Every single morning when I wake up, before I brush my teeth or even sit up, I feel pain.
Intense pain at times — in my neck, my back, all of my joints and particularly in my left knee and shoulder, which were surgically reconstructed during my career.
A year ago, I retired from football, but the effects of playing this game will likely never leave me. Managing my physical condition has become part of my daily routine, and unfortunately, it may be this way forever.
I didn’t come into the NFL ignorant about the risks I was taking on. My rookie year, I played alongside Tra Thomas, a guy I’ll always be grateful to for taking me under his wing. One thing that really stuck with me, though, even back then, was the way he walked. Tra had been in the league for 10 seasons at that point and every day I saw him hobble around the locker room in pain. That’s when I had a better idea of what was in store for me down the line.
Now, all these years later, I look back on all the injuries I suffered and I wonder how they piled up to result in the pain I feel now.
I wonder which 17 Power on the Quick might be the root cause of each creak in my neck. That was a play in which Vince Manuwai or Kelechi Osemele — two of the most explosive human beings I’ve ever been around — just absolutely destroyed the D-line while I played the role of cleanup crew. During that play they always crushed the opposition … and sometimes my right foot in the process. I’m still thankful to have played with them. I can’t even tell you the number of times they saved my ass by reminding me what the snap count was, which I’d find myself forgetting after repeated blows to the head.
Sometimes I also wonder which exact instance of seeing stars caused my daily headaches. Was it the last concussion I suffered? Was it the first? Was it that play when my head smacked against the ground in Cleveland while I was trying to make a tackle after an interception? They tell you to keep your head on a swivel at all times during a change of possession, but that doesn’t help that much when 350 pound warriors are looking for blood.
And sometimes I wonder which injuries that I was scared to report out of fear of being called soft are still bothering me today.
With the new NFL season approaching, people keep asking me about football. They wonder if I miss the game and wish I was still playing. That always makes me almost bust out laughing. There’s not a chance in hell my body could endure going back into the trenches again.
If you saw me today, you might think I could still play ball. In fact, you may even be a little confused because I’m in better physical shape than I was during my playing days. The difference is, I don’t work out now to prepare for a game. I do it out of necessity. When I wake up, I have to do something active, because if I don’t get moving, my body becomes stiff and achy. I have to keep moving so I don’t seize up. That’s why, if you watch me, you’ll notice that I’m constantly twirling my fingers, rolling my neck, rubbing my knees, stretching my back, rolling my ankles and shifting my weight from side to side.
When I catch myself doing that it brings to mind this one experience I had in college. I got a chance to be around Howie Long when I played with his son Chris at UVA. I remember one time I was invited over for a cookout at their home in the Virginia countryside, and what stood out even more than their gorgeous property, was how often I saw Howie roll his neck or rub his shoulders, wincing in agony.
He looked a lot like I do now.
I’m only 30 years old, but there are some days when my body feels three times that age.
But despite that, today I’m proud to say that I’m 100% pharmaceutical free. I’ve achieved this by integrating cannabis into my lifestyle. I’ve used it in several different forms. For example, when I feel pain, I can rub some cannabis cream wherever I’m feeling inflammation and get a sense of relief. Cannabis has been far more effective for me than any of the pharmaceuticals I’ve been prescribed over the course of my career — and gone are the side effects that only led me to being prescribed even more drugs.
Prior to retiring, I became more vocal about the medical benefits cannabis and my strong belief, backed by independent research, that it’s a safe, more natural alternative to the prescription opioids that have been dispensed like candy in football locker rooms for decades. The use of painkillers — and even the reliance on them — is a practice encouraged by many NFL teams, can have serious long-term consequences for players. According to one study reported on by Outside The Lines, retired NFL players misuse opioid pain medications at a rate more than four times that of the general population.
For a myriad of reasons — including Roger Goodell himself calling marijuana “addictive” and “unhealthy” (relative to what, Roger?) — I assumed we were a long ways away from seeing any progress with the league when it came to their hard-line stance against marijuana.
But I read some news yesterday that pleasantly surprised me. According to The Washington Post, the NFL recently sent a letter to the NFLPA offering to work with the union to study the potential use of marijuana as a pain management tool.
When I first saw the news, I wasn’t sure what to think. It certainly didn’t feel like a victory — after all, it’s only a letter. But for the first time, I actually felt like there was a real chance that we might be able to have a sensible discussion about this topic, which is something I thought might never happen.
In order to explain why this letter was important, I have to describe why cannabis as a means of relieving pain is important. Fear of succumbing to addiction and the search for an alternative to opioids ultimately steered me towards cannabis. But for a long time, even though our understanding of the ways in which the plant can be beneficial was rapidly expanding, little changed in regard to how its use was viewed by the NFL.
I think a big part of the reason for that is because the very word — marijuana — is extremely loaded. Some bristle upon hearing it, relating its use to the various false stigmas that have been ingrained in our society on an institutional level.
I get that, but I’m also not advocating for every single person to use marijuana. I don’t think it’s this magical plant that solves everything. But what I know is that it’s an extremely effective medicine for some people, myself included, and is less addictive and harmful than many commonly prescribed painkillers.
I’m not asking any one person to actively support marijuana usage. You don’t have to agree with it, you don’t have to like it, and I don’t believe it should be forced upon anyone. But I firmly believe it should be available without any sense of shame or fear to those who view it as a healthier alternative to opioids. Whether cannabis has legitimate medical applications or not is something that should be determined by scientists — not by me, not by fans and certainly not by Roger Goodell.
The timing of this letter actually isn’t so surprising.
The league is sort of at a tipping point. Just last week the Journal of the American Medical Association found CTE in 99% of the brains of deceased NFL players that had been donated to scientific research.
That study didn’t necessarily jar me as much as you might think. I’ve spoken with players in their 30s who are already struggling, let alone guys who are in their 50s and can barely communicate with their children. As professionals, NFL players aren’t naive about the health risks we’re taking on. I’ve played in games when I knew I was clearly concussed and nobody pulled me from the game. Protocols are in place now to prevent this poor medical practice but ask Cam Newton if these have been successful?
Upon reflection while writing this, I know that I suffered another concussion in 2012 when I was with the Jaguars and we played a game at Indianapolis. Both Guy Whimper and I moved our rushers past the depth of the QB, and his man collided with my head. All I remember from that point forward was being called a dumbass on the sideline because I was supposed to be on the field goal team but I didn’t even know where the hell I was. How can you expect a man with an acute and traumatic brain injury to think clearly enough to take himself out of the game? As it would turn out, I took another blow to the head on the eventual field goal attempt as well.
So no, I wasn’t surprised by the study as it related to NFL players, here’s what did strike me though: It also found that three of the 14 donated brains from former high school players tested positive for CTE, and 48 of the 53 donated brains from college players tested positive as well. Because the NFL is a massive empire, its brand of football is most often linked to CTE, but the scope of this problem is much greater. This is a sport I love. I’ve put a piece of my soul into this, and my love for it is real. But also, millions of kids play the game. It’s one of the most popular youth sports in America. That’s what makes this really personal.
So if this study is what finally prompted the NFL to be more open about potential treatment options, then I’m very thankful for it.
I can’t tell you how many Vicodin I took during my playing career.
I was given Vicodin before practice, special delivery by the assistant trainer at the lunch table, during halftime and even after a game in the doctor’s office, right before I was about to drive home. In every instance, I was high. I was high at work on a habit-forming drug provided to me by my employers. A drug that made me feel awful. So bad that I was offered more drugs to combat the symptoms. I wonder if my stomach problems also stem from those pills?
That’s still how things are in NFL locker rooms — and how they will continue to be — at least for now. So it’s not overly surprising that players might seek out their own alternatives. Some teams might be taking measures to minimize the prescribing of opioids, but even for players living in a state where they have access to marijuana, the options for their team physician are limited.
In the past year, I’ve met with active NFL players who will not say a word about cannabis publicly, but who come to me looking for advice about it either for themselves or their family. Of course, there are some people who just want to get high and have a good time — and honestly, I think that’s fine. But that’s not a reason to dismiss the substance altogether. And it’s not the reason I am putting so much energy and effort into my advocacy for cannabis.
I’ve gone out of my way to learn more about cannabis and its uses because I know for a fact that there are people — former colleagues of mine — who are looking for help but are scared of the consequences. An NFL player walks a thin line between health and job security. For many, despite desperately needing pain relief, an association with cannabis is a career killer.
As it stands now, a positive test puts a player at risk of getting suspended for a quarter of a season. This letter doesn’t change that.
Four games — a punishment more extreme in many cases than the suspensions doled out by the league for domestic violence.
To me, that’s nonsense.
I want to get to a place where NFL team doctors can prescribe cannabis as a treatment rather than pushing Vicodin. That’s something that would get me truly excited.
This would be an important step because prescription opioids aren’t just an NFL issue — they’re a huge problem nationwide, with people seeking relief for pain being given a path to addiction instead. My message isn’t just for NFL players. It’s also for the countless former high school athletes who suffered an injury back in the day then have it flare up decades later, only to be prescribed a steady flow of painkillers that they become reliant on. A story like that is much more common than my own. The opioid epidemic is devastating families everywhere, and has left politicians scrambling for a solution.
That’s why I’m so interested in the opportunity that the NFL has before it to make a meaningful difference. While I’ve mostly discussed cannabis use as it relates to pain relief, it’s worth noting that some studies have also shown that cannabidiol (CBD) — one of the more than 100 cannabinoids found in marijuana — may function as a neuroprotectant, which means that it can shield the cells in the brain from injury or degeneration. There’s still more research needed on this front, but if the potential is there, it’s worth exploring — ideally with the NFL’s encouragement.
The league could send an important message merely by no longer testing for cannabis. This wouldn’t even require the NFL to encourage its use as an alternative to opioids, but rather just leaving it open as an option for players if they feel it’s right for them.
One year after walking away from the game, I don’t miss playing football. I damn sure don’t miss training camp (another outdated system that needs to be changed). When I retired, I felt that I had truly given everything I had — physically and mentally — to the game of football, and that remains true today. Now I’m just trying to channel that same passion I had for the game to another cause.
The NFL has indicated that it’s finally ready to start an important conversation — one that it’s been trying to avoid. Of course, a conversation isn’t change. It isn’t a solution. It isn’t really anything tangible as of now.
But … it’s a start.
Eugene played seven seasons in the NFL for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens before retiring last July. Today he is involved with and speaks on behalf of Doctors For Cannabis Regulation and Green Thumb Industries.