Former Maryville High football player Aaron Douglas was imposing as a lineman — 6-foot-7-inches tall, 275 pounds. And still he ran like a deer. His prowess won him state championships, awards and college recruiters.

“If he were alive, he would very likely be playing in the NFL today,” said WVLT sports broadcaster Mark Packer, who has covered East Tennessee sports for years.

But Douglas’s promise was cut short in 2011. The 21-year-old was set to play for the University of Alabama when he was found dead in a Florida hotel room. The cause of death was an accidental overdose, the autopsy found.

Seven years later, Douglas is returning in a different way to Maryville football.

Maryville High’s game against Cleveland High School on Thursday will be dedicated to Douglas and to highlighting the dangers of addiction that young people face.

In the past seven years, at least three former Rebels have died of drug overdoses.

The annual Red Ribbon Awareness Game began when the brother of one of those players — Dane McCoy — approached Maryville High four years ago with the idea.

Cody McCoy says attending that first game, which was dedicated to drug addiction awareness in his brother’s memory, was a powerful experience he’ll always remember.

“I didn’t want to keep that selfishly for myself, I wanted to share it,” he said.

Each year the event recognizes someone who has died from drug-related causes. In years past, the family has done the coin toss.

The second year was dedicated in the memory of a faculty member, and last year, it was in the memory of Clint Cox, another former Rebel who died.

“For those that have lost a loved one to addiction, it makes a big impact,” McCoy said.

Karla Douglas, the mother of Aaron Douglas, said Tuesday she felt honored when McCoy called her with the news. But she also felt sadness.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “There’s not a person I talk to on a daily basis that hasn’t been affected by an addiction or overdose.”

She said her son’s struggle with opioid addiction began after his second shoulder surgery, when he played for the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

She still has two boxes of lyrics he wrote for his self-produced hip-hop.

The game will air on WVLT, reaching an audience in the thousands.

Money raised through sponsorships will go to True Purpose Ministries, a treatment program in Maryville. This year they opened Dane’s House, a communal home for graduates of the program.

Participants of the program also will attend the game and will help apply custom-designed Red Ribbon stickers on players’ helmets.

The ongoing opioid epidemic can affect anyone, Douglas said. “People can’t keep the blinders on.”

The school began drug testing players last year.

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