From NFL to Painkiller Hell—and Back
Former Jets QB Ray Lucas suffered severe injuries during his NFL career. But his biggest battle—with the pills he'd started using as a pro—came after he retired.
"Vulnerable" isn't the word that comes to mind when you first meet Ray Lucas, a 6'3" former NFL quarterback with a booming voice. But that's exactly what he says he was—thanks to his battered, pain-racked body, normalized painkiller use in pro football, and a culture that makes it hard to ask for help.
Lucas spent his seven-year NFL career with the Patriots, Jets, Dolphins and Ravens, notching a 6-3 record with the Jets in 1999, before he was forced out of the league prematurely in 2003 with neck and back injuries and extensive nerve damage. The 39-year-old says he already had a "high tolerance" for opiate painkillers by the time he retired, but wasn't yet addicted. That changed in the following years; he found himself using more and more, losing his home, his business—and very nearly his wife, his daughters and his own life.
Now 20 months clean (he spent 42 days in rehab, during which he posted updates on Facebook), and having decided that a 12-step program "wasn't for me," he hopes his story will resonate with others. He says his role as a family man is all-important to his recovery—a role he combines with being an award-winning studio analyst for SportsNet New York and a spokesman for TurntoHelp.com, a website that helps opiod addicts reach out to doctors who specialize in addiction. Arriving for our interview just a week after the latest in a succession of surgeries, he moves stiffly and winces as he lowers himself onto the couch.
You've just had surgery again—how are you feeling? How much pain are you in?
Yeah, my third neck surgery. They drilled holes in three levels, all the way down—not a big deal for the stuff I've been through. But I'm going to be in pain for the rest of my life. You have to do these surgeries so you can deal with the pain. The hardest thing is you go to sleep with it and you wake up with it. And when you’re an addict, your mind loves to play tricks on you: "You haven't taken anything in 20 months; you can take a couple." I have the tools—I call it my tool-belt—to make sure that doesn't happen.
"I had a serious problem looking at myself in the mirror. I wanted to punch the person I saw."
How far did you get into your NFL career before you were given addictive painkillers?
When you first get into the NFL, you’re told as a rookie to keep your mouth shut, keep your eyes open and watch what the vets do. The sport is very violent and you’re going to have a lot of bumps and bruises, and when you have that kind of pain, you need medicine to take it away. It’s how it’s done.
And when they gave you the meds, did they give you any warning of how addictive and dangerous they can be?
Oh, absolutely not. You just take them because you’re in pain. I think education is as important as anything. If you go to a doctor’s office, let’s face it, if you have a car accident, or you need back surgery, you’re going to get the pills. In the NFL you’re going to get injured. You’re going to need to take the medication. But if you can ask the doctor, what are the effects? Is there any risk of me getting addicted? I think it’ll help people out a lot.
You’ve said before that you’re reluctant to blame the NFL for your addiction. But it sounds as if much more could be done for athletes like you who have to face the consequences of regular painkiller use.
Well, I agree. I don’t play the blame game, for the mere reason that it doesn’t matter how we got to where we got to—it’s what we do to get out, you know? My road, a different road, a car accident: it doesn’t matter. We all got to the same place. It's what are you going to do about it now that you’re there, to get you out and back into the real world?
Your career took a heavy toll on your body. What happened next?
When I left the NFL, I left with some severe back and neck injuries. I was taking the pills normally at first—if you can call it “normal,” 120 pills a month—but it quickly escalated to 400 pills, 800 pills a month at my worst.
Ray Lucas tells Will Godfrey how he would get his pills and what they did to him:
Which kinds of opiate painkillers and other drugs were you mainly taking?
All. Roxys, Oxys, Percocets, Somas... I was on 19 different medications. Psych meds, because obviously I was severely depressed. And when you’re in the cocktail I had, there was medications cancelling each other out—but you don’t know that, because you’re going to three different doctors. The education also has to come from your doctors. They need to know what’s going on. The addict knows that you’re not going to talk to this doctor over here, and she’s not going to talk to that doctor—so you’re playing the game. You think you’re getting over on everybody. And all you’re doing is killing yourself from the inside out.
My wife, like probably every other family member, didn’t know what was going on. They knew a person; he’s not that person any more. It's important to know the signs and symptoms, like drowsiness, lack of energy, inability to concentrate, lack of motivation, change of appearance—which was big for me. I had a serious problem with looking at myself in the mirror. I wanted to punch the person I saw.
"It’s a sin not to share success stories, because a lot of people don’t think they can do it."
How did your appearance change?
Now you’re talking about a quarterback: you know, pretty, shaven, all the time proper—to not caring if I showered, not caring if I shaved... Shaving for me was the hardest part, because when you look, you actually see the person that you’ve become. And I couldn’t deal with it. I couldn’t understand how I got there. In the throes of addiction you don’t have answers to these questions.
When you reached rock bottom, you were in a suicidal state, weren’t you?
I was definitely going to commit suicide. My last call for help went unanswered, and I said, "That’s it—there’s nothing else I can do. I’m a detriment to my family." This is the drugs involved in your system—they’re downers, so right away a deep depression comes. Your world shrinks up into this little ball that you put yourself in. And I thought the best way for me to get out of there was to kill myself. I made plans on a Wednesday. My wife and children go to service on a Sunday—so when they left, I’m thinking, "It’s great, I won’t do it in the house, I’ll just drive to the GW and drive off the bridge." This is the warped thinking that comes with addiction—that there is no way out. And I’m here to tell you that there is a way out.
You went to rehab at Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches in early 2011. What finally prompted you to make that move?
To be totally honest with you, I had no desire to go. My wife gave me the you-go-or-I-go. And I'm so blessed; she’s my angel and my rock. Ninety percent of people that go through addiction lose family members, because you just burn the bridge and you don’t care. I'd be lying to you if I said I never told her to get out, take the kids. But she stayed. And my kids are instrumental in keeping me sober. Before, I wasn’t a father, I wasn’t a husband. And now that I’ve gone through all this stuff, I’m almost reborn. The things that are most important to me are that three girls call me daddy, and that wifey calls me husband. That to me is heaven on earth. I lost sight of it. Even though I was in the house with them, it was the loneliest time of my life.
In rehab, what helped you the most?
Well you have to go through detox, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It is horrendous. The best part was finding doctors, lawyers, Richard Gere-types that come in and buy companies, CFOs, CEOs. So that told me that drugs don’t care who you are, famous, rich or whatever—they’ll grab you just the same and pull you down. And the fact that we could come together and help pick ourselves back up is amazing. As an addict, the hardest thing for me to do is get out of my own way. I think, "Nobody knows I’m addicted. I’m Ray Lucas—I can’t ask for help. Everybody’s going to think I’m weak; they’re going to come for me." That’s the warped thinking you have. It’s so important for people to take that first step, reach out for help and explore your options: 12-step, or whatever it’s going to be. For me to go to a lock-down facility was best. But a lot of people can’t do the 42 days, the 30 days, 90 days: the mother with three kids, the executive responsible for a lot of people, the regular laborer.
As you say, addicts are often reluctant to admit their problem...
Well, we just think we’ve got everybody snowed!
But you took the opposite approach, didn’t you? When you went to rehab, you were writing updates on Facebook about it; you were totally open from the start.
Here’s the thing. When I was asked to do the Facebook thing, my answer was absolutely not. Then I went home, and I was not sleeping because I was thinking about it. When you receive the gift of sobriety, if you don’t give it back, you don’t get to keep it. It’s a sin not to share success stories, because a lot of people don’t think they can do it.
I tell my story because I know there’s somebody out there like me, that is in the hole, in the deep depression, and he thinks there’s no way out. And he’s alone. When you become an addict, you isolate yourself so much. Drugs don’t care if you’re a starting quarterback in the NFL, whatever, race, creed—it doesn’t matter. Once it gets ahold of you, the only way you go is down, and it quickly escalates to where I was. I’m one of the fortunate ones that made it out. People say, how many days are you sober? I don’t really know. Today I am.
Ray Lucas on what keeps him sober—and why it's not the 12 Steps:
Will Godfrey is Managing Editor of The Fix.