But for decades, the sport's most transparent scandal has gone untold, if not unseen. Since the advent, in the 1980s, of modern narcotics like Vicodin and Percocet, and then later OxyContin, team doctors and trainers have dispensed pills in the millions to keep hurt players practicing and playing. That fact has long been an open secret among writers who cover the game, an unspoken pact between league and press to protect what's left of the sport's mythos. In the wake, however, of the concussion pandemic and the cluster of ex-player suicides, the football media has begun to stir. Articles have appeared in regional papers (the New York Daily News, the Minneapolis Star Tribune) that delve, for the first time, into opioid abuse, though only on the part of the players, not the teams that fed them the drugs. Last year, ESPN filed a report on the plight of ex-players with toxic narcotics habits, releasing the results of a survey of pain-pill abuse it had commissioned with a team of researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The survey found that more than half the league's veterans had taken narcotics during their playing days; that almost three-quarters of that cohort had misused the drugs, taking them longer, and in greater amounts, than suggested; that the majority (63 percent) received their drugs from a nonmedical source like a trainer instead of the team doctor; and that a third were using them habitually in retirement. Given the population of 18,000 current NFL retirees, that means at least 3,000 are taking narcotics, and at least 1,500 suffer from pain-pill dependence that compounds their chronic conditions. "They addict these guys to drugs to keep a product on the field, then cut them when they're too hurt to play," says Mel Owens, a former outside linebacker with the Los Angeles Rams who's now a disability lawyer in Southern California with hundreds of ex-players as clients. "The guys file for workmen's comp, and the teams say, 'Why should we pay you? You're nothing but lowlife addicts!' It's the next big front in our battle with the league: a class-action suit for drug malpractice."
When you talk to retired players, the thing you're always struck by isn't their size or what's left of their physical pride. Instead, it's the love they still bear for the game that took years, or decades, off their lives. They revere the coach who made them play hurt, give thanks to the trainer who shot them up at halftime, and praise the opponent who hit them head-high for the top plays on SportsCenter.
But even for a true believer like Lucas, who entered the league in 1996 as a special-teams gunner and backup QB, loyalty has its limits. "If I ever see Dave Wannstedt on the street, there's gonna be a bad misunderstanding," he snarls as we drive to an appointment with Dr. Arash Emami, the PAST surgeon who will repair his neck. Wannstedt was his coach with the Miami Dolphins in 2002, when Lucas was hurt running a double-reverse just before the half against the Buffalo Bills. "I got blindsided on the toss and driven into the turf; my [throwing] shoulder popped out and was hanging down." Taken off the field for X-rays, Lucas put the shoulder back in himself, and, he says, the team doctor barred him from returning to the game. "For once, a doctor did what he's supposed to," says Lucas. But, he claims, the doctor then left and Wannstedt and the trainer came in and said, "'We need you – [backup QB Sage] Rosenfels isn't ready.' So the trainer shoots me up with lidocaine or something and gives me a bunch of pain pills and I go back out there. But I couldn't feel my arm and threw four picks because I wasn't man enough to say no." (Both Wannstedt, who is now the defensive coordinator for the Bills, and the trainer deny that Lucas was given any medication during this game, and say they have never pressured a player back into a game against doctor's orders.)
It wasn't the worst injury Lucas had weathered in eight hard years spent mostly on the margins of four teams – just the hit that pushed him out the door. Lucas played the next month in electric pain, then was waived by Wannstedt at season's end. He carried a clipboard for the Ravens the following year, but his spine was so ravaged that when he sneezed during practice, he couldn't move his legs for several hours. Again, though: no grudges, Wannstedt excepted. "Bill Parcells, the greatest man next to my dad, told me Rule One my rookie year. He said, 'If you want to stay here, shut your mouth and open your eyes: Watch what the vets do and follow suit.'" What he saw that first summer was a roomful of grinders palming fistfuls of pills from the trainer and forming long lines for Toradol shots just to make it to practice. Toradol, an anti-inflammatory with stiff side effects if abused – kidney damage, ulcers, bleeding in the brain – should never be given more than several days running, except for post-op pain. Lucas took Toradol for months at a time and was scarcely alone in that.
"Toradol was my friend: I'd take pills to practice and big old needles on game day," says McCrary, the Super Bowl fullback who now, at 40, lives in head-to-toe pain. "I'd get injections of Toradol mixed with painkillers," says Leander Jordan, an offensive lineman with the San Diego Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars before back woes forced him out of the league in 2006. "You'd see 10 needles laid in a row, and the trainer would go right down the line."
When it wasn't Toradol, it was Indocin, another anti-inflammatory. "They'd give us those in plastic bags: anti-inflammatories in one bag, painkillers in another, and stuff to help you sleep in the third," says Harvey Armstrong, a nose tackle who played for the Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts and had seven knee surgeries in eight years. "And if you said you lost 'em, the trainers gave you more. Whatever you wanted, no questions asked." None of the teams cited in this article made their trainers available to confirm or deny this.
In his four years with the Jets (and two with Miami), Lucas ripped a tendon in his patella, severely herniated two lumbar discs, and frayed ligaments in his elbow. Each of these called for reconstructive surgery that would have cost him a full year out of football. But Lucas, who earned the league minimum most seasons and always sweated the final round of cuts, couldn't afford that luxury. He had minor procedures done by surgeons over the winters – arthroscopic stitch-ups and bone-chip removals – and bought in fully to the rehab process with yoga, Pilates, and plyometrics. That, and took Vicodin year-round to dampen the pain, and Ambien, scotch, and Xanax to get some rest. "People don't understand: You can't sleep when everything hurts. Legit pain needs legit medication."
He also leaned on his football rabbi: then–Jets trainer Dave Price. Lucas calls Price, now with the Kansas City Chiefs, the "best fucking trainer I had in eight years. The only one who really gave a shit. I broke a bone in my leg against the Colts, for instance, and he got a room next to mine at the Marriott so he could run and change the ice every hour." That was in 1999, Lucas' breakthrough season, when he started nine games and won six of them, though his back was so gnarled he could barely crouch under center for the sciatica singeing both legs. "Wednesdays were bad for me, Fridays, too. I'd need extra, and he saw that I got 'em. And the plane home from games – forget it, man. No one knows what happens on team planes." (Price, in a statement issued through his current team, the Kansas City Chiefs, denies this, stating that when he was with the Jets he followed all team and league policies, and that "all medication distributed to players was under the approval of a physician.")
As described by Lucas, those New York–bound jets were booze cruises minus the sea: players plying themselves with top-shelf liquor and beer, while the team provided all the Vikes and Xanax they could eat. That combination of toxins can "play havoc with lung function, depressing it or stopping it altogether," warns Dr. Amrish Patel, PAST's director of pain management, adding that it can also cause strokes and seizures. The Jets, of course, weren't alone in this: "Liquor and pills on planes go back decades," says Owens, the lawyer and ex-Ram who played in the 1980s. "One of my clients says the team brought beer kegs onto flights; guys would be drunk and doped up every Sunday."
To be clear: No trainer can legally give narcotics or Toradol injections to players; only team doctors are licensed to do that. But physicians are generally available just three days a week: on game days, Mondays, and Tuesdays, to tend to the injured. The other four days, it falls to trainers to keep players on the field. For decades, they did so, according to these veterans, by doling meds out, by hand or in packets, from bucket-size bottles of tablets. Those bottles, containing 250 or 500 pills, were ordered from medical-supply houses using the team doctor's DEA number. The bottles were kept in safes or in padlocked cabinets to which the doctor was supposed to have sole access. In fact, they were freely available to trainers, who dispensed from them as needed.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was among those who declined to comment on this or any of the allegations in this article. Instead, the league put forth Adolpho Birch, an NFL vice president who handles substance-abuse policy; Birch denies that such things happen, then or now. "Every pill is accounted for, to the dose, and noted in players' records," he said by phone. "We have an intricate system to regulate inventories and auditing conducted by outside experts that cross-reference against prescriptions written." When told of players' insistence that they got pills by hand, instead of via prescription, Birch scoffed: "This isn't something we've heard anecdotally." Furthermore, he added, the league has drug-tested players for narcotics since 1989, "and the levels don't have to be excessive."
The players I spoke to burst out laughing at Birch's comments, particularly in response to being tested. "Test for narcotics! There would be no one to play – they'd have to suit the ball boys up," says Lucas. "Do we know that our players are seeking meds, both before and after games?" says DeMaurice Smith, the union chief. "Yes, we've done our own internal surveys. But when we spoke to the league about the bucket-of-pills problem, its response to us was nothing, no new proposal. In fact, when we demanded that they get informed consent before injecting guys with Toradol, they said they'd only do so if players signed a waiver holding them harmless in future lawsuits."
"In college, you heard about needles and pills and said, 'Those NFL dudes are crazy. I'm not doing that to my body,'" says Lucas. "But then you get here, and it's not even a conversation. No one talks about it; you just do it." Like many players, he stopped pilling before games for fear that the drugs slowed response times, relying instead on the Toradol shot to block his pain for four hours. By age 31, though, the jig was up: He'd been waived by the Ravens, gone to fat on Devil Dogs, and was sleeping on a recliner in the family room because he couldn't lie flat without screaming. He had a modest nest egg, three daughters, and four years of health care paid by the league to get his surgeries done. He also had a ravening morphine habit that he angrily denied for six years. That nest egg, and those girls, never stood a chance.