In the new issue of 'Men's Journal,' contributing editor Paul Solotaroff investigates the NFL's dirty little secret: Pain medications, the only thing keeping many players on the field each week, are turning players into addicts. Retired NFL players like Ray Lucas – an often-injured backup QB with the Jets and Dolphins, who, after his playing days, developed an 800-pill-per-month prescription-drug habit – describe the price they paid for being a gridiron gladiator. Winning-obsessed coaches, enabling trainers and doctors, and, especially, the pressure to stay on the field, drive players to use medications that ultimately become addictions, and finally threaten to ruin their lives. Here's an excerpt from "The NFL's Secret Drug Problem":
"I had it all planned," says Lucas. "I was gonna drive straight off the George Washington Bridge, and if I didn't clear the barrier – I got a big truck – I was gonna get out and jump. I was on 17 different drugs: narcotics, psych meds, sleep aids, muscle-relaxers, and nothing, man – none of them worked."
Lucas' intake was extreme, but his story is not. Pain-pill dependence is the NFL's dirty secret, and the next wave of trouble to breach its shore. In a months-long investigation involving dozens of former players, as well as their attorneys, physicians, and addiction counselors, what emerges is a picture of a professional league so swamped by narcotics that it closes its eyes to medical malpractice by many of its doctors and trainers. It does so not because it lacks the will to police its staff and players, but because the game itself could not survive without these powerful drugs. "The wear and tear on our spines and knees – we all had to take that to play," says Richard Dent, the Hall of Fame terror of those great Bears' defenses of the 1980s and 1990s, who is now hobbled by back pain and headaches. "We got pills from the trainer, and where he got them, I don't know. But we were all involved with that."
"Your body ain't made to go through a wall 50, 60 times a game," says Fred McCrary, a Super Bowl fullback with the Patriots in 2003, now belabored by daily migraines and bum shoulders. "By week three, they'd give you whatever you wanted – and, still, guys smoked weed for the pain."