America's most popular sport may not have the PED scandals of cycling, but still bears more than its share of alcohol- and drug-related problems. On the eve of the Super Bowl, The Fix highlights 10 examples.
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher was drunk when he shot the mother of his child and then himself last December. According to a friend who talked to Deadspin, it was a common state for the 25-year-old. Belcher "drank ALOT. On a nightly basis. This is not a mystery as he did so in public and private," the friend wrote in an email. Belcher also mixed his booze with pain pills that he took to cope with football-related injuries. He then brought that volatile combination of alcohol and narcotics into a crumbling relationship strained by paternity questions. Then everything exploded. As Belcher's friend wrote, it wasn't one thing that caused the linebacker to murder his girlfriend and kill himself: "I would say a combination of alcohol, concussions, and prescription drugs put him in a state that he would not otherwise be in."
Over the past few years the connection between football and CTE, a form of brain damage associated with head trauma, has been well established. The brains of dozens of living and dead players have shown signs of CTE, a disease that affects the areas of the brain controlling memory, emotions and impulse control. For some, CTE leads to depression and, in several cases, suicide. For former NFL lineman Tom McHale, it led to cocaine addiction. After a nine-season career McHale retired and found himself dependent on painkillers. This addiction slowed him down, so he took up cocaine to pick himself up. In 2008 McHale died of an accidental overdose on a drug he may never have tried were it not for the brain damage he suffered playing football.
In an interview with The Fix last July, former Jets quarterback Ray Lucas matter-of-factly said, "In the NFL you’re going to get injured. You’re going to need to take the medication." The sentiment is one often articulated by former players. Painkillers, it seems, are as essential to the NFL as beer commercials and cleats. According to a lawsuit filed by a dozen players in late 2011, the painkiller Toradol, which numbs the hurt of hard hits, was administered en masse in NFL locker rooms around the turn of the last century. Lucas said he saw pain pills passed around like candy, and they never came with a warning of side effects or long-term damage. For many players it gets worse when they retire: An ESPN study in 2011 found that retired football players take painkillers at four times the rate of the general public.
After a rookie year in which he played in nine games and recorded 14 tackles, Indianapolis Colts defensive lineman Quinn Pitcock abruptly retired. The 329-pound Ohio native had found a new obsession: video games. Pitcock told NFL.com he retreated inside himself after his retirement and found comfort in 18-hour sessions of Call of Duty. "The only way I could get my endorphins was by playing video games," he said. Eventually the Colts helped Pitcock find help. He received treatment for ADHD and depression and now Pitcock, who played in the arena league last summer, is looking for another shot in the NFL. But he knows his past is only going to hurt him. "I think teams are worried I may relapse. They're more comfortable with a drug addiction. It's unfortunate. It definitely hinders my chances," he said.
There are nearly 1700 players in the NFL and according to one former offensive lineman, half of them smoke weed. Detroit Lion-turned-ESPN analyst Lomas Brown told the Detroit News that when he entered the league the percentage was closer to 90. Other sources corroborate Brown's estimate. ESPN found that 70% of the players at the 2012 NFL combine admitted to smoking pot, while CBS Sports found that 40% of the eligible players in last year's draft had failed a school-administered drug test. In 2010 a group of NFL executives told Sports Illustrated that the league is having to learn to deal with marijuana use, especially as it concerns college players entering the draft. "As long as it's not a habitual thing, there's more of a discussion about those players, rather than just jettisoning them off your board. Which is what a lot of teams have done in the past," one anonymous GM said. Still, teams have concerns, as it relates to the law and the NFL substance policy, which calls for player suspensions should they test positive for marijuana.
William "The Refigerator" Perry was always bigger off the football field than he was on it. Despite his massive body, Perry was never a dominating football player, but he was personable, marketable and the owner of a great nickname. But before he even got to the NFL Perry had a problem with booze. The 350-pound lineman has boasted about his ability to drink two cases of beer in one sitting. It was a skill that landed him in rehab in 1988. After a short stint in AA, Perry returned to the bottle. He was a celebrity--the star of macaroni and cheese commercials!—so the booze was always free and the drinking always easy. His addiction got away from him again in 2008 after he was diagnosed with a nervous system disorder that he coped with by drinking vodka. Eventually he found himself near death in an intensive care unit. Finally, in 2010 Perry went home. He used a cane, wore a hearing aid and most importantly, swore off alcohol.
On March 15, 2009 Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth drove his Bentley into a pedestrian on a Miami road. Fifty-nine-year-old Mario Reyes died on the scene. Stallworth did everything he was supposed to do after hitting Reyes. He stopped his car, called the police and submitted to a blood test. Stallworth wasn't immediately arrested but when tests revealed a blood-alcohol level of .126, charges of DUI manslaughter were brought against him. He immediately accepted responsibility. "I will bear this burden for the rest of my life," he said while pleading guilty. And when you're an NFL player, regret begets sympathy. Stallworth received a 30-day jail sentence, along with eight years' probation. He also reached a financial settlement with Reyes' family. The punishment didn't end with the legal system. The NFL suspended Stallworth for the entire 2009 season for violating its personal conduct and substance abuse policies. The next year he was back in the league as—he says—a changed man.
Had Donte Stallworth's decision to drive drunk not resulted in a man's death it would hardly be news. In the NFL, DUIs are almost as common as INTs. According to USA Today, 177 NFL players have been arrested for driving under the influence since 2000, making it the most frequently committed crime by professional football players. Most often, as with Cowboy's defensive lineman Jay Ratliff, no one is injured in these incidents. But occasionally there is a Stallworth. Or a Jerry Brown Jr., the Cowboys linebacker who was killed in December when his teammate Josh Brent drunkenly crashed the vehicle they were both travelling in. Meanwhile, the NFL's punishment for a player arrested for DUI (a fine equal to two game checks) is so lax that even players are calling for reform. "We have to get a hold of the alcohol. Guys won't want to hear that. But that's the problem," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote told USA Today.
Former Chicago Bears wide receiver Sam Hurd was a small-timer on the football field, scoring only two touchdowns in 77 career games. Off the field though, he wanted to be a kingpin. In December 2011 the Texas native was taken in to federal custody after meeting with an undercover agent and attempting to buy 10 kilos of cocaine and 1,000 pounds of marijuana to distribute in the Chicago area. Hurd told the agent he was already dealing cocaine but his supplier couldn't keep up with demand. Now he's in jail. So too is former Cowboys running back Sherman Williams who was popped in 2000 for running a marijuana distribution ring and passing counterfeit cash. Williams' former teammate Nate Newton also served time after an attempt to transfer his football success to the drug game.
Todd Marinovich was groomed from birth to be a super athlete. His father was a former NFL lineman and a one of the league's first strength-and-conditioning coaches. After a historic high school career and a short stay at USC, he entered the 1991 NFL draft and was taken in the first round by the Raiders. Once in the NFL, the recreational drug use Marinovich started in college became a habit. He used cocaine, marijuana, LSD and amphetamines. He used urine from friends to pass drug tests and spent 45 days in rehab after his rookie season. After one more year in the NFL his career in the league was over. Fifteen years later the Raiders drafted another promising quarterback whose career fell apart, thanks in part to drugs. Jamarcus Russell was the number one overall pick out of LSU and tested positive for codeine before ever playing a game. His stint in the NFL lasted only three seasons before the Raiders released him in May 2010. Two months later he was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance. Just last week he announced plans for a comeback.
This SoCal rehab fosters a regimented but respectful recovery environment, where teens learn how to live sober through plenty of 12-step meetings and life-skills classes—not to mention "equine-assisted psychotherapy" and mixed martial arts.