Miami-Dade County

A former Miami Dolphin’s pill-popping frenzy

Former Miami Dolphins quarterback Ray Lucas planned to kill himself.

He would wait for his wife and three daughters to go to the 11:15 a.m. church service one Sunday, then drive off a New York bridge.

That, he figured, would end all the pain.

After career-ending injuries — one of his most devastating came in a Dolphins matchup against Green Bay in 2002 — Lucas had retired, but the pain of the game stayed with him. While struggling with the relentless aches accumulated over eight seasons, Lucas became addicted to prescription pain medication, eventually falling into a desperate fog that lasted two years. In the worst of his spiral, Lucas was popping 800 pills a month, still in pain, broke, broken and ready to die. It was a phone call from a medical group four days before his planned suicide that saved his life.

“I believed I was a drain on my family,’’ said Lucas, now a studio analyst for SportsNet New York. “I didn’t even think of myself as human anymore. I was afraid to live.’’

Today, 20 months clean after medical treatment and a 42-day detox in a drug rehabilitation center near West Palm Beach, Lucas is a free man on a confessional tour of sorts, sharing his story uncut — the grip of the habit, the depression, the devastating losses, the helplessness, the hope, the recovery — to shatter the stigma of opioid dependence and to help others in the throes of addiction. In 2010 alone, some 12 million people reported misuse of prescription painkillers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I still have some kind of pain every day of my life. But now I have the tools to deal with it. I have rebuilt my family and am now the husband and father I want to be,’’ said Lucas, who turns 40 next week. “And I want people to know they are not alone. There is help out there.’’

A brash backup, Lucas went public with his battle last year about a habit that was costing more than $2,000 month. During treatment, he began posting his most personal moments of pain on a Facebook page as therapy, but also as a way to encourage others, particularly NFL players struggling with addiction.

After he emerged from the treatment center, Lucas didn’t stop sharing and now lends his voice to TurnToHelp.com, an educational website sponsored by Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals. The site offers users information about opioid dependence, treatment options and a network of doctors who specialize in the field.

“I know firsthand how overwhelming it can be to determine a clear path forward. I became addicted to prescription painkillers after undergoing numerous surgeries for my sports injuries,” said Lucas, who is a paid spokesman for Reckitt Benckiser. “Seeking medical help was the best thing I ever did as I went from a man who lost his job and home to reclaiming my place in life again as a husband, father and professional.”

Lucas started his career as a backup quarterback in 1996 with the then-AFC Champion New England Patriots. Three years later, he had a standout season as a New York Jet, replacing an injured Vinny Testaverde, winning six of the nine games he started. Lucas joined the Dolphins in 2001, and the next season he started six times, including the game against the Green Bay Packers in which he took a bruising blow to the shoulder and neck, an injury that caused excruciating pain well after he stopped playing.

Lucas was cut from the Baltimore Ravens roster in 2003, marking the end of his NFL career. His retirement gift: impinged nerves in his neck, aches in his back and shoulders, muscle spasms and headaches.

“These athletes get beat up on Sundays so they are generally more exposed to injuries,’’ said Dr. Scott Teitelbaum, medical director of the Florida Recovery Center, an addiction treatment program at the University of Florida. “Those injuries often lead to the use of pain prescriptions and what we know is addiction has no barriers. It doesn’t discriminate.’’

Teitelbaum, who has treated athletes for addiction, said they face a familiar cycle.

“Often without realizing it, they are using the painkillers as a vehicle to soothe something else that is wrong,’’ said Teitelbaum, vice chairman and an associate professor in the UF Department of Psychiatry. “It can start with true physical pain and as time passes, they begin to take the pills in anticipation of the pain and then they need more and more and then they are taking the pills because it rewards the brain — it could give a sense of energy or a feeling of well-being where life seems more manageable or, maybe, a numbing of some emotional pain.’’

Lucas’ story comes as the NFL, under withering criticism, works to take better care of its players on and off the field.

Last week, Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the league is launching a program called NFL Total Wellness to improve the health of current and former players and provide a support system for behavioral and mental issues.

For Lucas, what felt like a lifetime of injuries received on the field fueled his need for painkillers. His medical insurance covered by the NFL ran out in 2009 and, without corrective surgery, the habit escalated until his daily mission became making sure he had a stash of oxycodone, Vicodin, Soma and Percocet and Flexeril.

“I was depressed all the time. I thought I needed the pills to keep going, to survive,” he said. “It’s a cycle and it gets to the point where it’s just you and your pills and that is all that matters.’’

The addiction took its toll on Lucas, his family, his bank account. He ended up walking away from his air-conditioning business and was forced to sell the house after falling behind on payments. For days, he would stay in bed, depressed and despondent, leaving only to work at his sports gigs. He said he would muster the energy for the shows, then immediately afterward swallow handfuls of pills, 15 at a time, while driving home. He was an absent husband and father.

“I remember passing by mirrors and didn’t know who I was looking at, I didn’t even recognize myself,” Lucas said. “It was the loneliest time in my entire life.”

With no health insurance, Lucas said he turned to the NFL and NFL Players Association, but they didn’t offer any assistance. By 2010, Lucas began to contemplate ending his life. He planned to drive off the George Washington Bridge, plunging into the Hudson River so his family wouldn’t come home and find his body.

But the Wednesday before, he got a call back from Pain Alternatives, Solutions and Treatment (PAST), a New Jersey-based doctor’s group that provides free medical and mental healthcare to retired athletes without insurance. The organization sponsored his neck surgery, one of the major sources of his pain, that September and got him checked into Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches, a drug and alcohol recovery center, the following February, just days after the 2011 Super Bowl. While in detox, he opened up, chronicling his journey back to pill-free living on Facebook. Among his posts:

Today marks 1week since Randy Grimes & Jen Smith brought me to treatment for pain killer dependency due to my NFL injuries & depression. I am hangin in there. The 1st week has been difficult because of my pain. I have started going to group & I am fighting the good fight.

Two weeks later:

I completed the first of the 12 steps. Admitted that I am powerless over my addiction & that my life had become unmanageable. It was hard to bare my soul. It was an emotional experience. Tough to admit you are not in control of it…

Lucas left the center last March and said that for the first time, he understood his addiction and his vulnerabilities. He learned how to conquer the depression and anger, how to say no to pills.

He learned how to live again. Now, he is spending his time talking about the long road and the tools that brought him back.

“The hardest thing for an addict to do is ask for help. We are embarrassed or ashamed,’’ he said. “But I am proud to be an addict in the sense that I went to a deep, dark place and I had the strength to come out of it.’’

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