The NFL’s Secret Drug Problem

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Photograph by Travis Rathbone

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."When it comes to pro football, the news is no longer new: We all know the wages of this sport. Brain death. Bountygate. Concussions. Crippled ex-players living in penury, unable to support themselves and their children. "This is a game with a 100 percent injury rate, according to the league's own stats," says DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association. "The average career for players is three and a half years, then the league fights in court to deny them lifetime insurance for the injuries that forced them out. That's the state of play: They're fungible assets."

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.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?"When you talk to an official like Adolpho Birch, who refutes the pain-pill crisis in sweeping terms and touts the league's enforcement as "world-class," you're tempted to think the league will treat this as it did concussions – a thing to be denied until the lawsuits come. Certainly, the players' union deems that so: "We would welcome Congress's involvement on health and safety issues," says a senior executive who asked not to be named. In truth, though, NFL officials have quietly taken steps to begin to address the problem. In the past several years, say recent retirees like McCrary, Lucas, and others, teams have cracked down on dispensing pills by hand to players in chronic pain. Doctors are writing scrips now that players get filled outside of team facilities, and a few teams no longer stock narcotics, using outside pharmacies to deliver. "When I played, we got what we wanted," says McCrary, who retired in 2008 after being cut by the Seattle Seahawks. "Now, from what I'm hearing, they've tightened up some. Guys gotta see the doctor to get their pills."

But pain is pain; it doesn't honor new rules or stop when the doctor is out. Has the clampdown altered player behavior?

"Nothing has changed. Not a single thing. If anything, it's worse than ever." The speaker is Dr. Alex Stalcup, the co-founder and medical director of the New Leaf Treatment Center near San Francisco. Stalcup knows as much about opioid abuse as anyone connected with the league; he's treated hundreds of players over more than two decades and has a dozen or so currently under his care. "I've gotten the call so often, I can recite it by heart," he says. " 'Doc, I'm sick but I gotta play Sunday – can I swing by your house in the morning?'"

Stalcup has quietly helped players keep their jobs while weaning off Oxy and Vikes. "They get to where they can't find enough pills, or their liver has started bleeding, and they're scared. So they come to me because I'm known around the league as the guy who'll treat off-site and keep a secret."

He describes the current clubhouse as a pharmaceutical swap meet, in which players trade drugs and links to "star-fucking" doctors who are happy to write scrips for famous clients. "Team doctors have gotten cautious about the amounts they dispense, so guys who were getting X now get ­X-minus-10 and have to go elsewhere to make it up. They either cop from the guy next to them or road-trip to Florida and load up at the legal pill mills."

Florida has the softest opioid laws of any state on the Eastern seaboard and is overrun with walk-in, cash-only clinics that hand out prescriptions to all comers. Despite a recent push to shut down huckster physicians, the state accounted two years ago for almost 90 percent of the OxyContin sold by doctors in the country. "Florida's a sewer: You can see three doctors in one day," says Stalcup. "Each of them will do a bogus MRI to make the visit look legitimate, then give you a scrip to treat whatever they 'found' – and they'll always find something on a player's scan."

Dubbing himself the "anti-Florida doctor," Stalcup switches players to Suboxone and maintains them on the drug for several years. Suboxone, a semisynthetic variant of morphine, is the treatment of choice now for opiate addiction and chronic pain. As Suboxone is a safe but potent painkiller that lasts longer than its cousin methadone, I asked Stalcup about its potential use as game-day analgesic. "No one should ever play in pain, or load up on drugs to try and mask it," he said. "But if you're asking me if guys are taking Suboxone or methadone on game day, the answer, unequivocally, is yes. I know, because I prescribed them myself."

He does so knowing that if he doesn't prescribe, the players will find someone, or something, worse. "A lot of these guys are three game checks from broke, so they're going to go out there regardless. But the newsflash here isn't that football players are junkies: I've been cleaning them up since 1986, and it was going on before I showed up. No, the real news here is that there's treatment that works, no matter how bad your addiction. If we pull you into care once you do stop playing, we'll get you well, with dignity and on an outpatient basis, while you go about the next phase of your life. You don't have to be another guy who loses it all and breaks your loved ones' hearts."Ray Lucas wishes he'd gotten that message while he still had something to lose. "If I could take back anything, it's not the money or the house – it's the shit show I dragged her through." He nods across the table at his wife, Cecy, a fine-boned woman whose liquid eyes seem parked on the shoulder of tears. We're sitting in the kitchen of their house in Harrison, New Jersey, once a working-poor town of Irish pubs now engulfed by bodegas and taquerias. "No one tells the story of our women and kids. Their dudes became some full-time fucking monsters."

Cecy huffs a sigh and eyes her nails, content to let him tell the story. She cuts in only to correct his memory, which after a dozen or more concussions, can stand the help. "You took more pills than that," she says when he talks about the period after his first back surgery, postretirement. In 2005, he had a lumbar laminectomy to fix three vertebrae in his back and got healthy enough to hold an executive position with an office-cleaning outfit in New York. He also cut back on his pill consumption – though not quite as much as he recalls. "It wasn't just a couple a day," she says. "The co-pays for your pills – the sleep stuff, the Vicodins, plus the muscle relaxers – that was in the thousands, babe."

Lucas seems stunned. "You sure that wasn't later, when my neck got bad?"

"Baby, we were broke, even with your TV gig. Every last dollar went to drugs."

By 2008, Lucas' NFL coverage had ended, and his cervical nightmare began: short, sharp spasms that had Cecy fearing he'd developed Tourette's. Dropped by his doctors because he had no insurance and couldn't pay cash for visits, he hit the street and found dealers happy to help a TV star. "I'm talking professionals in Manhattan, not some kid on a corner; for a while, they wouldn't take my money. They'd just say, 'Bring me to the club when you go out.' I'd get them past the ropes, introduce them around, and be on my way to the tunnel with my stash."

But addiction is a beast whose belly can't be filled. Lucas' intake doubled, then quadrupled. In a year, he'd lost his start-up business because he was so doped he couldn't make meetings; lost the big suburban house downstate that Cecy spent years remodeling; pulled his daughters off dance teams and cheerleading squads because he needed their travel money for his jones; and moved the family, Christmas week, to a saltbox in Harrison, where they were awakened by drunks banging on their door. "All I did then was break their hearts; why they didn't leave me, I'll never know."

"Because you wanted to die, and we wouldn't let you. Tell about the time Rayven stopped you."

Rayven, his oldest, walked into Lucas' bedroom on a morning he'd set aside to shoot himself. "I was at my worst, just filled with fuckin' poison," he says. "She's standing two feet from where I'm hiding the gun and says, 'Daddy, I know you're sick and having a bad time, but I just really, really love you and want you better.' I mean, what do you say to that but 'I love you, too, baby, and I promise I'll keep trying'?"

He made a series of calls to the league and players' union, seeking cash and medical help. What came back, says Cecy, was a disability application "the size of a frickin' phone book. We filled it out the best we could, and six months later: denied." Ultimately, they managed to get him partial disability, borrowed against his NFL pension; meanwhile, his checks from SportsNet New York went "directly to drugs – I never saw them," she says. Then came the break that saved his life: a back-channels call from a former league physician, passing on Smith's private number. "He said, 'You can't use my name, but she'll take care of you. Please call her before you do something crazy.' "

Three days later, Lucas was on an examining table at PAST's surgical center in Clifton. "The nurse who took my pressure ran out to get the doc. I'm thinking, Hmm, this probably ain't good," he says. After 12 years of pilling, his heart had doubled in size, and his blood-pressure readings ran so high that any strain could have triggered a stroke. He was rushed to see Dr. Bart DeGregorio, PAST's pulmonary director, and put on a crash course of diuretics and beta- blockers. Through diet and medicine, doctors reduced his triglycerides while weaning him off a dozen toxic drugs. That October, PAST's Emami performed a spinal fusion, resolving at least some of the pain in his neck and allowing him to enter rehab.

For three full days, Lucas writhed on the floor, shitting and barfing and hearing voices. When he managed to get upright, the joint pain was savage: "He walked," says Smith, who flew him to Florida and stayed through the worst of it, "like an 80-year-old guy with gout." As the Suboxone built up, though, the pain receded; in a fortnight, he was stretching and taking long walks, things he hadn't done in nearly a dec­ade. After 42 days, he went home to his family, who'd moved to their current house across town. "I came through the door, and it was just tears, hugs, and more tears: The real me was back, not the zombie," says Lucas. He looks over at Cecy, who stands to clear the dishes in order to keep from crying. "All the wrong I did her, the times I broke her heart: for her to still love me . . . man, you don't know."

It's about to get seriously moist in that kitchen when Lucas' daughters burst in: two tall, lissome teens and a 10-year-old colt with their mother's heartfulness. They kiss Mom hello, then hover over Dad, sensing something amiss. "You OK?" they ask him. "Does your neck hurt? Your knee?" "I'm fine," he says. "Stop mothering me." "Then, good," says Rayven, grabbing his hand. "You can drive us to Wendy's: We're starved!"

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