AMESBURY — With jujitsu-powered biceps, a broad chest and square jaw, Charles "Chucky" Rosa has the look of a fighter.
But as he was introduced to a group of high school students Friday at Amesbury Academy to talk about the perils of substance abuse, his tough-guy exterior was quickly softened by a humbled voice.
"The reason I'm here today is I had six children, but I only have four children now," he said before pausing to look away and take a deep breath. " ... Because I lost my two oldest sons, Vincent and Dominic, to accidental drug overdoses several years ago."
For the past five years, Rosa has told his family's tragic story at schools, addiction centers, halfway houses and parent support groups through Chucky's Fight. He puts the name on T-shirts and dog tags, which he hands out to people willing to take a pledge of sobriety.
Chucky's Fight started as a result of his unique daily ritual, which he uses to attack each day head-on.
Rosa not only battles the anger and sadness over the loss of his two sons, but also his own alcoholism that has landed him in prison. Living across from a liquor store in Seabrook, he said the store calls out to him some days: "Chucky, come buy a bottle of whiskey."
So each day, no matter the temperature or the weather, Rosa begins his day on the sand at the beach near the Hampton-Seabrook bridge, where he spread his sons' ashes.
Standing in just his swim trunks and looking into a video camera held by his wife, Mary, he recites his daily log. In a video from last week, he cites the date (Feb. 11), the temperature (17 degrees), the wind-chill temperature (8 degrees) and the water temperature (38 degrees).
Then he says, "I managed to stay clean and sober and I hope everyone out there is trying and doing the same."
From there, he wades out to his waist and dives underwater. Then he returns home, and often heads to a 90-minute yoga class conducted in a 105-degree room.
"I figure if I can do that, it will be the toughest thing I do all day," he said. "The rest will be easy."
A former factory manager who often employed former inmates, Rosa now spends many days trying to tell his story in the hope those listening either get a second chance, or never need one.
The story of Vincent and Dominic is too difficult for Rosa to tell himself, so at Amesbury Academy Friday he asked guidance counselor Bethany Noseworthy to read a newspaper account and play two televised reports to give the students some background. Rosa left the room, then returned to fill in the blanks.
Dominic and Vincent were close brothers and nice, big-hearted boys whose activities included teaching ice hockey to kids.
While living in Peabody, Vincent began spending time with the wrong crowd. When he was 14, he tried vodka at the bus stop. Over the next few years, he would use pot on occasion, then clean himself up for months at a time. But over time, the use became more regular and the drugs more powerful. Occasional pot smoking turned to heroin addiction.
On Oct. 29, 2003, at the age of 20, Vincent overdosed. This time, he didn't survive.
Rosa believes Vincent's older brother Dominic blamed himself for not setting a better example for his little brother. "And quite frankly, he probably should have," said Rosa matter-of-factly.
In the months following his brother's death, Dominic also turned to drugs. On Nov. 26, 2004, he tore open a pain-patch, ate the morphine inside and never woke up.
A young parent, Rosa said he was "oblivious, naéØve, stupid. It bothers me to this day because if I'd been more aware, maybe I'd have taken different measures."
After their deaths, Rosa moved his family from Peabody to Seabrook, where he'd summered for 25 years. He figured an area with more money meant a safer environment.
But his third son, Charles, quickly found there were just as many drugs at parties in Seabrook as there were in Peabody, maybe more. He got hooked, too, and was sent to Georgia to enter rehab. There, he found mixed martial arts fighting as an outlet. Today, Charles "The Boston Strangler" Rosa is an amateur champion with a record of 15-1 and about to turn professional.
Rosa's daughter Theresa never tried drugs and is a successful equestrian rider in the Midwest. His twin sons are still young teenagers. Rosa firmly believes they have learned from their brothers' mistakes.
Looking out at the group of about 30 teenagers at Amesbury Academy, Rosa hoped they would, too.
"I pray for my sons every day, and I pray they look over kids like you guys," he said.
Though this was a group of kids Noseworthy described as "seen it, done it, heard it and been around it," they sat captivated and asked questions for more than an hour.
Amesbury Academy is a school designed to help teenagers with challenging backgrounds, including families scarred from alcohol and drug addiction, leaving them at greater risk of making their own poor life choices.
Most of them accepted Chucky's sobriety challenge and took a T-shirt. One student made a point to shake Rosa's hand and told him he wasn't ready for the pledge yet, but he will be. Noseworthy plans to organize an ocean swim with Rosa in the near future.
Noseworthy said the Academy students tend to be misperceived, but the way they received Rosa's honest message was a testament to who they really are.
"If you get somebody who is just preaching it versus someone who has lived it, it's a whole different ballgame for these kids," she said.
Rosa has received many letters from people who say hearing his story changed their lives. He recalled one young man who came up to him at an addiction center and said he still keeps his Chucky's Fight dog tag in his wallet after seeing Rosa several years earlier.
Rosa said to him, "It didn't work, did it?" The young man replied that it helped him many days, just not every day.
Rosa knows that feeling. That's why each morning, he dives under the ocean to remember his sons. When he comes back up, he throws a few punches in the air, ready to fight another day.
For more information on Chucky's Fight or to book Charles Rosa as a speaker, visit ChuckysFight.com.