The NFL's Secret Drug Problem
Doctor William Focazio does nothing by half-measures. He lives in a mansion bought from Russell Simmons, summers in a compound on the Jersey Shore, and owns three outpatient surgical centers that churn from morning till night. An Italian-American whose bull-chested gruffness masks an all-access heart for hard-luck stories, he thought he had a sense of what he'd let himself in for when he created PAST in 2008. "I'd seen a TV thing about NFL vets who were busted up and needed a little help," he says, referring to an HBO Real Sports piece focusing on Brian DeMarco, the thirty­something, back-broken former Jags lineman whose story was first told in these pages in September 2007. Recruiting from his circle of distinguished peers – surgeons, neurologists, presidents of medical boards – Focazio assembled a tier-one crew of volunteers to patch up vets, retool their medications, and send them back to productive midlife work.

What showed up, however, was a series of men with what Focazio is calling Pan-Athletic Traumatic Syndrome: crippling injuries to spine and soft tissue, front-brain damage coupled with mood disorders, and – a condition new to him – "polypharmacy," meaning mass consumption of many drugs at once, all or most of them prescribed. "Ten, 12 scrips written by different doctors, none of whom knew what they were treating," says Focazio. "Sleep stuff, benzos, antipsychotics for mood – half this stuff was blocking other drugs. Some guys were so toxic, we couldn't operate on them. They'd have stroked out on the table during surgery."

Focazio, a gastroenterologist with 30 years' experience but not a whit of social-work training, knew he was overmatched. He called Jennifer Smith, who'd run the day-to-day affairs of Gridiron Greats. But "I was burned out and told him no," says Smith, who had spent five years helping men so damaged that she barely got home to Dallas and her aging parents. In the end, she relented, saying she'd come east for a year to scale PAST up to a full-serve clinic. That was three years and 200 veterans ago, and mission creep has long since set in. Her two phones never stop ringing, and each month brings a new crop of patients to northern New Jersey for salvage. Smith flies them in, usually six at a time, boards them at the Marriott near MetLife Stadium, and puts them through a two-day diagnostic blitz of MRIs, blood draws, and workups. Then, before their surgeries and neurology appointments, she shuttles them five miles north to Paterson, New Jersey, where Dr. Manuel Guantez, director of the Turning Point drug-treatment center, pushes a group of vets to own their addictions. "What's different about these guys from the people we usually treat is, they didn't know they were addicts," says Guantez. "They've abused pills for years, their wives and kids are gone, and they barely leave the house except to cop. But because they've been using for their 'injuries,' it just now hits them that they're junkies."

At one of those group sessions, I ran into Ben Smith, a handsome ex-safety with the Eagles who couldn't look less like a dope fiend. Clear-eyed and robust after nine months with PAST, he presents as a man who's sailed a smooth line since his seven-year career ended in 1996. Instead, he's emerging from a long stretch in hell and is just now tallying up his losses: a third of his life given to a narcotics addiction that pushed him to the brink of suicide, plus the $600,000 he'd set aside for retirement but has already long since burned through.

Smith, now 45, and clean since last Christmas, was Philly's first-round pick in 1990, a warhead of a safety with tailback speed and the smarts to start for Buddy Ryan as a rookie. One of four children bred in small-town Georgia by teetotaling Baptist parents, Smith was a rarity in that wild-child clubhouse: a quiet man of God who lived his faith. "My daddy raised us up on church-structure-church, and if we didn't do it his way, he'd beat us blind," says Smith. "Extension cords, fan belts, branches, what-have-you. It was abuse, but he had high expectations."

So did Smith, who played a Pro Bowl–worthy corner, shutting down the likes of Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, and Art Monk. Then, on a bitter-cold day in his second season, he picked off Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar and was flying to the end zone when someone clipped him sideways at the knee. The knee was destroyed, all three ligaments torn, a rare and by no means simple reconstruction. "The team doctor said it was the worst he'd seen, and that's coming from a surgeon with 20 years."

The doctor operated that winter, harvesting the cruciate ligament from a cadaver to remake Smith's anterior, posterior, and medial-collateral ligaments. Well before minicamp, though, it was clear the surgery wasn't a success. Smith's swelling persisted, the pain was relentless, and the joint felt squishy when he tried to pivot. To expedite his progress, Smith says, team trainer Otho Davis (now deceased) fed him the diet of oral narcotics – Percocet, Lortab, oxycodone – that was standard in that clubhouse. "Otho'd come by your locker with his bags of pills, give you a four-day supply," says Armstrong, the nose tackle who played three years in Philly before going to Indianapolis in 1986. "On the bus to play the Giants, he'd have his black bag out and go down the aisle with pills."

After months of failed rehab, Smith went to specialists in L.A. – sure enough, his MCL hadn't been fixed. "In hindsight, I should've wrapped it up right there and sued the doctor for millions," he says. Instead, he got the knee rebuilt again and sat out the 1992 season. He came back in 1993, but even that was too soon: The knee swelled and throbbed after every practice. There was no thought of taking a second year off, though; he had children to feed and clothe. "One of my sisters had got hooked on crack and couldn't look after her five kids. I'd bought my mom a house, but now she had to raise them, and put it on me to provide."

Two things typically happen to injured vets who try to prolong careers. One, they hurt themselves in different places, favoring joints that haven't healed. Two, they end up playing year to year for the veteran minimum salary. So it went with Smith, who signed in 1995 for $200,000 to hang on, in Phoenix. But he damaged his back and shoulder trying to tackle one-legged, and by 1996 found it difficult simply to dress for games. When the Cardinals waived him in the middle of that season, he was in too much pain to give a damn – and on too many meds to feel it if he did. His usage had nearly tripled since he first started pilling in the winter of 1991, from 90 Percs to 250, and he'd learned to supplement what trainers gave him with scrips from outside doctors. "I had a doc in Atlantic City that I'd cop from when I was with the Eagles," he says. "Everyone wants to help out NFL players – till they cut you and you're ass-out on the street."

Like Lucas, and many others who leave the game in pain, Smith didn't promptly file retirement papers or call a union rep to discuss his rights. Had he done so, he'd have learned he had a league retirement check waiting and a three-year window of paid health care. (The term was bumped to five years in the 2011 agreement between the league and the union.) This last, in particular, was vital to know. It's prohibitively expensive for vets to buy insurance once their league-paid coverage expires – the premiums can blow past $50,000 a year, and the list of prior conditions not covered by HMOs can render the policy moot. Again, though, Smith, like Lucas, wasn't thinking straight. Depressed and addicted, he holed up back in Georgia, planning only as far as his next prescription. The doctors he bought pills from stopped taking his calls, though he did manage to sweet-talk two cancer-ridden seniors into selling him their pain meds. But at $10 a pill, that added up fast, and Smith, reduced to unskilled jobs paying $8 to $12 an hour, wasn't earning enough to feed his habit. "I tried so many times to stop," he says, "or space it to a couple pills a day. But the pain would get on me where I couldn't work. I lost a lot of jobs behind that mess."

By 1998, he had to sell the house he'd bought his mother, moving her and her five grandkids into a rented Colonial in a drug-ridden section of Macon. "It killed me to do it, but I was going through my savings, $10,000, $20,000 at a time," he says. Worried for their safety, he bought his mom a pistol and devised a place to hide it for safekeeping. But one of the kids saw where he'd stashed the gun and took it to school to show off. The boy, then 10, was caught and suspended and the gun returned to Smith's mother. Beset by cares herself – she'd had heart surgery twice and was recovering from a bout of lung cancer – she slipped it under her pillow till she could think of someplace better. One morning shortly after, her five-year-old granddaughter, Connis, stayed home with an upset stomach. Taking to Grandma's bed, the girl found the .45 and held it up close for a look. The gun discharged, as guns will do when left around children, safety off. Somehow, Connis was still breathing when medics got there, though the bullet tore a tunnel through her brain before taking a chunk of her skull off.

Two hours north, Smith got the call. "That child was my heart," he says, his voice still catching more than a decade after her death. "She was brain-dead when I got there, breathing off machines. I had to tell my mom to let her go." Connis' passing sent her siblings into deadfall: Two of her three brothers wound up in jail, and the third boy, once the star of the family, had drug dealers banging on his grandma's door, looking for money they said he owed them. Smith, the gun's owner, took it harder still. He stopped seeking work or the company of his friends, dropping more or less completely out of sight. Unable to sleep, he limped the streets till dawn, trying to find the grit to shoot himself (he kept a Glock .40 in his dresser) or hoping that some basehead would do it for him. That he's still alive today owes, at least in part, to the pusher who was selling him Percs: "He told me about a methadone program downtown, where they'd fix me up for nothing, or next to it," he says.

Methadone, the nondeliriant cousin of morphine, seemed like a boon when Smith started in 2002. Even at low doses, it blocked his pain and cost him $3 a day at the walk-in clinic, not the $70 he'd been spending on Percs. But it also began rotting his teeth and bones and made it impossible to work for any firm that drug-tested hires for opiates. By 2009, when an old flame found Smith on Facebook and invited him to visit her in Philly, he was dead broke and weeks from eviction, begging the players' union for assistance. "They turned me down flat, but she kept on me – she said there'd be a way if I kept searching," says Smith of his now fiancée, Marti Stewart, a social worker pregnant with their first child. One night last winter, he was searching the Web when a link to PAST popped up. He wrote Jennifer Smith an email, pouring out his heart to her. She called the next day to book an intake. "They did my MRIs and X-rays, my stress test, you name it, plus drained my knee of fluid," he says. "I called up Marti and said, 'I can't believe it – someone finally gets it this time.' "

Boosted by their care, Smith bit down hard and enrolled in detox. The two weeks of treatment at Eagleville Hospital, a state-run facility near Philadelphia, were his worst since the phone call about his niece. "The pain was so bad, I wanted to give up and die, not once but every damn day. I was calling Dr. B. and hollering at him. I'm sure he thought I was crazy," says Smith of Dr. Joseph Battaglia, a soft-­spoken, boyish-faced neuropsychiatrist who is PAST's director of behavioral health. "We talked a lot on the phone, trying to get Ben comfortable," says Battaglia. "The biggest problem was just getting him some rest." Twenty years of dousing his brain with morphine had frogged Smith's circadian clock. Like Lucas, he'd go days without sleeping, then collapse in a twitchy stupor. It took months of tinkering with diet and medicine to reset his neural rhythm. Since May, though, Smith has slept through the night and gotten sturdier by the month. He'll get his knee fixed this fall by Dr. Vincent McInerney, PAST's director of orthopedics, and have the herniated disc in his back repaired by Dr. Erash Emami, the organization's director of spine services. And then, he hopes, he'll land a job as a football scout and be able to help support the woman who took him in, as well as the son they are about to have. "I've been given these gifts – by Marti, by [PAST's] people – and all I want is to pass it on. The best way I know is to share my story; my own father doesn't know, after all these years. But there's thousands of guys like me and only these few doctors, and here's the league sitting on billions. Why's it these guys' job to fix us up?"