The NFL's Secret Drug Problem

Here comes the pain again, extra-strength, a loud, blue blade down the shank of his left arm, carving from spine to wrist. Sitting in a clamorous Midtown steakhouse a block from his studio at SportsNet New York, Ray Lucas goes into pneumatic shakes, like a kid who's stuck his pinkie in a light socket. The 40-year-old ex-quarterback of the New York Jets – 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, and still built like a mine shaft nine years after retirement – puts his head down on the table for several moments, waiting for the sizzle to stop. Seated beside him in the booth, Jennifer Smith, the player-­program director of PAST (Pain Alternatives Solutions and Treatments), a consortium of surgeons and specialists who repair the bodies of NFL veterans free of charge, lays her hand on his shoulder and says nothing. There's little to do but wait with Lucas and count off the days till his next surgery.

Time was, Lucas could feel it before the nerves at the base of his neck went into spasm. He suffers from, among other ailments, stenosis of the spine – a compression of the open spaces in the canal causing pressure on the spinal cord – the result of blindside shots and face-plant tackles. But now, 18 months after a drug rehab during which he torturously withdrew from the pain pills he was taking just to get out of bed – six or eight Vicodins with his morning coffee, half a dozen Percocets to wash down lunch, double that to make it to bedtime – Lucas has lost his early-warning system and lives at the mercy of these flashes. Off all meds now except for monthly epidurals to dull his pain till surgery, he's facing his seventh operation in less than seven years and is walking around with steel plates and screws in his neck that will have to be replaced at some point.

Still, all in all, this is a good day for Lucas, who, when he retired in 2003 after being waived by the Baltimore Ravens, hurt wherever you could hurt and still draw breath. There's relief in the offing – once the surgeons go in and saw down the bones that pierce his discs. More, he's still loved by his wife and three daughters, who've flourished since he weaned himself off narcotics in 2011, shucking the 800-pill-a-month prescription-drug habit that had turned him into a red-eyed monster. And while, yes, he's lost his dream house, his NFL savings, and the small air-conditioning business he built after football, the great, improbable fact is he's still here to tell his story. For that, he can thank Smith, who took his last-chance call when he was in danger of becoming the next ex-NFL player to kill himself.

"I had it all planned: I was going to do it that Sunday, when my wife and kids went to church," 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 Chicago Bears defenses of the 1980s and 1990s, who is now hobbled by back pain and headaches. "We got pills from a 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 New England Patriots in 2003, now belabored by bum shoulders and daily migraines. "By week three, they'd give you whatever you wanted – and, still, guys smoked weed for the pain."

"Our doctors, who've seen everything, were shocked when they saw these guys; their prescription-pill addictions were literally deadly," says Smith over her steak salad. Formerly the director of Gridiron Greats, the first nonprofit to come to the aid of disabled retirees from the NFL, she's helped build PAST from a charitable notion into a medical oasis for broken-down vets, offering full surgical care, drug-rehab stints, and long-term pain relief. Funded entirely by one doctor, a wealthy New Jersey internist named William Focazio, it has stepped into the void and saved the lives of men who've been ditched by the richest league on Earth. "We've taken guys in their forties who were weeks or days from dying on a 1,000-Vikes-a-month-and-tequila diet."

"And trust me: We don't quit without a fight," says Lucas. "I drove this woman crazy with my addict bullshit, stunts she doesn't even know about to this day."

"Like what?" says Smith, a pale, pretty blonde, checking a BlackBerry that never stops buzzing.

"Like copping a gang of Percs at the Super Bowl and gulping 'em before the plane ride down to rehab."

Smith closes her eyes, letting this information settle. In February 2011, she'd flown him to Dallas to come clean before the national football media, telling hundreds of reporters during Super Bowl week about the pain-pill epidemic beneath their noses. Lucas did face the writers (who largely ignored him), then hit the streets of iced-in Dallas for one last brain-freeze binge. "That's just friggin' wrong, Ray. If you'd gotten arrested trying to score, or . . . or something worse had happened – "

"I know," says Lucas, "but there it is. An addict's gonna do what he's gonna do."