Part II of Painkillers in the NFL
by Sheilla Dingus
January 23, 2017
Going into the final stretch of the 2016-2017 season, the NFL has imposed 44 fines or suspensions on players for violations of the league’s substance abuse or performance enhancing substance policies. Much of the substance abuse discipline is related to players’ use of marijuana, some for medical purposes as in the case of Bills OT Seantrel Henderson, who was suspended for using physician-prescribed cannabis for symptomatic treatment of Crohn’s Disease, a gastrointestinal disease so painful that it renders many of its sufferers unable to walk. Cannabis is one of the few, and also the most effective ways of treating this presently incurable disease. Other players who may use marijuana for pain management related to playing injuries are also subject to suspensions, should they be caught – regardless of whether or not marijuana use is legal in the state where they live.
Numerous other players have faced fines and suspensions for ingesting performance-enhancing drugs, several, allegedly by accident. Eagles RT Lane Johnson has filed a lawsuit against both the NFL and Players’ Association claiming in addition to a number of procedural violations that the Aegis app provided to players is not accurate and the union isn’t doing enough to protect players from accidental ingestion of banned substances.
The one class of drugs the NFL does not appear to have a problem with is painkillers – both of the opioid and NSAID variety – yet these are allegedly used outside the boundaries of medical guidelines constituting imposed substance abuse for the sole purpose of enhancing players’ ability to perform and remain in the game. If statements made by dozens of former players and a handful of active players are true – and I see little if any reason for doubt, – then the NFL is engaged in a dangerous hypocrisy regarding drug use.
As I detailed in Part I of this series, serious accusations have been hurled at the league, describing a return to play culture that places athletes at risk through illegal and unethical administration of prescription drugs. In order to ensure and increase profits, the league and its collective of thirty-two franchises have used medications in amounts and frequencies far exceeding safe limitation in order to keep playmaking athletes on the field, without respect to injuries incurred, permanent orthopedic damage, or internal organ damage from over use and misuse of various painkillers.
Players generally trust their team physicians and take the medications given by their doctors and trainers, sometimes knowing what’s been administered and other times knowing nothing more than, “Take this and you’ll be able to play.”
The NFL return to play culture is very different from that of college football; at least that was one player’s experience. I spoke with former NFL OL Darryl Ashmore who sustained his first significant injury when playing at Northwestern. A knee injury in his sophomore year kept him sidelined for a year and red-shirted for what would have been his senior year due to a knee injury that required major surgery and a subsequent clean-up. In spite of missing two seasons, he wasn’t cut from the team nor pressured to return before he felt he was ready. Nor was he given excessive painkillers to facilitate a faster return.
Contrast this with his NFL career where he suffered numerous injuries but seldom missed playing time. Instead, his team doctors were happy to supply him with opioid painkillers such as Darvocet, Vicodin, and Percocet to keep him in the game. He says these drugs were consistently provided without a prescription or any warnings in regard to side-effects or potential health risks. He recalls that during his eleven-year NFL career, in which he played for the Rams, Redskins, and Raiders, that doctors and trainers from each team invariably relied on injections and “hundreds of pills” to keep him on the field. At away games he says that trainers visited the player’s hotel rooms dispensing pills at a dosage he learned after retirement was frequently double the recommended dosage that his post-retirement doctors prescribed.
“I had a neck injury with the Rams. My neck was never the same. I had trouble sleeping,” he told me. “Luckily, I was going into the offseason with the neck injury with the Rams and had a chance to rehab it, but I was never physically a hundred percent strong strength-wise and the feeling in the arms never came back all the way.” His only other option was to have surgery which he said would have ended his career. He was back on the field for the following season with the help of painkillers, and now sleep aids which were supplied by the team’s doctors and trainers.
After being traded to the Redskins he suffered a serious back injury that was treated with muscle relaxers and pain pills. He played three days after sustaining the injury and now has disc problems and advanced degeneration of the spine because of that injury and the way it was handled. “Backs never get better,” he said. Though he played on, he continued to suffer, “But you get through it with painkillers and what they give you, anti-inflammatories, and you never really get to feel your body because they give you painkillers during the offseason to offset some of the pain.”
Following his trade to the Raiders in 1998, the team where he would play the final four years of his career, he sustained an injury in practice and believed that he’d broken his wrist. The injury occurred on October 25 and the Raiders had an important game against the Seahawks on November 1. When he was examined by Dr. Warren King, the team’s doctor, he was told the injury was only a sprain and that he’d be fine with pain management. The day after the game the same doctor told him that his wrist was, in fact broken. He played the remainder of the season in a cast, using painkillers to numb the pain. Between the knee, neck, back, and wrist injuries, he relied on team supplied anti-inflammatories and painkillers to keep going.
“So at that point, without the painkillers, you know, hey, I can’t play this game anymore. I probably shouldn’t have been playing the last few years,” he said, looking back in retrospect. No one warned him. Now he suffers severe pain throughout his body from those injuries. He can no longer operate a vehicle, sit for extended periods of time, which eliminates air travel, nor do many of the things most of us take for granted. His doctors also believe he has sustained kidney damage due to the painkiller overload in his system. He has applied for football degenerative total and permanent disability and been denied by the NFL/NFLPA administered plan, without even a review of his medical records. His appeal is currently in the court system awaiting discovery.
This problem has reached epidemic levels within the NFL. “I’ve seen players I played with that roll out of bed and can’t even be able to get up the next day after a game,” he said. “Without the painkillers, a lot of the guys would not have been playing for as many years as they did.”
Chris Good played his entire seven-year career as a defensive back for the Indianapolis Colts. Like Ashmore, he also was encouraged to play through injuries with the aid of a variety of painkillers primarily provided by team trainers. He recalls being given Vicodin, Indocin, and Percocet among others, but often he wasn’t aware of what was being administered, as the pills were either given to him by hand or in unmarked packaging.
He also received repeated Cortisone injections to alleviate pain from various knee and ankle injuries. One injury left him paralyzed on the field for about 15 minutes but he was “revived” through Cortisone shots that team doctors gave throughout a period of several weeks. According to the Mayo clinic, Cortisone shots should not be administered more often than once every six weeks and usually not more than three or four times a year, due to risky side-effects of which he says he was not informed.
In 1993 he suffered a neck injury but says he was pressured to play through it. After that season the Colts were unwilling to re-sign him. He believes that the neck injury and not being given sufficient time to rest and re-hab the injury made other teams leery of signing him, thus ending his career and terminating his endorsement deal with Reebok.
In 2015 Goode was diagnosed as having renal cancer, which is believed to be the result of over-use of painkillers, as there is no history of kidney problems in his family. In May 2015 he underwent a partial nephrectomy to remove half of his kidney along with the malignant tumor. Though is currently in remission, he continues to experience daily pain as a result of the surgery. He also suffers from numbness in his arms and legs and constant pain in his neck, back, elbows, wrists, feet, knee, and ankle.
Jerry Wunsch played from 1997 – 2001 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and from 2002 – 2005 for the Seattle Seahawks. Like the others, he was fed a steady “diet” of painkillers to keep him on the field. He says that both teams administered various drugs including Tylenol-Codeine #3, Percocet, Vicodin, Toradol, Indocin, and Prednisone (which by the way is a steroid.) Also, like the others, he claims he was never warned of side-effects or potential adverse consequences of constant use of these medications.
Consistent with other player statements he asserts that trainers walked the aisles of planes on the way home from away games handing out anti-inflammatories and pain killers to anyone who said they were in pain and needed them, no questions asked.
Wunsch says that he took “some kind of painkiller or anti-inflammatory drug nearly every day in-season.” He also received Toradol shots from the team doctor before many games and occasionally for practice. At one point, he was shot up with Hayalgan in his ankle, instead of being rested, and was told that the Hayalgan would act like oil to lubricate his gears because it was bone on bone in his ankle. While Hayalgan is used in this regard, it is normally administered as a last resort and patients are warned to avoid jogging, strenuous activity, or high-impact sports, weight-bearing activity or standing for longer than 1 hour at a time. Or at least they’re supposed to be – Wunsch was never cautioned in this regard; instead he was advised to do the opposite.
He remembers being pressured to get back in the game many times; once was on November 23, 2003 when the Seahawks were playing the Ravens in Baltimore. Before the game, Coach Holmgren asked Wunsch if he could play, to which he replied “I do not think so.” Coach Holmgren then called for Sam Ramsden, the Seahawks’ trainer, and asked “What can we do to help Mr. Wunsch play today?” Mr. Ramsden brought the doctors over, who gave him a 750 mg dose of Vicodin and Tylenol-Codeine # 3, saying they would help, even though Mr. Wunsch was already taking anti-inflammatories as prescribed by his doctors. He played – feeling high – and after half time, the Medications wore off and he told anyone who would listen that he couldn’t play anymore, but he was given another 750 mg of Vicodin for the second half. In short, on top of the Indocin he was already taking, Mr. Wunsch was also given 1500 mg of Vicodin and Tylenol-Codeine # 3, within a three-hour span, so he could play football.
Once Wunsch was told by the team doctor that he had torn his labrum. The doctor told him, if he had surgery, his career would be over and recommended that he continue playing and manage the problem with medications. He followed his doctor’s advice and received pills and injections to play through various injuries to his ankles. After the last injury, the doctor informed him that his ankles were so damaged he didn’t think he could return him to play immediately with injections and pills. Shortly thereafter, the Club cut him and he never played again.
Wunsch currently suffers from an enlarged liver, a damaged pituitary gland, stomach problems, and other endocrine issues despite no family history of any of these conditions. All are attributed to the painkillers he consumed while in the NFL. He is also in constant pain from all of his joints and has shooting nerve pain in his badly damaged ankle.
The three men I’ve written about so far are fortunate in one respect. While they live with serious pain and musculoskeletal damage – and varying degrees of internal organ damage – they somehow managed to walk away from the NFL without an addiction problem. Others haven’t been so lucky.
Hall of Famer Richard Dent played fifteen years in the NFL as a defensive end, the first ten of which were spent with the Chicago Bears. He was an outstanding pass rusher and part of the heralded core of talented players that composed the Bears’ legendary defenses of the 1980s. He was voted MVP of Super Bowl XX. He went on to win another Super Bowl ring with the 49ers in XXIX. He was a four-time Pro Bowler, and four-time First Team All-Pro, leading the NFL in sacks in 1985.
It was during his rookie year, that Dent first became acquainted with the covert drug culture of the NFL. In his first practice following his first preseason game four players fell on top of him. His legs literally did the splits and he tore his hamstring along with tendons and ligaments in his ankle. The pain was so severe it was difficult for him to walk or even sit on the toilet. Despite being put on several anti-inflammatory drugs and pain killers, he questioned being put back on the field. He wound up playing in the last preseason game, doped up to the point that he could hardly remember playing. This is where it started and went on from there; a pill for this a shot for that which led him down a long and dangerous path.
He soon fell into a daily ritual of going to breakfast with the team, then receiving whatever “medications” were necessary to get him on the field, taking them in time to be able to practice, and then taking downers at night to “come down” and sleep.
Richard Dent remembers that amphetamines were available in jars in the locker room for any and all to take. Only after the deaths of Don Rodgers and Len Bias were the jars removed, though NFL doctors and trainers still gave players amphetamines whenever they wanted.
In 1990 while playing in Seattle, Dent suffered a broken bone in his foot. He was told by team doctors and trainers at the time that he had done all the damage that could be done to that foot and, while he could elect to have surgery, they could also supply him with painkillers to allow him to continue playing doing no further harm. Trusting that the doctors and trainers had his best interests in mind, he chose to continue playing and for the following eight weeks, he received repeated injections of painkillers in addition to pills to keep playing. He wound up sustaining permanent nerve damage in that foot and now suffers from an enlarged heart as a result of the opioid medications he received in mass quantities.
He left the NFL dependent on painkillers. Like many other retired players, the residual pain from Dent’s injuries caught up with him. After his retirement, when he was no longer able to obtain painkillers from the NFL he was compelled to purchase over-the-counter painkillers to satisfy his need for pain relief. Over the course of that time, he has spent an extensive amount of money on such medications. His quarterback from Super Bowl XX has a similar story.
Two-time Super Bowl champion Jim McMahon spent fourteen seasons in the NFL. His career began with promise in landing the role of starting quarterback with the Bears in 1982. He led the Bears to a win in Super Bowl XX along with Richard Dent in 1985, but as his successes mounted on the field; his struggles with injuries and painkillers began to spiral. In the season leading up to Super Bowl XX he developed intense pain in his throwing hand and received injections of painkillers for six straight weeks in order to cope. In 1986 he received shots for pain in his shoulder for ten straight weeks. In both instances, only later did he learn that he should have sat that time out and healed rather than mask the pain and return to play too early.
Over the course of his career and through eighteen surgeries, McMahon became dependent on painkillers in a slow process that overtook him without him realizing it. In the years leading up to his retirement, he was taking as many as 100 Percocets per month, even in the off-seasons.
He learned for the first time in 2011 or 2012 that he had suffered a broken neck at some point in his career. He believes it happened during a 1993 playoff game when, after a hit, his legs went numb. Rather than sit out, he received medications and was pushed back on the field. No one from the NFL ever told him of this injury. In addition, he learned only a few years ago that he had broken an ankle while playing; at the time, he was told it was a sprain.
Like Dent, after his retirement, he found himself dependent on the painkillers that had masked his injuries and sustained him during his career, and also like Dent, he sustains permanent damage to his extremities and has spent an enormous amount of money in his attempts to quell the pain.
J. D. Hill
J.D. Hill was a wide receiver in the NFL for seven years in the 1970s; his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills and his final two seasons with the Detroit Lions. Like the others, he sustained numerous injuries and was given abundant drugs with which to compensate. “I was provided uppers, downers, painkillers, you name it while in the NFL,” he said in 2014, shortly after the lawsuit in which he is represented was filed. “I became addicted and turned to the streets after my career and was homeless. Never took a drug in my life, and I became a junkie in the NFL.”
It took fifteen drug treatment centers over a period of 20 years for Hill to overcome his NFL-sponsored drug addiction. For much of this time, he was alienated from his wife, children, and grandchildren. He was finally able to clean up his life and is now a pastor and substance abuse counselor helping others. He was able to mend his family relationships, but still the scars remain.
Outside of the painkiller addiction, Hill believes that the Prednisone he was given while in the NFL weakened his immune system and facilitated an abscess in his lung. The surgery to save his life resulted in the loss of part of his lung. In addition, he has atrial fibrillation that requires doctor-supervised medication in addition to pain throughout his body.
Grant Feasel played center in the NFL for the Colts, Vikings, and Seahawks over the course of nine years. Tragically, he isn’t alive to tell his story. I spoke to his wife Cyndy and she shared a bit of what he – and she by extension experienced during his career. Cyndy said that Grant came from a religious upbringing and didn’t drink alcohol or do any drugs when they met in college. This would change after Feasel was drafted by the then Baltimore Colts. Like the others, Grant would soon be indoctrinated in the drug induced return to play culture.
“I firmly believe Grant got hooked on drugs – painkillers while he played in the NFL. He had a terrible staph infection in the 80’s and after that started coming home with little bags of pills. I talk about this in my book After The Cheering Stops. He couldn’t sleep due to the pain. He was taking Vicodin and Percocet on a regular basis to play,” she told me. She also recalls the weekly shots he was given in order to be able to play. As time wore on, he began drinking, combining the effects of the alcohol and painkillers.
“We trusted the NFL doctors and thought they were the very best. Little did we know they just push people back on the field to play. How can you call yourself a doctor and do that each week?” Cyndy wonders. “I have no respect for any of them,” she continued. “I trusted my husband to them for 117 games over 10 years. I know people think they understand all the dangers before signing up, but in 1983, we did not!”
Grant Feasel suffered numerous concussions during his football career. Studies indicate that brain injury increases susceptibility to addiction, further escalating the problem. This is because repeated blows to the head cause degeneration of the frontal lobe, which is responsible for impulse control. This loss of control can easily lead someone who normally wouldn’t touch drugs down a deadly path of addition. “We were so young and has no idea about the CTE or repetitive hits caused brain damage,” Cyndy said.
She recalls the night he retired, “He drank a bottle of Jack Daniels. No wonder! He was worried about where he’d get the drugs for the pain the rest of his life – and that was an issue.” The issue escalated. Grant Feasel did find a way to secure the painkillers he needed to cope; he found employment in pharmaceutical sales. But as Cyndy recalls, his life began to revolve around seeking relief from pain. “These habits started in the NFL caused Grant to fade slowly away from me and our family over the years up until he died.” The loss of impulse control, most likely a result of CTE and addiction, turned the man of Cyndy’s dreams into someone she didn’t know. Exasperated, and not understanding what was happening, she finally divorced her husband about a year before his death. The turmoil fractured her family.
Grant Feasel died of cirrhosis of the liver on July 15, 2012. It wasn’t until after his death that Cyndy learned that he had Stage 3 CTE, and began to put the pieces of the puzzle together. “I hate them for what they did to Grant,” Cyndy exclaims! “Drugs & alcohol ruined our life and ultimately killed my husband and destroyed our family.” Grant Feasel is not a named plaintiff in either of these lawsuits but should the claims prevail, his family, and many others not-named would be part of the settlement class.
I return to where I began. The NFL has, over the past fifty years or so created a largely invisible drug culture that has become so pervasive it almost defies description. While simultaneously waging its own war on selected drugs and PED use, it uses its own drugs of choice to not only enhance performance but enable it in situations where playing the game of football would otherwise be impossible.
The stories in this segment of my painkiller series are representative of thousands of former NFL players. The human cost of the NFL’s relentless quest for ever higher revenues is immeasurable. In Part III of this trilogy, I’ll explore the lawsuits, dive into the legal arguments and whether or not the players are likely to prevail. Stay tuned.