(CBS News) Ray Lucas said he had no intention of getting himself clean.
Taking up to 800 prescription opioid pain medications per month at his worst, the former NFL quarterback went broke, put his family through “hell on Earth” and would pop a handful of pills before bed hoping he wouldn’t wake up.
But he said at no point was he going to ask for help. Ray Lucas was caught in the downward spiral that is a dependence on highly addictive opioid medications.
And he’s not alone - recent government estimates find that one in every 20 people over the age of 12 said they took a prescription opioid for a non-medical reason in the past year. Increases in opioid prescriptions over the past decade have correlated with a rise in overdose deaths, pharmacy robberies and addiction rates.
New government policies, such as forcing drug-makers to better educate doctors about addiction risks, have been launched in attempt to curb the epidemic.
In an interview with HealthPop, Lucas said he just wants to convince one of these people to get the help they need.
“The hardest thing for addicts is to ask for help,” Lucas said in an interview. “For me to reach that one person out there who thinks they’re alone - I thought I was.”
Lucas, 39, serves as a spokesman for TurnToHelp.com, a website that encourages people with an opioid dependence to find a doctor and get treated. The site is sponsored by Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals Inc., the maker of the anti-addiction drug Suboxone. A type of opioid medication called buprenorphine, the drug is used by doctors to treat people who are addicted to opiates in addition to other options like methadone (Dolophine, Methadose) and naltrexone (Depade, ReVia or long-acting injection Vivitrol).
The Harrison, N.J.-native Lucas played eight years in the NFL, for the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins before retiring due to injury from the Baltimore Ravens before the 2003 season. An undrafted free agent out of Rutgers in 1996, he caught the eye of then-Patriots coach Bill Parcells - whom Lucas calls “the second-greatest man in my life besides my father” - who brought the QB to the New York Jets in 1997. Also lining up as wide receiver or on special teams, he served primarily as a backup quarterback for four seasons, including a successful six-win stretch filling in for injured quarterback Vinny Testaverde in 1999. His punishing style of play, always willing to lay himself out whenever he got on the field, endeared him to New York fans.
But the hits caused pain during his playing days - and back and neck injuries which ultimately ended his career. The former Jet said he’s had 14 surgeries, including procedures on his back, elbows, shoulders and neck, the latter most recently in July.
Lucas began taking and building a tolerance to prescription painkillers to get through the toll of an NFL season. At first he would be prescribed around 120 prescription painkillers a month, an amount that would quickly escalate over his career.
By the time he was out of the league and finally got his first back surgery, Lucas said he felt better and thought he no longer needed pills. But his increased tolerance by then had led his body to become dependent on opioid pain pills. Without them, he found himself on the floor, sweating and shivering.
Said Lucas, “That was my first introduction to withdrawal.”
Dr. Joshua Lee, an assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, told HealthPop the withdrawal symptoms that make an addict feel anxious and ill - which include runny nose, nausea, muscle aches and gastrointestinal problems - help fuel the addiction. He said almost anyone who takes a painkiller daily, even for as little as a week or two, will develop a tolerance and will need more pills to achieve the same effects.
The brain itself has a natural opiate system that regulates pain, pleasure and comfort and opioid drugs take advantage of this same system, said Lee, making users feel better than they would naturally. But as tolerance builds, the brain’s opiate system becomes dependent on the drugs and the more you take, the more your brain comes to expect that amount.
“That becomes the basic dilemma,” said Lee, who NYU’s addiction medicine fellowship program at the medical school and Bellevue Hospital in New York City. “In most people’s opiate career, it was not about getting high constantly, it was about avoiding feeling terrible.”
Lucas was no exception.
“I needed the pills to function,” Lucas said. “You wake up with the thought of pills on your mind, you go to sleep with pills on your mind, and you will sell yourself to the devil to make sure you have that.”
Lucas had three doctors he obtained prescriptions from, but no health insurance, and between that and illegal means of obtaining pills, Lucas’ habit had run itself to a $2,500 monthly tab.
“Oxies, Roxies, Percocets, Somas, muscle relaxers - anything I could get my hands on I was taking,” he said.
His monthly intake would grow to 400 pills per month, and before long that amount would double. He lost his home and business to fund his habit and moved into an apartment with his wife and three daughters where he wouldn’t leave his bed for days at a time. Lucas isolated himself and stopped shaving and showering. He dropped 70 pounds off of his 6 foot 3 inch -fame, down to 168 pounds.
“I had such a hard time staring at myself in the mirror.” Lucas said. “I wanted to punch that guy in the face.” He said he became a “master of lies and excuses,” and blamed others who showed concern, a pattern he said many addicts follow.
But there was a brief respite from his addiction. Lucas landed a job at SNY, the New York City regional sports network that covered his former Jets. He took the opportunity to be close to the game he loved - and struggled to be away from - so seriously that he said he stopped taking the pills the day before his scheduled appearances, because he didn’t want to appear “quirky” on the broadcast. He’d shave off his beard, put on a suit and flip on the switch to become Ray Lucas, the New York Jets TV analyst.
By the time he got back to his car after his show taped, the fear of pain crept back and he’d again become Ray Lucas the addict. He’d reach in his glove box and take 15 of whatever he had right away.
“Now if I got stuck in traffic, I’d take 20 more,” he said. “This is the life of an addict, you’re not even thinking that you’re in a vehicle that can kill just about anybody.”
Lucas called this his period as a functional addict.
Dr. Lee, who has no involvement in Lucas’ treatment or care, said depending on the individual, a quarterback, sportscaster or CEO addicted to opioids could maintain a high level of performance for some time - likely not as optimal if they were sober - but able to be hidden from friends, family and colleagues if they dose themselves correctly to allow for windows of “normal” functioning.
Lucas won a New York Emmy for his work at SNY in 2010.
But Lee said for many addicts, it’s a downward slope and eventually the repetitive cycle of withdrawal and intoxication will lead to declines in performance at the workplace and elsewhere and the “jig is up.”
One particular day after filming, a moment Lucas concedes as one of his worst, he took 35 pain pills on his way home and stopped to pick up fast food. The rest of the night was a blur until he woke up with his shoe covered in chili, thinking his wife had poured it on him out of anger. The next morning, Lucas’ wife produced a videotape of a drug-inebriated shell of himself trying unsuccessfully to get a spoonful of chili to reach his mouth.
Lucas contemplated driving his truck off the George Washington Bridge when his wife and daughters were at church on Sunday because he felt so worthless to those around them.
As the cycle continued between drug use, the television gigs, and more surgeries, his wife gave him an ultimatum: Go to rehab or she would leave him. He said it’s a decision he never would have made on his own while addicted, and he only agreed to it to “pacify” her and had no intention of sticking It out.
Entering a 42-day program in 2010, Lucas said he wouldn’t talk during meetings or cooperate with staff, until his surroundings slowly began to set in and he looked at the others around him: Doctors, lawyers, CFOs - fellow addicts who were stuck at the point of no return.
He said for the first time in his addiction he did not feel as isolated. He began to cooperate and in contrast of his initial attitude, updated fans through his Facebook page on his ups and downs during it.
Since completing the 42-day program, which he said worked for him but may not work for everyone, he’s had six operations and is proud of the fact that he hasn’t had to take a single pain pill for any of them. Lucas said he’ll always be an addict and has to live with it every day. He goes to sleep and wakes up with pain, and he frequently fights the occasionally thought that maybe he can get away with taking a couple pills since he’s been off them for some time.
He credits his wife and kids as helping him stay sober, and said without that support, his risk for relapse would be high. As part of his campaign, Lucas urges family members who think a loved one is dependent on pain pills to look for the signs of addiction, and try and get them the help they desperately need, rather than burning bridges - a common result of an addiction.
“When you receive the gift of sobriety, if you don’t give it back, you don’t get to keep it,” said Lucas. “That’s why I tell my story today.”
Lucas won’t “play the blame game” when it comes to league that employed him when he became addicted to painkillers. However when concussions and risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) dominate the headlines, Lucas concedes chronic pain is an underreported problem.
“You’re playing a violent sport,” Lucas said. “You’re going to have injuries. Every year these guys get bigger and faster and stronger and the collisions are becoming before violent. In the NFL, you’re going to have a lot of bumps and bruise and you need to take the medicine,” he said. “For a guy who played eight years, I took a lot of medicine. And my tolerance level when I left the NFL was extremely high.”
That’s not to say concussions - which Lucas estimates he suffered between 15 and 19 in his career - don’t scare him. Lucas said NFL-star Junior Seau’s suicide in May spotlights the need for an “exit plan” to help players deal with being away from the game that’s provided them a lifetime of structure that’s been all they’ve known since childhood. He added that he doesn’t know what he’d do without his job as a football analyst that allows him to stay close to the game.
“There’s a lot of other guys that suffered before him and did the same thing,” Lucas said, “But a big name like Junior Seau, nobody can sidestep that any longer.”
When asked whether he worries about his own risk for CTE, the brain disease that’s been found in the autopsies of former NFL, NHL and even college or high school athletes, he says, “100 percent.”
But looking back, with the injuries, his struggle with addiction and the concussions, Lucas says he has absolutely no regrets in his quest to “reach the top of the mountain” in the game he loved so much.
“If somebody said ‘you can go back and do it all over but you have to suffer the way you suffered,’ Lucas said, “I’d do it in a second.’”