NFL and pain: Pain doesn't stop with a player's retirement

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 22, 2012 - 6:31 AM

When players leave the locker room for the final time, damage lingers. And for some, addiction begins.

Third of three parts

CLIFTON, N.J. — Ray Lucas needed to shave, but he couldn't stomach looking at himself in the mirror. That, of course, is when he actually made it out of bed.

Once a popular quarterback for the New York Jets, Lucas became a person even he despised after retiring from football in 2003 at the age of 31. He wasn't a loving dad, devoted husband or loyal son. He no longer lived in a cocoon of adulation in a city that worships its sports stars.

Instead, he was a drug addict.

His daily existence revolved around consuming a cocktail of painkillers. He downed them by the handful, sometimes 80 pills a day, a habit that cost him $2,200 a month. He lost his job and then his upscale home.

A severe neck injury suffered during his playing days left him debilitated and in constant pain. He needed surgery but had no insurance. He battled depression on top of his physical ailments. So he medicated himself, and withered, until he reached the moment he mapped out his suicide.

"This is the picture that nobody gets to see," Lucas said.

That's starting to change. Former players like Lucas are increasingly going public with their physical, mental and substance-abuse struggles. As the league's popularity continues to soar, player safety, both long and short term, has become a major issue.

More than 2,100 former players have sued the NFL alleging that the league insufficiently responded to concussions and the long-term implications of repeated brain trauma. More than 80 lawsuits were consolidated in early June into one master complaint against the league.

NFL players exhibit a willingness to wreck their bodies, with little regard for the consequences. The expected average career length for a 2011 rookie is 6.36 years, according to the NFL.

The pain and physical damage don't disappear as players walk out the locker room door for the final time, on the average before their 30th birthday.

The use of painkillers is standard practice for NFL players, though to varying degrees. Players understand their job security is only as strong as their ability to stay on the field. Painkillers numb aches and pains and allow players to forge ahead. It's an essential -- and some argue necessary -- aspect of the job.

But what happens when the career ends and the pain continues?

"That's when the problems start," Lucas said.

Planned his suicide

Lucas' personal nightmare serves as a cautionary tale for the potential trap awaiting retired NFL players. He played for four teams in his eight-year NFL career, primarily as a backup quarterback. He appeared in 55 games and -- at 6-3 and 225 pounds -- he never feared physical contact, which resulted in an assortment of injuries.

He used painkillers "periodically" as a player. Only when needed or at night to help him sleep, he said. "It wasn't regimented at all," he said.

His back was so damaged when he retired that he lost feeling from the waist down after a sneeze. He didn't consider himself a painkiller addict and never really thought about his tolerance to those narcotics until he needed back surgery to fuse two discs and artificially replace another one. His surgeon prescribed him a painkiller to last until surgery. Lucas opened the bottle in his car and discovered 30 pills.

"I go back upstairs and say, 'What is this?' " Lucas recalled. "I said, 'You need to write me 90 or something.' He's like, 'What? You want me to lose my license?' "

Lucas told his doctor that prescription would last him only three days.

"It becomes a process," Lucas said. "As you get older, the two [Vicodin] aren't enough. You need four Vics. Then four Vics aren't enough, so you take them all day."

Lucas' life unraveled as he self-medicated that neck injury. He needed a steel plate and six screws to repair the damage, but his NFL insurance expired after five years and he did not own another policy. In constant pain, Lucas had trouble functioning. He lost his job as an account executive with a financial firm as his pain and depression worsened. He took an endless stream of pills, as many as 800 a month.

"When it doesn't work, you take more," he said. "Your tolerance goes up, you take more."

Lucas said he used 19 different medications at one point, including several antidepressants. Drug addicts often feed their habit by "doctor shopping," a term used to describe patients who visit multiple doctors without coordinating care in order to stockpile prescriptions.

Lucas insists he didn't doctor shop by that definition. Instead, he said he obtained prescriptions by visiting doctors from different specialties -- primary care, surgeon, psychiatrist, pain management, etc. -- to treat his various problems.

"Nobody is talking," he said. "How do you think I got up to 19 different meds? Nobody talks. [But] I'm telling you right now, I don't fault my doctors that were trying to help me at all. I can't even imagine what I looked like."

'It's a business'

NFL teams have instituted rules and safeguards in distributing painkillers to prevent abuse. Lucas repeatedly stressed that he only blames himself for becoming addicted to painkillers after retiring, but he also acknowledged the inherent pressure on everyone to keep players on the field.

"Are you kidding me?" he said when asked if a team's medical staff should consider the potential for addiction in distributing painkillers. "You're talking about a $10 billion business. Do you think [they think], 'Oh my God, this guy could get addicted.' You think that's a thought that goes through their head? The only thought in their head is, if this guy doesn't get back on the field, my butt is going to be outside the fence looking in. Are you kidding me? It's a business."

Despite his voluminous pill consumption, Lucas still managed to work as an analyst on a Jets TV show in New York City three times a week. He avoided pills the day before shows, he said, so he could function, but he ingested 30 painkillers in his vehicle before driving home.

"If we had traffic, I'd take another 15 just so I could make sure," he said.

Lucas withdrew into a world of agony. His mood alternated between "flat-lined" and fits of rage. His weight dropped to 170 pounds.

On several occasions he asked his wife, Cecy, to take their three daughters and leave him. For years, Cecy called her husband "Iron Man" because he was tough and nothing ever fazed him. This was not that man. She watched him fall asleep many nights and wondered if he would wake up.

"Imagine living with that fear for two years," he said.

Lucas said he sought help "everywhere," including the NFL and players union, but found little support or answers. He figured suicide was his only option and planned to do it on a Sunday morning while his wife and daughters were at church. He would drive his truck off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River.

Then he made one more phone call.

Acting on the advice of an acquaintance, Lucas contacted Jennifer Smith, the director of player programs for PAST, a New Jersey-based network of doctors who provide pro bono medical care to retired professional athletes. Dr. William Focazio, who founded Pain Alternatives, Solutions and Treatments, offered to help Lucas with his pain management, drug addiction and neck surgery. Lucas underwent an electrocardiogram during one of his initial visits to PAST and learned he had an enlarged heart and blood pressure over 200.

"I was a walking heart attack," he said. "Now that I look back, you take 80 pills a day, you feel fantastic no matter what."

His treatment plan required a stint at a drug treatment facility in Florida. Lucas swallowed 28 pills as soon as his plane landed.

"I was scared to death," he said. "You don't know what to expect. What was going to happen to me, what I was going to go through? I started sweating, stomach starts hurting. I couldn't sleep, shaking, [diarrhea]."

Still loves the game

Lucas emerged from treatment clean and clearheaded and recently celebrated 15 months of sobriety. His neck surgery was successful, although he still experiences pain from injuries sustained on the football field. He underwent another neck surgery this summer.

Lucas knows he can't afford to slip or give in to temptation. He's found purpose and strength as a peer mentor for PAST and advocate for former players suffering similar health and drug problems.

"When you receive a gift that PAST gave me, for me not to give it back, I should be shot," he said. "If I just went home and said, 'Hey, thanks ...' Thank God for PAST or I'm in the dirt and my three girls don't have a father and my mother is mourning the death of her son and my wife is wearing black for a year. You understand what I'm saying? It's so much bigger than denial. I was living the dream."

That dream still grips him, still stirs emotions that pulsate through his body and soul. Lucas still loves football. Those feelings won't go away, no matter how much devastation it caused in its aftermath.

"I love the game," he said, standing outside the PAST clinic on a spring afternoon. "I've had 13 surgeries and been through hell. And if I could go back tomorrow, I'd go in a second. If somebody said, 'Ray, you can go back and do it all over again, but you're going to have to go through the same thing,' I'd go back in a second. In a second."

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  • Ray Lucas played quarterback in the NFL for four teams from 1996 to 2003.

  • After retirement, Ray Lucas battled depression on top of his physical ailments. So he medicated himself heavily.

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