OGDEN — On Sept. 9, 2005, Court McGee was dead, slumped over in a Northern Utah trailer from a heroin overdose.
Just before 1 p.m. on June 7, 2019, he couldn’t be more alive.
McGee — now a welterweight fighter in the UFC — stood before a gymnasium of incarcerated kids, sharing his story of addiction, redemption and success. The season 11 winner of “The Ultimate Fighter” spoke to kids Friday at the Millcreek Youth Center in Ogden, one of four secure care facilities in the state for juveniles. He’s planning on visiting the other three in the coming weeks.
Before his talk, he visited the trailer where he was dead for eight minutes over a decade ago. He says he needed some inspiration for his speech. He’s been where those kids have been sitting after getting into trouble multiple times when he was younger.
“See me and you guys all speak the same language,” McGee told the crowd. “A lot of people don’t speak this language, I’m just standing on this side because I made it out.”
Every kid he spoke in front of at Millcreek, a secure juvenile facility, has been ordered to be in lockup by a juvenile judge. McGee directly empathizes with every one of them, as he spent time at a juvenile center when he was younger, too, he said.
McGee has been to hell and back through the depths of drug use, and he lives to tell his story. He has the criminal record of someone who should have been to prison, but he hasn’t done time.
“God thought there was a better route for me, I guess,” he told the Standard-Examiner.
He began sharing his story at conferences when he was approached about speaking to schools in Carbon and Emery counties, two areas with some the highest rates of opioid abuse and overdoses in the state and the country.
After one of his speeches he was approached by a student, something that happens after all of his talks. But this student told McGee he had been shooting heroin for over a year, somehow able to stay in school and on track to graduate.
“You know what it would take to shoot two or three balloons of heroin a day and still show up to school and still graduate? That kid’s a pretty incredible guy,” McGee said.
McGee gave the teen his phone number, showed him where to go for sobriety meetings, doing everything he could to help keep the teen clean. Today, McGee said that formerly addicted teen is away from his bad habits with a good job, wife and a family.
With the new foundation of his nonprofit, The McGee Project, he hopes to expand his talks into directly benefit those who battle addiction. His friend and juvenile justice administrator David Sollami said the foundation is the result of three years of work between the two of them. The two hope to expand the foundation to include providing services in schools and providing treatment to young people in need. For McGee and Sollami, the need for services is apparent, as kids regularly approach McGee after his talks to disclose their own person demons.
“After most talks, kids will talk to Court, and normally about three or five kids tell him they’re using (drugs),” Sollami said.
McGee says he wanted to start speaking at places that couldn’t normally afford it, and one type of place in particular are juvenile justice centers. With everything he’s been through, “it’s very befitting for that age group,” he said. He wants to be a preventative measure that actually works and connects with kids.
“These kids aren’t damaged, they aren’t broken, they’re kids,” he said. “They were dealt a bad hand, but it’s up to them to want to change it.”
Darce Afuvai, the director at Millcreek, has been working with high-risk juveniles for over 20 years. He says having McGee speak as a professional athlete is huge, especially as someone who has been in the same position as these kids.
“To have someone that can connect with them from the outside with a story like his that’s made it, it speaks volumes to these kids,” Afuvai said. “It grabs them and gravitates them toward doing something right.”
When he speaks, McGee is not short on success stories from the lives he has impacted. But not all of his stories are ones of others achieving sobriety.
During his early years of sobriety, an old friend reached out to McGee saying he wanted to get clean. The friend’s words didn’t live up to his actions, and when McGee went to get the man to his bed to sleep off his high, police were called. McGee was charged with burglary, with authorities believing he entered the man’s home with the intent to hurt him. McGee would later be found not guilty of all charges. Weeks later in his sixth professional fight, he narrowly lost to Jeremy Horn. Horn is the only person to defeat UFC legend Chuck Liddell by submission.
Some time later, McGee would forgive the friend for pressing the charges against him. The old friend had died from an overdose in the same home that McGee brought him back to. McGee forgave him at his funeral. In the past few months, McGee also attended the funeral of the friend who gave him the heroin that he overdosed on and killed him all those years ago.
“My whole journey, my whole life goal is sharing my story with people like this,” he said to the audience at Millcreek. “It’s taken me three years to get in here and talk to you. The whole reason I do that, is because we’re one in the same.”
He encouraged everyone to find their purpose in life and go for it. McGee’s purpose, he said, was sharing his story and building up others. At the end of his talk, he was presented with a poster signed by those at Millcreek. He told the crowd that these types of posters are the only things he has on display at his Provo home. No UFC trophies, no medals; only items given to him by those in recovery and posters like the one he was holding. It reminds him of how far he’s come.
“Every one of you in this room have it. And that’s fight. Everyone in here has heart, I know that for a fact. You can’t teach that, you guys have that,” McGee said. “You guys can accomplish incredible things, but you can’t do it breaking the law.”
After his talk, McGee met with each of the kids. Posing for pictures, signing autographs and listening to a handful share their issues with him. He gives advice and guidance to each kid he comes across. It’s easy to see that he wants each person he talks with to succeed.
McGee has spoken in front of thousands for conferences, city events and high schools. But his talk Friday was different.
“Honestly it’s one of the biggest highlights of my life,” McGee said. “My goal, especially with youth, is to show that recovery can be attractive and it can be fun through the experiences that I’ve had. All the stuff that I get to be a part of today has all come from recovery. A hundred percent of it.”
McGee said he hopes to expand his foundation to reach kids before they land in a place like Millcreek. He’s still a professional fighter and trains five to six days a week at different gyms around the state, occasionally making trips to Colorado and California to train.
No matter where he goes, McGee will always carry with him his experiences in both life and death. And just maybe, he’ll be able to save others from the same fate that took his life in that trailer all those years ago.