Ex-Vanderbilt, NFL star kicks demons, helps others do same
By TIM GHIANNI Senior Writer
Willie, the shaggy poodle, wags while accompanying
the former Vanderbilt and NFL linebacker along the
river that meanders past the edge of what truly is
"He's a rescue dog," says Chip Healy. "We're all rescues here."
Chip allows that "faith led me" to this six acres along the Cumberland where men can begin to
reclaim lives lost to, or at least sidetracked by, addictions.
He brings personal experience to his ministry -- the nonprofit Transitional Living Inc. is better
known as "Chip's Place" -- directly across the river from the Titans football practice compound,
where younger men toil.
"Better them than me," he says, reflecting on the physical rigors of playing football. He knows that
firsthand. But he knows life can be much tougher. His 6-foot-3 frame carried 235 pounds in 1968
when he was a Vanderbilt All-American. He was 240 during his two-year stint with the St. Louis
Cardinals, the NFL franchise that has since moved to Arizona.
He couldn't have filled his former shadow on the day 10 years ago when his oft-ignored faith led
him to Cumberland Heights. "I was 168," he says of his motivation for checking into the rehab
center. "I knew I was sick. I didn't want to die and I didn't want to live like that.
"I started drinking beer after I got out of high school. I drank a lot for a very long time. Drank 15-
20 beers a day."
A functioning alcoholic, he had steady employment in his family's food brokerage and later as a
construction company boss. But he nearly lost his soul. "I grew up with a lot of faith. But I think in
the last year and a half of my drinking career, I got separated from my faith.
"Any addict will tell you their alcohol or drugs become the most important things in their lives."
He allowed God to lead him to this spot where he can offer safe harbor to other men. "I feel like
this place is here for a reason. And I know I'm not the reason. Too many things have happened that
led me here. I don't really believe in coincidence."
Friends thought the star athlete, businessman, devout Christian and recovering alcoholic would be
an ideal choice to run this halfway house that looks more like a fishing camp than an institution.
One of his pals found the property. Another helped Chip purchase it. They left it up to him, and his
faith, to take it from there.
"There's something greater than you and me that's behind all of this," he says.
"If you'd have told me seven or eight years ago I'd be living out here on the river with a bunch of
people in addiction like me, I'd have thought you were nuts."
The twice-divorced father of two and grandfather of four takes care of the compound, helps run the
12-step meetings and offers encouragement to the men in the seven cottages.
"In the warmer weather, guys, some of them can't sleep, they get up in the middle of the night and
they go down and meditate in a chair by the river," he says. "There's a critical need for places like
The men -- referred here after completing private or court-mandated treatment -- pay rent. They
must hold jobs and remain clean and sober. The average stay is six months, although there isn't a
time limit as they prepare to re-enter a world they lost in addiction's haze.
If they need counsel, they turn to this fellow, a partner in their struggle.
"I don't like to use the word blessed very much, because I believe we all are blessed. I don't know
what the right word is for me being here. I guess grateful maybe.
"I've seen miracles happen here. Disappointments, too. But what keeps you going is seeing
somebody change their life, find their faith and then leave here and go out and do well."
The big poodle stretches in the sun as Chip approaches. "Grin for me, Willie. Grin," says the
The rescued dog and the rescued ballplayer exchange smiles.
TO LEARN MORE
To learn more about Transitional Living Inc., the nonprofit known as "Chip's Place," e-mail
Article in THE TENNESSEAN February 3, 2007