Ryan Mullins was hungry. He hadn’t eaten in 48 hours. But the remote Boone County trailer he was hiding out in from … well … everybody — his family, his old friends, his probation officer — didn’t have any food.
He needed to eat something. The hold that the cocaine and the pills and the other drugs had on him devoured about 30 pounds from his frame. Mullins found a jar of mayonnaise and scooped some out.
That was dinner.
And that day in the summer of 2016, he says now, was rock bottom.
Sometime after that makeshift meal, Mullins realized he no longer could slide down this path. He missed his family and his old friends and his old life, a life that often included a tennis racket and a nice, warm day on the court.
Now, two years later, it’s all back. Mullins is happy and healthy and in a good relationship and in good spirits. He’s also back on the tennis court, both as a part of the West Virginia State men’s team and a competitor this past week in the Charleston Public Courts tournament.
“I just feel healthier than I ever have in my entire life,” he said, “physically and mentally.”
Mullins enjoyed life as a George Washington High student. He was a member of the tennis team there his first two years. But it was that sophomore year where he first tried drugs. Initially, it was marijuana, and smoking it went from habitual to chronic.
“My junior year, I was smoking probably three or four times a day,” he said.
As his marijuana smoking increased, his interest in just about everything else vanished. He quit the tennis team after his sophomore year. He moved to harder drugs as a senior. He abused Xanax. Cocaine became his drug of choice and his worst enemy.
It was when Mullins quit the tennis team that his father, Ken Mullins, knew something was wrong. People he never met before would come to the house to see Ryan. Ryan completely withdrew from the tennis community both he and Ken were so close to.
“Strange people started showing up at the house. I’d ask him and he’d give me some story,” Ken Mullins said. “I knew otherwise.”
Things kept sliding downhill from there. Ryan was behind the wheel of his car his junior year at GW, under the influence, and crashed into a tree at 40 mph, seriously injuring everyone in the car. A grandmother he was close to died from cancer shortly after. He was arrested for drug possession and placed on probation. And, after he had graduated from GW in 2016 and while on probation, he failed a drug test.
Ryan knew he failed that test before the results even came back. He figured that would lead to a prison term, and he wanted no part of that. So, without explaining why or where he was headed, Ryan took off in July 2016. And, for nearly a year, Ken searched for him.
Right after Ryan left, Ken filed a missing persons report. His work week was four 10-hour shifts and, on his three days off, he’d try to track down his son’s whereabouts, calling his friends and following leads, always finding himself a step or two behind.
“Even though I knew he was alive, I knew he was in a bad spot,” Ken said. “I knew that could change in a heartbeat. Even when I knew he was alive, I woke up knowing I had to try to help him get out of it.”
Those dark times in Boone County were the low point, but Ryan said it took him a while, and a few more hard lessons — he dwindled to 115 pounds, and was robbed and pistol-whipped during a drug deal gone bad — to finally realize this life couldn’t last.
There was another reason, one Ryan considers the key reason for his recovery. He met Meghan Atkinson in 2016. The two started out as friends and, when he went on the run, she remained one of his few lifelines. They started dating in 2017, and he saw what his addictions were doing to her.
“The main thing that made me turn my life around was my girlfriend,” Ryan said. “She showed me that I didn’t want to do what I was doing for the rest of my life. She was really one of the few people who reached out to me when I was on the run and we got closer.”
After about a year on the run, Ryan decided to turn himself in. Before that, though, he decided to quit drugs cold turkey.
Ken Mullins lauded his son’s determination in starting to get sober on his own.
“That’s why I’m proudest,” he said. “He dug himself out of it. I’ve helped him, but he started it all on his own. He didn’t give up. He decided, ‘I’m gonna change.’ He’s amazing.”
The punishment he thought would be a long prison sentence was not that. He spent two months in the James H. “Tiger” Morton Juvenile Center, in Dunbar, then about four months in the Rubenstein Juvenile Center, in Davis. By July 2018, he had kicked all his habits, from hard drugs to cigarettes.
Now it was time to get back to living. That included getting back into tennis.
His return to the sport first was sparked when he and his dad won a Marshall University alumni doubles tournament. Ryan felt he was playing better than he ever had. So after enrolling at West Virginia State, he approached the men’s tennis team and asked to join.
“I really loved tennis,” he said. “I just think there was too much going on when I quit. This allowed me to funnel all that energy that I was using on other negative things into something that I loved, which is tennis and working out.”
It has been nothing but positive energy since. He has worked his way up to a 4.5 NTRP rating. He’s also working with a 3.8 grade point average as a business and finance major. He reached the 4.5 singles finals at Public Courts last year and played the men’s open doubles tournament with Scott Zent this year.
Zent knew the Mullins family from GW tennis, when Zent’s son Cooper played with Ryan. He could never imagine what Ryan went through in his struggles, or what Ken went through in his yearlong search for his son. It filled Zent with joy the day Ken came up to him and told him that Ryan had come home and wanted to get better.
“Knowing him from where he was and where he’s at now, I played a tournament up against him at the ‘Y’ and I came up to him afterwards and said, ‘I’m proud of you. I’m not even your dad and I’m proud of you,’ ” Zent said.
Returning to the Kanawha Valley tennis community, and that community embracing him as he came back, have been a huge boost in Ryan’s recovery.
“They were like a second family to me when I used to play,” he said. “I missed them. Even when I was smoking weed and on the run, I missed them and missed tennis and everything about it. I was just so grateful they were so understanding. They’re the same people from when I left.”
Zent said that’s the way the local tennis community has been and still is, close-knit and always ready to reach out a helpful hand.
“It seems like its getting smaller,” Zent said, “but it’s still a good community. And the people embrace people like Ryan and try to get them moving in the right direction.”
The dark times in Ryan Mullins’ life are now just memories — tough ones, but important ones. Now he sees a bright future ahead. He wants to get into wealth management and ultimately build a tennis training facility so he can help others in the sport he loves.
The days of hiding out in trailers and starving happened just a couple of years ago, but for Ryan, it feels like ancient history.
“It seems like a different life ago,” he said.