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Pushing drugs in the NFL locker room

From the front, it looks like an ordinary football trading card discovered in some old, forgotten box. J.D. Hill appears young and vibrant, with his voluminous, 1970s-style Afro mushrooming from its part on the side.

His authentic football card would reveal a respectable NFL career. Hill was selected fourth overall in the 1971 draft out of Arizona State. He made the Pro Bowl in his second season, the year before O.J. Simpson rushed for 2,003 yards. He played five years in Buffalo, two more in Detroit.

Such facts and figures, his 185 catches and 21 touchdowns over seven seasons, aren’t included on the cards he hands out these days to lost souls in Phoenix. Instead, the facts reveal a once-broken man, an addict-turned-adviser, a star wide receiver whose life appeared doomed before he finally made a U-turn.

Hill’s autobiography can never be completely accurate. Telling the whole truth would mean remembering foggy decades when he roamed troubled neighborhoods looking for relief, relief that was once within arm’s reach in his own locker room but disappeared the moment he left the NFL.

For years, he scrounged for fixes in dark alleys while living in abandoned houses on Buffalo’s tough streets or wherever else he could crash. He worked corners in the shadows of War Memorial Stadium, where fans once cheered for him while marveling over the speed and athleticism possessed by No. 40.

J.D. Hill was a junkie.

“If that’s what you want to call it, I was that,” Hill said by telephone from Phoenix. “I was one of those people. I was lost. Believe me, I was truly lost. My self-esteem was shot. I had no confidence. For all my life, I put everything into being an athlete. I was a great athlete. I was a good person in the community, and I was well-loved. But I had a problem.”

For 19 years, Hill walked through the revolving doors of rehab centers from Buffalo to California to Iowa to Arizona. His family left him. He blew the money he earned during his football career. He had no job. All that remained was a cocaine addiction that he claims originated with the painkillers he received from the Bills.

Hill takes responsibility for his actions, but he directs part of the blame toward an NFL culture in which prescription drugs were handed out like Lifesavers and shared freely among teammates. His addiction left him homeless and penniless. And it happened right under our noses.

“I was walking the streets on drugs,” Hill said, “right there in Buffalo, N.Y.”

Lawsuit filed

Hill was one of eight former players who filed a class-action lawsuit in May, claiming the NFL illegally issued drugs without prescriptions or warnings about their side effects, mainly to boost profits.

Former Bills defensive end Marcellus Wiley joined the lawsuit, claiming painkillers he took while playing for the San Diego Chargers led to kidney problems. Another ex-Bill, receiver Roscoe Parrish, also has jumped on board.

Steven Silverman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said more than 1,000 former players were expected to join a lawsuit that accuses the NFL of running an illegal drug business in which doctors, paid by NFL teams, stockpiled and distributed controlled substances through bogus prescription orders.

For years, Silverman said, the NFL violated the federal Controlled Substances Act passed in 1970.

The Drug Enforcement Administration is investigating, the New York Daily News first reported in July.

The Bills directed all questions about the allegations and the lawsuit to the league offices. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy issued the following statement via email:

“NFL policy is that medical considerations come first and always override competition concerns,” McCarthy wrote. “Our Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Players Association has addressed player medical care in a comprehensive manner for decades. There are 42 pages in the current CBA devoted to player medical care and post-career medical benefits. NFL clubs retain their team doctors and medical consultants independently. Those physicians are associated with some of the best medical facilities in the country.”

McCarthy, citing pending litigation, would not address accusations, some decades old, from former players. Silverman expected as much.

“If you are publicly charged in federal court with running the largest corporate drug cartel in the history of the United States of America, what is your response going to be?” Silverman said. “Your response is going to be nothing, because you’re afraid to open your mouth. You’re afraid to incriminate yourself.”

A spokesperson for NFL physicians disputed any suggestion that the quest for on-field results superseded player health.

“As an NFL team doctor for the past 14 years, I have seen firsthand the outstanding medical care that team doctors provide to players on and off the field,” Dr. Matthew J. Matava said in a statement, via the NFL. “I will leave it to others to respond to the specific allegations of the lawsuit, but as doctors, we put our players first.”

Dying young

Football is littered with tales of former players who ingested painkillers and developed serious health issues that continued long after the cheering stopped.

Walter Payton died from kidney failure at 46 after years of taking painkillers during and after his career. Kent Hull died from liver failure at 50. John Matuszak died from an accidental overdose of a narcotic painkiller. Brett Favre overcame an addiction to Vicodin.

The life expectancy of an average American male is 78 years, according to the Center for Disease Control. The average lifespan of an NFL player? It is about 54, according to a Harvard University study.

“And that scares the hell out of me,” said former Bills linebacker Darryl Talley, who turned 54 in July. “That’s the reality. It’s crazy. You don’t know what’s in store for you. It’s a scary thought when you think about it. I know it. My kids know it. And they don’t want me to talk about it. But it’s the truth.”

Mike Webster lived out of his truck for years and eventually died at 50. Dave Duerson and Junior Seau committed suicide, deaths that neurological experts suspect were related to brain injuries. Numerous other players, including West Seneca native Justin Strzelczyk and Terry Long, died young even by NFL standards. Strzelczyk was 36, Long 45.

Could it be that some suffered from head trauma? Or the long-term effects of painkillers? Or a combination of both?

“When you die, they bury the evidence,” said Eddie Payton, Walter’s younger brother, who played five years in the NFL. “You can’t testify from the grave. We cremated Walter. If we would have buried him, we’d be digging him up out of the ground.”

The NFL initially agreed to pay $765 million to former players to settle a lawsuit related to concussions, only to relent in late June to a infinite ceiling after the initial sum was deemed insufficient. A revised agreement reached earlier this summer includes a sliding-scale formula based on age and illness.

Hill is part of the latest lawsuit, in which NFL players from several eras claimed they abused painkillers issued to them by team doctors and trainers. He and other former players described a win-at-all-costs NFL culture in which drug distribution within the team was standard practice.

Librium, Valium, Lortab, Butazolidin, Phenylbutazone and Toradol were some of the drugs former players claimed they were given. They’re sedatives, anti-inflammatories or painkillers. Butazolidin, or “Butes,” was taken off the market for humans and is now used for horses.

Some were taken to mask pain. Some were taken to help players sleep, stacking one drug atop another. Some were taken out of habit. The names of the painkillers, anti-inflammatories and other masking agents changed over the years, but they were all distributed with the same goal in mind:

Get players on the field.

The federal government has strict federal laws for prescribing, dispensing and administering narcotic such as Lortab, a painkiller. Doctors in the 1970s knew or should have known the laws, the long-term effects of the drugs and which ones were addictive, according to Dr. Richard Blondell.

“In the NFL, if a doctor is handing a patient a white envelope, he’s prescribing, dispensing and administering all at the same time,” said Blondell, a professor and vice chairman for addiction medicine at the University at Buffalo. “You can’t do that.

“The bottom line is this: If NFL doctors were giving them controlled substances in white envelopes, it’s clearly unethical and probably illegal. I can’t comment on the legal end. That’s for the DEA. It’s clearly unethical. It’s bad, bad medicine. These high-end professionals, whether it’s in the sports or entertainment industries, they think the law applies to everyone but them.”

Bills and pills

The Bills are among the teams accused of handing out prescription drugs to players without prescriptions. Former players recount that trainers became pharmaceutical flight attendants of sorts, walking down aisles of charter airplanes after road games with mobile pharmacies. Back in the day, painkillers were taken with the three beers waiting on each seat.

Bags of ice served two purposes: giving players something that would soothe their muscles and keeping the beer cold. By the time the players left the plane, they often were buzzed from the mix of drugs and alcohol. And then they would get behind the wheels of their cars and drive home.

“The guys who didn’t drink beer suddenly had a bunch of friends,” Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielluere said. “They wanted your beer. Guys would be drinking. The trainers would say, ‘You got a headache? You got this? You got that?’ And then they would treat them on the plane. That was the culture of the NFL.”

Dr. Joseph Godfrey, who served as the Bills’ physician from 1961 to 1977, died in 1996. Dr. Richard Weiss worked for the team through the 1980s. Dr. John Marzo, who took over as team doctor in 1991, still works for the Bills. Weiss and Marzo said questions should be steered to the NFL.

Former team trainer Ed Abramoski, who started his 37-year career with the Bills in 1959, took exception to the accusations. He said the medical staff never broke any rules and described allegations made by Hill and others involved in the lawsuit as “ridiculous.”

Abramoski twice was honored for his work by the Bills’ alumni association. His name was placed on the Wall of Fame in 1999, three years after he retired. Former players didn’t specifically accuse Abramoski or team physicians of wrongdoing. They blamed the NFL culture as a whole.

“Dr. Godfrey treated each player like the guy was his son,” Abramoski said. “That’s the way we operated. We never used any of the things that these guys allege. … I know that there weren’t pain pills given out without any reason.”

Hill “can say what he wants to say,” Abramoski said. “I’m saying that he’s wrong. They exaggerate. It’s like their playing days. The longer they’re out, the better they get or the worse they get. You know how it works. I can honestly say that I can look every guy in the eye and say I never and the Bills never did anything like what was said. It never happened.”

Players for years have played through injuries under the fear of losing their jobs, a common practice in the 1970s and ’80s. Rather than risk giving up their positions to backups or falling out of favor with the organization, players routinely took painkillers to make sure they didn’t miss practices and games.

Players’ stories

Eddie Payton, Floyd Little, Hill, DeLamielleure and Talley were among several players who shared such stories in interviews with The News.

Payton, Little and DeLamielleure are not part of the drug-related lawsuit against the NFL. Payton may join on. He acknowledged he also was given unspecified drugs in white envelopes. Little, now 71, took pain pills but was never addicted to them. Still, he sympathized with players from his era.

DeLamielleure played for the Bills from 1973-79 and again in 1985. He said he once suffered from neck pain so severe that he couldn’t turn his head. He said coach Jim Ringo ordered him to participate in an intrasquad scrimmage game at Niagara University. Another time, DeLamielleure played a preseason game against Minnesota with a hip pointer under Ringo’s orders, he said.

“I spoke at his funeral. I loved him. He was like a dad to me,” DeLamielleure said. “But he was waiting at the door for me: ‘You gotta get a cortisone shot. You gotta play. It’s important that we get off on the right foot.’ Of course, you’re a kid, so you’re like, ‘Absolutely. What was I thinking? Of course I’ll play.’

“Coach Ringo was a great guy. Everyone who played for him loved him, but he would always say, ‘Don’t miss a practice, because you can be replaced tomorrow.’ The attitude you took was that you’re never coming out. It was a different era than now. People now would say, ‘I have my rights.’ Back then, there were no rights.”

While DeLamielleure was playing for Cleveland from 1980-84, Browns coach Sam Ruttigliano asked him to serve as a liaison between the organization and players with substance-abuse problems. At Ruttigliano’s request, DeLamielleure appeared at the Cleveland Clinic for a private meeting with afflicted teammates.

“When I got there, I thought it was a team meeting or something,” DeLamielleure recalled. “He said, ‘These are the guys who have the problems.’ Man, it was half of our team. Sam definitely helped a lot of guys. He really helped a lot of guys. But that’s how bad it was.”

DeLamielleure did not drink alcohol during his career or afterward. He stayed away from strong pain medications on the advice of his wife, Gerry, a nurse. It didn’t stop him from using the prevalence of drugs and alcohol to his advantage, however, while playing cards on team charters.

“We played this game called Boo Ray,” he said. “I loved it. You know why? Because all the guys were strung out, and I was winning their money. It was a joke. It was like, ‘This guy is on them, this guy isn’t, this guy is, this guy isn’t.’ We were given drugs to play. You either took the drug or you didn’t play.”

David vs. Goliath

The Bills are hardly the only team accused of once freely handing out painkillers. Every team in the NFL is alleged to have acted in similar fashion.

Walter Payton was among the most respected players of his time, largely because he took a heavy beating behind weak offensive lines for most of his Hall of Fame career. The nine-time Pro Bowl selection missed only 12 games in 13 NFL seasons before retiring with 16,726 yards rushing and one Super Bowl title.

For all of his greatness, Payton may have been more respected for his durability. He led the league in rushing attempts for four straight seasons starting in 1976, all without missing a game.

“He carried the ball 25 to 30 times a week behind a weak, sometimes suspect offensive line and a poor passing game,” said Eddie Payton, who was mostly a kick returner during his career. “As an athlete who didn’t play as much, I knew the beating I took on a weekly basis. Multiply that times 100. You’ve got to understand that nobody is Superman.”

Walter Payton died in 1999 after suffering from bile duct cancer and kidney problems. He made a public plea for a new kidney before he died. His brother is convinced his health problems arose from taking painkillers without knowing long-term side effects.

In “Sweetness,” a biography of Payton that hit the shelves three years ago, author Jeff Pearlman described an addiction to Darvon that was supplied by the Bears. In the book, Payton’s agent, Bud Holmes, recalled how the running back would have “jars of painkillers, and he’d eat them like they were a snack.”

Three of Payton’s former teammates, quarterback Jim McMahon, defensive end Richard Dent and offensive lineman Keith Van Horne, were among the players who joined in the lawsuit.

“The culture of the game is the realization that you can be replaced,” Eddie Payton said. “It drove you to play on Sunday. It drove you to take your body and your life into you own hands for the love of the game. The people in positions to look after you as an individual used you like a racehorse. When it gets hurt, you shoot it.”

Former running backs Earl Campbell and Tony Dorsett also had football-related health issues. Campbell endured, and inflicted, brutal punishment during his career before retiring after seven seasons in 1985. Last year, Campbell, now 59, wrote an article for Yahoo! outlining an addiction to painkillers that arose after back surgery. His treatment included a familiar concoction from his playing days, Vicodin and beer.

“Without my doctor’s knowledge and without my even thinking it was a problem, I began washing my pain pills down with Budweiser,” Campbell wrote. “Quickly I began spiraling out of control.

“The euphoric feeling of mixing alcohol and the prescribed medication led me to down more pills and drink more beer. It reached the point that I began slurring my speech, pushing my family away, struggling to remember things and allowing important business opportunities to slip away.”

Dorsett’s problems were related to brain trauma that he believed was linked to his career. Doctors told him after a study at UCLA that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, that was found in dozens of other players who have since died. DeLamielleure also tested positive for CTE.

DeLamielleure, while supporting players involved in their fight against the league, doesn’t expect them to receive satisfaction from the NFL.

“You’re fighting Goliath,” he said.

Fall on the sword

The obvious and most common argument against players involved in the drug lawsuit against the NFL is simple: They were grown men making their own decisions, weren’t forced to take painkillers and could have asked about side effects.

“If you don’t want to take them, don’t take them,” current NFL analyst and former Bears coach Mike Ditka, who coached Payton and the three players named in the lawsuit, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I don’t think anybody ever forces anyone to do anything. If you don’t want to take it, don’t take it. If you want it, they were available. There’s no question about that. Is that right? I don’t know.”

Every former player interviewed for this story talked about unwritten rules that came with the NFL. Each was familiar with a message passed down for generations in football: You can’t make the club from the tub.

In other words, if they were unable to practice during the week or play in games because they were in pain, they would be replaced. Players understood that pain came with the job description. And using drugs to mask pain was part of playing professional football.

Wiley took injections while playing for the Chargers and years later suffered from partial renal failure. In retrospect, he finds the process alarming.

“You can’t walk into a doctor’s office and say, ‘Give me this, give me that, just to get through the day.’ Somebody would shut the place down,” Wiley told the Associated Press. “But that’s what was going on in the NFL. It’s easy to get mesmerized. I won’t deny that. There’s this ‘play-through-the-pain, fall-on-the-sword’ culture, and somebody is in line ready to step up and take your place ...

“And the next question when people hear about this stuff is: ‘Where’s the personal responsibility?’ ” Wiley said. “Well, I’m not a medical doctor, but I did take the word of a medical doctor who took an oath to get me through not just one game, or one season, but a lifetime. Meanwhile, he’s getting paid by how many bodies he gets out on the field.”

Little, the former Syracuse star who played nine seasons for the Broncos from 1967-75, offered a similar assessment from a different era.

“How many of us were pharmacists?" said Little, in good health and now an assistant to the athletic director at Syracuse. “I took some stuff that turned my ankle white, but I was able to play. The pills they were distributing, we didn’t know what the hell they were. All they were trying to do is get us back on the field. In those days, they did anything they could to get you back on the field.”

According to Hill, the Bills routinely took painkillers for one simple reason: They worked. Hill said he and teammates who shared drugs would be charged as drug dealers and driving under the influence if they conducted themselves in the same fashion today.

“They don’t say to one player, ‘Don’t give your drugs to another player,’ ” Hill said. “If I’m in pain and a player has some painkillers, you get it from them. There were some players who didn’t have the problems that we had. We were all using painkillers. To say ‘all,’ I’m using that loosely. But c’mon, man.”

Escaping hell

Looking back, Hill is convinced he became an addict because he never was weaned off the pain pills that were at his disposal during his playing days. His career ended but the pain from back and knee injuries remained. With no access to pain medication, he scoured the black market for relief.

The same man who spread good will across the region and helped raise money for charities was caught up on the wrong side of a community he once supported. He decided to go public about his drug problems in 1987, when his son was set to be drafted into the NFL. He feared his secret, if revealed by anyone other than himself, would affect his son. So he came clean.

He didn’t stay clean.

Hill spent another 13 years on drugs, often freebasing cocaine. His family left him at one point. He had nowhere to live. He tried running from his problems. He moved to Southern California. He tried to escape to Iowa. No matter how many times he checked into rehabilitation centers, his addiction followed.

“I can’t even remember a lot of stuff in the ’80s and mid-’90s,” Hill said. “I was in so much pain and suffering from depression. When my family brings it up to me, it’s tough to deal with. I was another person.”

In 2000, after moving near Arizona State, the university that made him a star, he finally turned his life around. He founded the Dream Center in Phoenix, which was similar to a center in Los Angeles with the same name. He called it a “Christian life-recovery facility” for drug addicts, ex-cons and other troubled people.

It’s where he passes out the football cards with his picture from the 1970s on the front and his story on the back. The only numbers found on the back of the card comprise his telephone number.

“There was a darkness,” said Hill, who has reunited with his family. “There’s no light in that hole. I live a life now that’s full of life, and light, after having God to help me turn my life around. It had nothing to do with me. It was the prayers of the faithful, and finally He gave me ears to hear.

“I can see the craziness, the walking the streets. I was the No. 1 draft choice, and I’m living in an alley. I’m living in abandoned buildings. I’m in places that I would no way in the world be caught today. The only time I’m in those places now is to encourage someone to get help. And when I do that, I don’t do it by myself.”

He wants other players getting the same help from the NFL.

Hill and the others in the lawsuit are looking for unspecified monetary compensation for their problems. More than anything, Hill said, he wants current and former players to be educated when it comes to drugs and to get assistance from the league when making the transition into the real world.

Need for education

He insisted his life would have turned out differently if he had known more about what he was taking. He and others believe hundreds of players paid a dear price for their small window in the NFL, for their fortune and fame. Eddie Payton believes players such as his brother and Hull paid with their lives.

“And I should have been dead,” Hill said. “I honestly lost everything except for my life. I had nothing.”

Payton, now the golf coach at Jackson State in Mississippi, also wondered if players would have made different choices if they knew about the side effects from painkillers. He said their passion for the game, even years after they retired, was stronger than the pain they endured.

“If you told them, ‘For one day, we’re going to give you your youth, your speed, your ability and a uniform. Would you play?’ ” Payton said. “Every one of them would do it again knowing what the outcome is.

“But the same group of people would not let their kids play. The people in positions in the NFL needed to do something. They played on that desire. And that’s sad.”

email: bgleason@buffnews.com

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