“Small Town Strong” Doc Highlights “Hill Billy Rehab” and the Power of Fitness to Heal Addiction

October 3, 2023 by
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Spoiler Alert: This article contains major plot points of “Small Town Strong.”

After his tenure in the US Army, Dale King returned to Portsmouth, OH, and opened a CrossFit affiliate to make Portsmouth residents stronger and healthier. 

  • But, King realized quickly that to truly serve the residents of Portsmouth and help them build better lives, he needed to think bigger.

Portsmouth is a part of Scioto County, which ranks in the worst ten percent of the nation’s counties economically. 

The county has the second highest rate of opioid addiction in Ohio, with almost 80% of all treatment admissions due to opioid addiction. 

In 2018, a partnership was forged between King’s affiliate, Portsmouth Spartan Kettlebell Club, and the Counseling Center, a nonprofit addiction treatment facility. Through CrossFit, those in recovery build a sense of camaraderie through mutual suffering.

The idea to document this unique story came from one of King’s Army buddies, Chase Millsap, who was working for a production company in Hollywood. Millsap would return to Portsmouth to visit, and every time, he would comment on how great the story was of what King was doing.

He started bringing his camera on every visit, and when Covid hit, Millsap moved back with his family and continued to film. 

  • King remembers: “It was always supposed to be like a developmental project. We were going to put together a sizzle reel and then pitch it to networks, studios, or streamers. We got meetings, but they never went anywhere.”

King and Milsap quickly decided to finance the film themselves when Billy Dever, King’s close friend and fellow CrossFitter, died. 

Billy’s death became the center of the documentary.

Viewers meet Billy early on, a strong supporter of King and his vision, and together, they push the all-encompassing power of PSKC CrossFit. 

The cast of characters in the film are diverse.

We meet Sarah Wilson, a young woman battling addiction who has been given a job working for King at Doc Spartan, a business committed to selling products 100% manufactured in Portsmouth. We see her hit one year sober after being an addict for 16 years.

In the same factory, we learn Rooster’s story. “Rooster” is a young man working at Spartan Solutions that King is helping to teach to read. We also meet Mo, the second in command at the affiliate and King’s primary coach. The no-nonsense coach runs the gym and takes pride in pushing her members past their comfort zone.

Andrew Wright is another coach at PSKC–he was the athlete who unknowingly created King’s program. Wright spent over a year and a half in jail, then came out and was homeless and addicted to heroin. After 14 attempts at rehab, he took CrossFit classes in the morning and then left each day to head to the homeless shelter. King stepped in and employed him.

We learn about “The Gauntlet,” a yearly day-long fitness event run at the affiliate in its 12th year. 

  • King explains The Gauntlet: “In the Shawnee (a Native American Nation from the Ohio region) days, to prove your worth to the tribe, they would line up several warriors with clubs. To run the gauntlet, they would push through the beatings, and if you fell down and didn’t get up and continue, you would just get beaten worse. It was a test of worthiness to the tribe. I do it to test the athletes’ ability to communicate and work well under stress.”

But the main story is about Billy Dever. 

As King was trying to navigate the beginnings of a small business in Doc Spartan, he knew he needed legal help after they got a deal on Shark Tank. Billy had been training at the gym, and King loved his work ethic. As Billy and King’s relationship grew, he also cultivated a personal relationship with Renee, the co-owner of Doc Spartan. 

Billy was all in on the fitness rehab movement.

  • Dever: “Fitness is the most underutilized connector of people and solver of problems I know in this community. I can’t tell you how many guys have stayed sober because of the community we’ve developed through that group fitness model.”
  • “The power of fitness on an addicted brain and its ability to heal is amazing.”
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The film perfectly weaves the stories of these addicts and their journey to use CrossFit to overcome a life of addiction and to save their own lives. You become invested in these journeys, and by the time it ends, you want updates on where they are now.

One of the most poignant parts of the film is when Billy’s mother comes to the affiliate to see the members gather together to work out and honor Billy. 

King held a private screening for her when the documentary was completed.

  • “She was bawling, as any mother would be. All we gave a fuck about was how his mom felt. And so, at the end of it, she said, ‘I’ve been really struggling with God, wondering why he took my son. And now I understand.’”

King knows that not all reactions will be as strong as Billy’s mother’s, but he will be happy with any reaction.

  • The best thing about this is it honors the legacy of my friend. And it is equally important that other families can see this and know they’re not alone. People can see that this is part of the solution to fight the opioid epidemic.”

King and PSKC have high hopes that this film will be the impetus to a movement.

  • I would like this to help connect CrossFit gym owners and behavioral health agencies–I would like to see thousands of partnerships between CrossFit gyms and addiction treatment centers to offer what we do.”

The film has blown away the Portsmouth community.

  • King: “Everyone has cried–the entire cast and crew has seen and loved it. It has been a great therapeutic distraction tool. And when you see it for the first time, it’s like Billy’s alive again–which is awesome but emotional in its own capacity. And to me, that’s what it was all about. Something to honor him and then something for his legacy.”

“Small Town Strong” is available on all video-on-demand platforms (Amazon, Hulu, Google Play, iTunes) on October 3.

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