib on the left side of his body. (One passenger in the other car ended up in a coma for a week.) As the 4Runner rolled, his skull cracked against the door frame, leaving his brain with six hematomas. And that was just the physical damage. The real pain would manifest in a new inability to simply move through life.

Back in Irvine, at his parents’ home, Colt recovered—but “everything I once was,” he wrote, “disappear[ed].” Sleepless and struggling to cope, he was prescribed Trazodone, an antidepressant and sleep aid. He tried going without it, but quickly he was in the drug’s grasp, and with that came extreme mood swings. He relocated to Phoenix, stayed with a cousin and tried to resume training. His cousin remembers that he was highly temperamental, and he stayed out all night, smoking and drinking heavily. “He was a mess,” Carrera says. Finally, she called Betsy: “This is it. He needs to go someplace.” Terry flew out to Phoenix and found Colt drunk in his room, which he'd never cleaned, and took him back to Southern California.

Colt checked into a rehab facility in Malibu, cleaning himself up enough to draw interest from the CFL and the Arena Football League, but he couldn’t pass a physical. Brain scans showed too much damage from the wreck. Doctors told him he’d never play again—and if the first crash had wracked his body, this assessment was a car crash for his soul.

He tried starting a new life. He moved to rural Oahu and bought a home with a wrap-around deck and views of the Pacific. His backyard was lush with jungle—“like Jurassic Park,” Betsy remembers. But nothing stuck. He blamed Shakti for everything he’d lost, pushing them apart. He abused pain pills and cocaine, but his consistent vices were booze, weed and, especially, nitrous oxide, which he inhaled from small canisters to experience brief states of euphoria. “When I’m having rough times and I want to get away, I hit that and I [disappear] from any problems,” he wrote. “Immediate high is what I’m addicted to.” It gave him “escape, physically and mentally.”

Colt’s legs, ravaged by neuropathy, were deteriorating, and he started using a cane. But, like the Trazodone, he resented the crutch and tried to go without it. He’d lurch one leg forward and drag the other behind, trip and fall, and awkwardly haul himself up. “It hurt to watch,” Betsy says.

In 2017, after one binge in Orange County, Colt collapsed in a hotel hallway and was rushed to the ER, where doctors found blood clots on his spine. Shakti stuck around through nine more months in the hospital, but after his release she’d had enough.

Colt returned to Hawaii and the cycle restarted: physical rehab, addiction treatment, regular meetings with a psychiatrist and a therapist. He even coached some youth football, giving him a sense of purpose, a way to feel useful. “I did well for some time,” he wrote—and in that his family saw hope. When they spoke on the phone, Colt laughed more, made them laugh.

Then the football season ended, “and my purpose diminished,” he wrote.

Colt was trapped in a loop: drinking and drugs followed by arrests and alienation and, ultimately, some catastrophe, the fallout leading to tearful apologies and promises of change; followed by a stretch of sobriety that gave everyone hope; followed by the inevitable relapse that started the whole thing over again.

“Going back to the dark side,” Terry calls it.

“Going down the rabbit hole,” says Betsy. “It’s like he would sabotage himself.”

They let him move back home, but even when Colt appeared clean, he kept them on edge. He made noise at all hours of the night and didn’t clean up after himself. Betsy and Terry were nervous that he’d leave a door open and the pets would get out and they’d be eaten by coyotes. They tried banning him from the house, tried lying to him about when they were around.

A sixth-round pick in 2008, Brennan spent two years in Washington and one with the Raiders, who saw what was coming.

A sixth-round pick in 2008, Brennan spent two years in Washington and one with the Raiders, who saw what was coming.

“You can’t stop worrying,” Terry says. “You don’t sleep well. You don’t function when you’re under this kind of thing. … It was all so exhausting. One thing after another after another. It was just this constant—”

“—turmoil,” Betsy finishes.

“Turmoil and chaos.”

“He was on this merry-go-round,” Betsy says, “and it was like he kept pulling us onto it with him.”

When anyone tried to pull him off, he’d lash out and accuse them of stealing his money, or of not really loving him. Carrera ignored his calls and texts; his younger sister, Chanel, blocked his number. They knew he wasn’t being himself, but his words, and the strain he put on his parents, hurt. “They did everything, but nothing could ever save him,” says Chanel. “It was so exhausting and stressful.”

“You get so tired, so worn out,” says Terry. “Like: Man, it’s just been this, for years.

Betsy had to distance herself from it all in order to manage her other responsibilities, namely her job helping run a company that sold time and attendance systems. Terry half-retired from his realtor work, such were the demands of guiding his son. He managed Colt’s bank account and credit card bills and doctor appointments, regularly flying to Hawaii to help out. And Colt whipsawed back and forth between tearfully promising he’d get better and going back down the rabbit hole, to the dark side.

Terry, at one point, looked into setting up a conservatorship, but his lawyer warned against it. The Brennans tried counselors, healers, self-help gurus. Some advised them: Colt has to find rock bottom, lose everything, live under a bridge. But that just didn’t seem right to Terry.

“You just keep thinking: O.K., this is it—this is when the lightbulb is gonna come on,” he says. “You hear about [that] happening for other people, so you just keep doing all you can do.”

Colt, for his part, tried rehab, brain therapy, Alcoholics Anonymous and inpatient programs. He read self-help books and went to a renowned brain-treatment center in Bakersfield. “He was always searching for some way to heal,” says Carrera. “For some way to get better.”

But even Colt seemed to acknowledge the hopelessness of it all, writing in his journal: “I always felt I couldn’t grasp what I needed to do to give my life purpose.”

On went the cycle. A DUI around Christmas in 2019. Multiple stints in Southern California detox facilities and treatment centers. A 60-day inpatient treatment center in Kona. Colt lined up a coaching job, and another at a golf course—but then COVID-19 hit and those jobs disappeared. Reset. By the fall of 2020 he wasn’t speaking to his family. He bounced from apartment to apartment, then to a hostel with a drug dealer, where he was arrested twice in two weeks, for getting in a fight and for disturbing the peace. The incidents made the news in Hawaii and a Facebook group formed, “Ohana For Colt,” with fans reminding the old QB how much he was loved on the islands.