COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Stephen Mehrer was 18 years old when he picked up his first batch of prescription painkillers from Walgreens.

The two-time, All-Ohio football player at Dublin Jerome High School – an aspiring NFL star, “hero” to his younger brothers and known by friends as “Samo” – tore his rotator cuff during a game in October 2009, requiring extensive shoulder surgery and hundreds of opioid pills to mitigate the pain.

Steve Mehrer during his freshman year at Kent State University (Courtesy Photo/Mehrer family)

Eight years later, Stephen died from an opioid overdose at the age of 26. His parents, Steve and Cara Mehrer, said their eldest son’s crippling drug addiction – ultimately leading to his death – was kick-started by Walgreens’ decision to dispense 260 pain pills in less than two months.

“When he was a kid, he didn’t say, ‘Hey, I want to grow up and be an addict.’ He wanted to grow up to be a football player,” Steve Mehrer said in an interview with NBC4. “Walgreens made that decision for him.”

‘Not mere pill counters’

Before Stephen got clipped in the shoulder blade while a linebacker for Dublin’s team, he was “on everybody’s radar,” his dad said. Offer letters from colleges and universities – including nine Division I schools – arrived in the Mehrer family’s mailbox almost daily.

But as soon as he took the hit on the field in 2009, Cara Mehrer said her son’s “senior season was blown.” Doctors told Stephen he would need painful, reconstructive surgery on his shoulder, including five suture anchors to reattach the torn tissue.

“Mom and I both said to him, ‘Do you really want to go through all that?’ He said, ‘Yeah Dad, I want to play college football, and I still have that dream of being in the NFL.’ So, we of course supported him, and off to the races,” Steve Mehrer said.

After the surgery, nurses advised Stephen’s parents to help him stay ahead of the pain. Doctors approved and pharmacies dispensed five painkiller prescriptions that amounted to 260 opioid pills in less than two months – a dosage the Mehrer family said directly contributed to their son’s death.

Steve Mehrer, left (Courtesy Photo/Mehrer family)

In a 2019 complaint filed in Franklin County, Steve and Cara Mehrer accused Walgreens of failing to abide by a protocol designed to prevent “duplicate therapy,” or the dispensing of back-to-back medications to the same patient, according to the Mehrers’ attorney Chelsea Weaver.

“This isn’t someone dying of cancer,” Weaver said. “This is an 18-year-old football player who had routine surgery, so yes, all the red flags should have been up.”

A Franklin County Common Pleas judge dismissed the Mehrer family’s lawsuit against Walgreens in April last year, arguing there wasn’t enough evidence to link the dosage – prescribed eight years before Stephen’s death – to his ultimately fatal addiction.

The 10th District Court of Appeals, however, disagreed. In a June 22 ruling, the appellate court found that despite the lengthy lapse in time between Stephen’s initial injury and his death, “addiction is a ‘long-term, chronic, and relapsing disease’” that complicates the court’s analysis of the law.

“Let’s be clear: Any 18-year-old that is exposed to over-dispensing of highly addictive opioids is going to make an impact on your brain,” Cara Mehrer said. “We didn’t have any idea – he didn’t have any idea. We were just doing the best we could.”

In testimony before court, a Walgreens representative denied liability in Stephen’s death. The pharmacy had “safety blocks” in place to determine if a patient had multiple prescriptions for the same drug, the company representative said, and pharmacists aren’t required to warn patients of the side effects or dangers of a prescription.

The two prescribing physicians – who testified their dosage was reasonable – have not been charged, partially because of Ohio’s statute of limitations that bars medical malpractice lawsuits after a certain period of time. But Weaver said “the buck did stop with Walgreens” to determine whether 260 pain pills in less than two months was medically appropriate for an 18-year-old.

“Pharmacists and pharmacies like Walgreens have an individual responsibility,” Weaver said. “They’re not mere pill counters; they’re medical professionals that are licensed to do this type of work.”’

The appellate court’s ruling orders the Franklin County court to consider arguments it had previously neglected – potentially paving the way for the Mehrer family to present their case to a jury.

Samo’s Soldiers

In the years following Stephen’s initial prescriptions, his parents said they began to notice physical and emotional changes within their eldest son. The color of his skin was washed out, and he was no longer the “happy-go-lucky” kid they once knew.

A news clipping from 2009 about Steve Mehrer’s decision to commit to Kent State University. (Courtesy Photo/Mehrer family)

After graduating from Dublin Jerome, Stephen attended Kent State University, where he was red-shirted on the football team because of his shoulder injury – the first time since fourth grade that the All-Ohio athlete was stuck on the sidelines, his dad said. The next year, Stephen quit the team.

“That was when we knew something was wrong,” Steve Mehrer said.

Stephen continued to mask his opioid addiction by attempting to re-enter the world of sports, moving first to Iowa for an elite junior college program and later Arkansas on a scholarship to join the Little Rock college baseball team. Neither program panned out.

“That’s the nature of addiction; it hijacks your brain,” Cara Mehrer said. “It changes your brain chemistry, and he was addicted. He craved it, and it spoke to him all the time. It was in his head constantly – and that was a terrible struggle to witness, to see your kid struggling like that.”

Despite staying at rehab facilities on five separate occasions, Stephen ultimately lost his battle to the highly addictive opioids in October 2017. His eight-year absence has left a gaping hole in the Mehrer family, who continue to grapple with his death.

A year after Stephen died, the Mehrers established an addiction recovery nonprofit called “Samo’s Soldiers” in honor of their son. Since its inception, the foundation has awarded grants to 38 families whose loved ones are battling addiction.

For the last seven or eight years, the Mehrers have awarded annual $1,000 scholarships to graduating seniors, aptly named the “Stephen Mehrer Scholarship.” It’s an opportunity for them to talk about Stephen’s legacy and their family’s battle with addiction – just as Cara, an educator at Dublin City Schools, does in a presentation with eighth graders each year.

Mike Aurin, principal at Dublin Jerome High School, said he coached Stephen on the varsity football team during his sophomore year. Early on, Stephen tried to become “the best player on the field,” Aurin said, “and it bore itself out.”

Losing a young person is always devastating, Aurin said, and it’s made him reflect on his interactions with Stephen as a teacher and coach. “Is there something that I missed?” he said.

“But when you grow up in a family that you have an addict struggling, sometimes you can do everything, and it’s still not enough,” Aurin said. “I think that’s the part that’s the most heartbreaking – that the struggle is a lifelong one.”

He commended the Mehrers for speaking so openly, both to young students and the broader Dublin community, about the legacy and life of their son. The most important message, Aurin said, is that addiction “can happen to anybody.”

Cara, who wears her eldest son’s ashes in a cross-shaped necklace, said her family is seeking justice, not only for Steve, but for the 80,000 Americans who die of an opioid overdose every year.

“We want accountability. It’s important to us; it’s important for these people who didn’t do their job,” she said. “They let us down, and they ultimately let Stephen down. He went through hell and ultimately lost his life.”