It was week seven of the 2010 NFL season and we were in Kansas City in front of a riotous crowd. I knew we were in for a bloodbath from the national anthem. I stood on the sideline, hand over my heart, feeling the vibrations of the stadium. Adrenaline and cortisol pumped through my veins, along with Adderall, hydrocodone and Toradol. My body felt tight. My shoulders ached. My mind raced.
In the middle of the second quarter our offense put together a solid drive. The play call was a zone to the right, and we broke the huddle at the Chiefs’ 15-yard line. The ball was hiked, and I smashed through the outside shoulder of the defensive end in front of me. Derrick Johnson, the Chiefs’ Pro Bowl linebacker, came screaming over the top and buried his helmet between my collarbone and right shoulder. With my legs tangled up in the wave of crashing bodies, I went to the ground, landing on my right elbow at a 90-degree angle. I felt something shift. When I picked myself up off the ground, I realized my shoulder was dislocated. We were five yards from the goal line and a play away from a touchdown. I couldn’t tap out. Gripping my right triceps, I jerked my torso back and pulled the arm forward, sliding the head of my humerus back into my shoulder socket. We scored on the next play, and I jogged to the sideline, yelling for a trainer to find me a harness.
The doctor questioned me, but I was breathing fire. In a flurry, my pads were off and a harness secured, locking my shoulder back into place. The pads came on and I ran back onto the field. We were in our two-minute drill. No huddle. On the second play, a pass out of the shotgun, I baited Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel with my right arm. He clubbed it across my body and back out of position. The harness was now holding my upper arm out of the socket. I sprinted to the sideline. It took three team doctors to get my shoulder back in place.
I walked off the field and into the tunnel in a haze of heroism. Someone helped me out of my gear. My right arm now hung on the verge of falling out of the socket again. I showered, got dressed and put my arm in the sling. I watched the second half of the game in sweats from the sideline. Afterward I was told that my injury would require surgery and that I was done for the season.
The NFL doles out punishments even though 20 of its teams are in places where medical marijuana is legal.
I had never been so badly injured that I couldn’t continue to play. The doctors gave me pills for the pain, but the pills had a way of making me angry, fueling the frustration of not being able to use my arm. They turned me into a victim. My body didn’t like the pills either. Once, after taking one, I felt a pang behind my eyes, causing them to flutter and blink uncontrollably; then things went fuzzy. The pang turned to a bang and I had to lie down. When I woke up the next morning I was overwhelmed by a debilitating migraine. I could barely open my eyes, much less think. It became clear the migraines were my body’s way of telling me it didn’t care for the pills.
I had used cannabis before, but it wasn’t until my shoulder injury that I began to understand its medicinal power. For the first time in my football career I unwittingly conducted my own experiment on the efficacy of various pain-relieving methods. The contrast between the effects of marijuana and hydrocodone, as well as between marijuana and the anti-inflammatories I was taking, was remarkable. With pills, I experienced little relief from pain and a slew of side effects including severe migraines, insomnia, massive mood swings, irritability and trouble controlling my anger. With cannabis I felt calm and relaxed, which placed me in a state of healing. The aching pain in my shoulder, my bones and the rest of my body hushed to a quiet hum with no negative side effects.
The problem was that my employer didn’t approve. The NFL’s current stance is that cannabis is an illegal “street drug,” and players are tested for THC annually. The test is done anytime during mandatory team activities, usually before the start of the regular season, according to the current collective-bargaining agreement between the NFL and the National Football League Players Association. Since the new agreement was signed in 2011, the terms have been reinterpreted—and misinterpreted—to the point that players barely understand them. Of course, part of being a pro is being competent enough to pass a drug test.
“Do they test us during OTAs?” someone asks in a dimly lit locker room.
“Nah, man, they won’t test us until mini-camp,” another answers.
“No way, brother. Bullshit. They started testing people yesterday.”
A slow silence settles across the room.
Better stop smoking pretty soon, most of us say to ourselves.
We’ve all heard tales of what it’s like to be busted for pot by the league. The first time a player tests positive for marijuana he gets put “in the program.” Details about the substance-abuse program are dark and vague. The individual’s energy completely changes, and you know that “the program” is something to be avoided. A second failed test results in a two-week fine. After that, the punishments include a four-week fine, a four-game suspension and then a 10-game suspension.
The NFL doles out these punishments even though 20 of its teams are in places where medical marijuana is legal. And legalization will spread. There is mounting research that shows the medicinal properties of cannabis include healing broken bones, reducing pain and aiding in recovery following traumatic brain injury. A key focus in this research has been the endocannabinoid system, a group of naturally occurring cannabinoid receptors in the brain, heart, lungs and bones, as well as throughout the nervous system. This part of our bodies is responsible for a variety of physiological processes, including appetite, pain sensation, mood and memory. When bodily damage occurs, whether it’s a broken bone or a concussion, endocannabinoids flood the receptor sites, initiating the healing process. With medical marijuana, the THC and cannabidiol in the cannabis aid the body in reducing inflammation and bolstering the effects of our own cannabinoid system. Plus, it’s safer than the addictive opioids league doctors hand out.
For anyone whose job involves beating their body up every week, medicinal marijuana is a blessing. It’s time the NFL treated it that way.