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BY JEFF FALK

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We all have demons. And we all must face our demons.

How we choose to deal with those demons helps determine the direction our lives will take.

Ernie Groff dealt with his demons through drugs and alcohol and partying, so much so that they became his new demons. But they were external forces he eventually defeated through internal means.

Today, Groff is a successful businessman and the owner of iAMFit Studios, a personal training/fitness center located in Temple, PA. To look at him, one would never guess the nature of the events that molded him into the person he is now.

Once an accomplished player and captain on some very good Lebanon High football teams of the late 1980s, sports and athletics have always played a large role in Groff’s journey. But while sports and athletics have been mostly positive influences on his life, make no mistake about the fact that Groff himself is the main reason for his own personal transformation.

“Sports have played a huge role in my life,” said Groff. “Everyone has a point when they have the fight taken out of them. Everyone has their breaking points and levels. I’ve always been a very competitive person. When I grew up, I was second fiddle to guys like Kerry Collins, Corey Thomas and Ed Donley. I learned at an early age that working out is important. It’s preparation for the season, and that’s what determines the outcome, and your destiny.

“Who you surround yourself with means everything in life,” continued Groff. “If you’re getting negative outcomes, chances are it’s probably about your surroundings. I feel like everyday we’re faced with a lot of decisions. The outcome of your life is based on the decisions you make. Fitness and sports is a huge part of that, because you’ve got to have endurance.”

While the exact details of Groff’s turnaround can be pinpointed, the origins of his downward spiral aren’t as simple.

He may have fallen into the wrong crowd at a very young age. But at the time, it all seemed innocent enough, harmless youth pranks, boys being boys.

Sports can certainly be a powerful influence, but they weren’t strong enough to save Groff from himself.

“My sister was one of the playground directors at Southeast,” said Groff. “She was responsible for looking after me. She was into pot. I was 12, going into junior high, and I tried it, after I had turned it down a couple of times. That was a pivotal summer in my life. I guess that’s when it happened.

“I was eager for an identity,” added Groff. “I was eager to make a name for myself. It was like ‘fitting in’. It was total peer pressure. As a personal trainer, I can see the powerful effects of peer pressure in my work today.”

After graduating from Lebanon High School in 1990, Groff went on to Stevens Tech, where he continued to play football. He transferred to Clarion University with the intent of playing football.

Ultimately, Groff graduated from Clarion with a degree in social science, in 1997.

“When I transferred to Clarion, I was on the right track,” said Groff. “But my credits didn’t transfer and I never went out for the team. Leaving football for partying and drinking was a huge mistake in my life, one I still regret. I do have a lot of second thoughts about it. I should’ve kept playing football.

“I was like two people,” Groff continued. “The one who played football and did well in school, and the second was the one who got involved with drugs. I was running with the wrong crowd. But I think I had the seeds planted in Lebanon. I think I was already involved before I got to Clarion. I was always compromising my potential.”

On May 4, 1999, Groff, then 26, was busted for trafficking cocaine and marijuana, and two years later, he was sentenced to serve seven to 18 years in state prison. At that time, he was considered to be a major drug dealer, but Groff said he first started selling drugs at the age of 15.

Because of good behavior, he ended up serving the minimum amount of his sentence – six years and a month – at a medium-security facility in Somerset, PA.

“From (ages) 21 to 26, it (drug dealing) was my livelihood, and I flourished,” said Groff. “I wanted to be somebody, and that’s who I became. But when I got it together, I became who I wanted to be. When I was younger, I thought it was cool to have connections and have the older kids looking up to me. Success builds off incremental progress.

“When I got busted, I got brought down,” added Groff. “My friends were in on the investigation. My first thought was, ‘Who do I turn to?’ My friends got me into it. I learned to say, ‘no’. I learned to care less about other people. They’re not my friends. I turned inside to me.”

Prison can either accelerate the downward spiral or become a rehabilitating turning point. Groff consciously chose the latter.

He didn’t simply ‘do his time’, he put it to good use. Groff began journaling everyday, his thoughts, his emotions, his experiences, his new goals, what he was thankful for.

“I still have the 2500 pages, and they’re so detailed and organized,” said Groff. “Prison was more or less the same thing – bad crowds. Gambling was big. Quick fixes. To me, it came down to ‘How are you going to do your time?’ I learned to refrain from all of that. I felt like I shouldn’t have been there. When I came back to the streets, everything hit. By the time I got off parole, I was a multi-millionaire.

“I sold my mom out. I sold my family out,” Groff continued. “I had a choice growing up and I put myself in that environment. I was in such a low place. I think at one point in prison I just said to myself, ‘Come on Ernie, you can do better than this.’ A big part of my time in prison was spent self-educating.”

Before being sent to Somerset, Groff had been arrested three or four times for more minor offenses. When he got out, he was in his mid 30s, still a young man, but with many of the same choices to face.

“When you’re 26 and get a seven-to-18-year prison sentence, you say to yourself, ‘Man, I can’t mess up again,'” said Groff, a 48-year-old resident of Wyomissing. “It made me realize life is short. I think the excessiveness of my sentence benefitted me over time. I’m a believer that there’s no such thing as coincidence. I went through a ton of therapy programs to get out a year early, in 2007. Absolutely, yes, I am an addict.

“Now, I work out everyday,” continued Groff. “The reason I do is that I don’t want to give up this lifestyle. The day I give in, who knows what it leads to. That streak is worth a million dollars to me. But I definitely have a compulsive personality.”

Today, Groff has been sober and clean for 20 years.

While his story is certainly unique and compelling, it reminds us that everyone has their own personal hardships to manage. Life isn’t meant to be easy.

“There’s probably more than a handful of times when I’ve looked up and asked, ‘How in the hell did this happen to me?” said Groff. “What I’ve found is that those times were the times when I’ve grown the most. My back was against the wall. Those situations force me to rebound and excel. Sure I regret them, but the important thing is I took personal responsibility.

“Your nature is what makes up your life,” concluded Groff. “My goals started to come true when I was in there (prison). But I realized, ‘Hey, I can do extraordinary things. I used to think talent is what won. But work ethic out weighs talent.”

Yes, people need to make their own mistakes. But if others can benefit from our experiences, it somehow gives those experiences greater meaning.

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