The Choking Game

Levi Draher came back from the dead. Other players were not so lucky.

“You're so used to her riding the bus with you every morning, and you're so used to y' back home,” he says. “And then you just don't have that anymore. You're walking home by yourself.”

After Haley died, Kirby says, he talked to her friends and found out she had been playing the game with another girl on several occasions. Space monkey, they called it. He had already known, but this news made the original suicide ruling even harder to bear. Kirby equates suicide with surrender, saying it is something his sister would never do. It's when talking about the original manner of death that Kirby slips into the present tense.

“Haley's not a failure, period,” he says. “She won't take that for an answer.”

Carrie and Levi give school presentations on the choking game.
Daniel Kramer
Carrie and Levi give school presentations on the choking game.
If a kid doesn't know how to play the choking game...
If a kid doesn't know how to play the choking game...

On day five, Levi says, “I played the game.”

Investigators had been talking to him, trying to figure out what happened. Hazing? Attempted suicide? Autoerotic asphyxiation? Levi had been reluctant to talk. The choking game was a private thing, and he had only done it twice before on his own. Carrie doesn't know what to think; she's never heard of this before. So she does the research online and finds GASP. But she's not prepared for what she sees on the list of names. Boy, 15, Harlingen, 10/28/06. It's Levi. And she scrolls down, and down, and down, and tries to process all the names below his. And she looks back at her son's entry and sees something that sets it apart. An asterisk. On this list of dead, Levi is an exception. She feels she has to do something.

When she calls GASP, she says, “My name is Carrie Draher. My son is Boy, 15, Harlingen, 10/28/06.”

While Levi gathers his motor skills in therapy, Carrie reads everything she can about the choking game. Parents need to know. Kids need to be warned. They aren't listening. But maybe they'd listen to someone who actually died playing it. At first, Carrie and her husband are reluctant to parade Levi in front of the cameras like a freak. Months pass, and she talks with Levi. He says he's healthy enough to share his story with whoever will listen. Carrie and Levi now go to schools to help deliver a choking game awareness program. In March, the campaign landed Levi on the front page of The New York Times. From there, mother and son have gone on CNN, the Today show and Hannity, among others.

Levi loved the trip to New York, where he stayed in the Millennium Hotel. His pleasure was evident on the Today show, where he wore his MMA jacket and a big, goofy grin. The grin has been the subject of some discussion between mother and son. Levi is a happy kid, and he can't contort his face into a look of solemnity on cue, so whenever he's on camera, one might think his brain could still use some oxygen.

When the grin is brought up during an interview, he laughs and says, “I look blazed...don't I? Don't I?”

Levi does not reflect on the experience. He has no memory of it, so during an interview he'd rather discuss things that exist in the present, like his MySpace page or his favorite scenes from Borat. And as far as he's concerned, the few minutes of clinical death aren't enough to keep him from his dream of joining the Marines.

The Drahers have a long military background, and Levi had wanted to take on that tradition ever since he was five. He had researched military boarding schools in Texas until he found MMA, and he knew in an instant that's what he wanted. The Marines were the toughest. “First to fight,” he liked to say. The tuition is steep — $25,000 a year — but Levi's parents wanted to give him this chance.

Carrie says that MMA's administration was understanding, compassionate and willing to welcome Levi back after the accident. However, she wanted Levi to go to school in San Antonio until she's sure he's fully healed. She says two private schools would not accept Levi once administrators found out about his accident. So now Levi goes to a public school just up the road from his home. He hates it. He misses the military atmosphere.

He hasn't spoken with a recruiter yet, but is confident the Marines will gladly accept him because, he says, “I'm cool.” (The Press checked with the Marines and, according to a gunnery sergeant who runs a Marine recruiting substation in Webster, an accident like the one Levi suffered would not automatically disqualify him. Policy dictates that doctors would have to review his medical files to determine if there was any permanent damage.)

This afternoon, a gray-haired chauffeur in a black suit parks a black Lincoln Town Car outside the Drahers' apartment and knocks on the door. He is taking Carrie and Levi to a television studio downtown, where Geraldo Rivera will interview them via satellite. In the front seat, Levi fidgets. He's been on medication for ADHD since the third grade and, Carrie says, the fidgeting got worse after the accident. Fascinated by the electric seat adjuster, Levi floats forward and back, up and down.

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