PERRYVILLE — As a senior in high school, Tony Hoffman was one of the top BMX amateur racers in the country and was slated to appear on the cover of the nation’s leading BMX magazine.
Three years later, at age 21, Hoffman found himself in court facing 17 and a half years in prison after committing an armed robbery to support his addiction to prescription pills. Despite what seems like a dramatic fall from grace, Hoffman describes his journey as a series of small decisions that ultimately set him on the wrong path: A bad attitude and struggles with anxiety in middle school. Starting to smoke weed and drink in high school. And eventually, the decision to start using prescription pills.
Without knowing it, Hoffman had walked through “the door.” Most people aren’t even aware the door exists, but once you walk through it there’s no going back, Hoffman told students at Perryville Middle School on Tuesday.
“When you walk through the door, you don’t get to choose whether you’ll be me or not. See there’s a lot of people that think addiction is a choice,” Hoffman told the students. “But let me tell you something: I didn’t choose to hold this microphone and my 11 friends that left in a casket, they didn’t choose to die from drug addiction. You find out after you walk through the door and it’s not a choice you get to make.”
Hoffman’s talk at Perryville Middle was one of several talks he will give around the county this week. In addition to speaking at all county middle schools, he will also tell his story as part of a community event at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Elkton High School. Hoffman’s visit to the county is supported by funds provided by the Cecil County Opioid Information Team via the Maryland Opioid Operational Command Center and is a joint effort among Cecil County Public Schools, the county department of emergency services and the county health department.
Dressed in a camouflage Supreme jacket and hat and sporting Yeezy shoes, Hoffman, now 34 and sober for the last 11 years, traced his journey from a talented middle school athlete to battling drug addiction and serving time in prison to finally becoming a successful public speaker and going to the 2016 Olympics.
While he excelled at basketball as a kid, Hoffman didn’t want to put in the necessary effort and idolized Philadelphia 76er Allen Iverson, who famously skipped practice. He also struggled with social anxiety and other mental health issues but never saw a therapist and was kicked out of school in seventh grade for dealing weed. After being expelled, he began to hang out at BMX venues, watching his older brother practice and compete. His parents encouraged him to try it too and by his junior year of high school, he was one of the country’s top amateurs, with the endorsement deals to prove it.
But Hoffman didn’t want to make a career out of BMX, even though he saw sports as his gift, since he worried about making a living from the sport. Instead, he began taking computer classes with the goal of becoming a network administrator. Hoffman felt that dream was coming true after he received an offer of a $120,000 a year job at a startup in San Diego after graduating high school.
Not long after that though, things began to fall apart. The owner of the company he was supposed to work for ended up being wanted by the FBI in a $28 million Ponzi scheme and his job fell through. Then one of his best friends who was supposed to come live with him in San Diego died and Hoffman ended up moving back to his hometown near Fresno, Calif.
While he originally swore he would never do weed, Hoffman ended up trying it once. Once turned into once a month, then once a week, then daily. He began partying and drinking and using hard drugs, eventually getting kicked out by his parents. One day, when he and a friend were experiencing extreme withdrawal symptoms and had no money to buy drugs, they robbed the mother of one of their friends for $14,000 worth of prescription pills.
“When I sit down (in his car after the robbery) I experienced this feeling and this voice that speaks to me and that says, ‘You made the biggest mistake of your entire life. You’re going to pay for this one,’” Hoffman said.
Hoffman would eventually paying, serving two years in prison starting in January 2007. But it was also while in prison that Hoffman decided to turn his life around. He set himself four goals for when he got out of prison: become a professional BMX racer, go to the Olympics, start a nonprofit, and become a public speaker.
To achieve his goals, Hoffman devoted himself to what he calls the microprocess, where he learned how to do simple, insignificant things to build up to bigger achievements. He started with brushing his teeth and making his bed everyday and putting “150 percent effort” into every other small detail on his way to achieving his bigger goals.
Over a decade later, Hoffman has achieved all his goals. In 2010, he began racing BMX professionally again but blew out his knee in 2011 ending his own Olympic dreams. However, Hoffman would make it to the Olympics in 2016 — as a coach for women’s BMX pro Brooke Cain. He is also the founder of The Freewheel Project, which works to reach at-risk kids using BMX and skateboarding, and is a sought-after public speaker.
But Hoffman emphasized to the students that it all comes down to the smallest of choices. Just one bad choice can lead you down a path toward addiction, often without you even knowing it, Hoffman told the students.
“(My friends and I) all sat in the seats you’re sitting in and said, ‘We’ll never be the guy that’s holding that microphone, we’re different,’” he said. “Not one of us realized that once you walk through the door, the only way to get back through with your life is to change every single thing about yourself ... If you don’t walk through that door, you don’t have to experience the things I experienced.”