The untimely death of a standout student and athlete rocked a close-knit Valley community. Now, we are learning more about the secret struggle his Fountain Hills family was fighting.

We first told you about Jacob DeGroote the night of his candlelight vigil, three days before Christmas.

His mother, Mari DeGroote, said she wants to open up about her son's addiction that tore them apart, his advice before he died and what they would have done differently to try and save him.

It's extremely personal and painful, but she said it's important for others to hear if there's a chance it might save another family from the same heartache.

"I am an ER nurse, and I did not know my son was addicted to opiates," DeGroote said.

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"He was my smart one, so smart. My handsome, sweet, sweet boy," she said.

By all appearances, 20-year-old Jacob was the picture of happiness.

All-star athlete, academic, smitten with his longtime girlfriend, working two jobs, well-liked.

"So personable. So happy and polite!" his mom recalled.

But the many smiling snapshots you'll find of him on social media don't show the full picture.

"You would never know," DeGroote said.

Jacob didn't look like a junkie. But he was.

"He didn't want to be an addict," DeGroote said. "He wanted more than anything to get well."

Mari DeGroote is a nurse. Jacob's dad, Dave, is a pharmacist. And even though they're trained to look for signs in others, they said they didn't catch on to his addiction until he was already hooked.

"Somebody gave him a pill at school," Mari DeGroote said.

It started with her finding pill bottles in Jacob's room.

"The first time I saw aluminum foil with the black residue, that's when it really hit. Then I knew that we had a huge problem!" she said.


"All he could say is, 'It made me ahh,' that's all he could say is, 'It was just ahh. Like my brain was just quieted down,'" Mari DeGroote said. "He said, 'Mom, I couldn't sleep at night, I would just lay in bed,' and I said, 'Why didn't you tell me?'"

Then, Jacob's older brother, Michael, died in an accident on a fishing trip and it got even worse.

"I couldn't even fully grieve really for Michael because I was grieving for a child that I was trying to save!" DeGroote said. "I cried to him. I said, 'Please, I can't lose you too.'"

DeGroote said Jacob did 10 days in jail for assault after hitting his younger brother who stepped in when she threw out some drugs she'd found.

It was a devastating spiral from junior to senior year.

"He had a 4.2 [grade point average]. He was being recruited all over the nation -- Notre Dame football, a full ride scholarship up at NAU," DeGroote said.

"He just lost everything. He lost everything," she said.

As soon as your child turns 18 years old, you cannot force them to go to rehab anymore.

Jacob's parents kicked him out of the house and gave him an ultimatum. They figure he spent three days living out in a desert wash by their house before he broke.

"He finally called and said, 'I'm ready to go,'" DeGroote said.

Jacob relapsed in the first 24 hours out of rehab.

They got him back in and after five full months in treatment, DeGroote said things were turning around.

"He wrote me some wonderful letters while he was in rehab. How much he loved me and how he's trying so hard and wants so much to be well and come home and be part of the family again," DeGroote said.

The night Jacob got out of rehab, he accidentally overdosed.

Not on heroin.

DeGroote said her son doubled up on his prescribed sleeping and anxiety meds. He stopped breathing, then his heart stopped.

DeGroote hopes sharing her son's story sparks awareness and said she'll share with anyone who will listen the advice Jacob gave before he died.

"He just cried and that's when he said, 'I wish I'd never even taken that first pill,'" DeGroote said. "He goes, 'I never thought I would become addicted, I thought I could be smarter than the pills.'"

The pull of addiction is stronger than just willpower alone.

"We should have just pulled him out his senior year and just checked him into rehab when he was 17," DeGroote said.

DeGroote said you have to do more than hope for change, you have to take immediate action.

Because even though her son still managed to graduate with honors, they knew he was still using.

"Who cares about football senior year? Who cares about scholarships? Who cares about going to college? I should have said, 'Right now, we need to get Jacob well,'" DeGroote said. "And that's where we went wrong. We saw a problem and we were just hoping it would get better, but it doesn't, it won't, without help."

Pictures are all they're left with now of the memories and unfulfilled promises of a bright future extinguished by addiction.

[RELATED: Fountain Hills community rallies around family struck by tragedy]

Copyright 2017 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

3TV News Anchor

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