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

God's country.

"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

former linebacker.

The rescued dog and the rescued ballplayer exchange smiles.


To learn more about Transitional Living Inc., the nonprofit known as "Chip's Place," e-mail



Article in THE TENNESSEAN February 3, 2007

By TIM GHIANNI Senior Writer

Linebacker tackles addiction