Ten days ago, the Drug Enforcement Administration showed up at three NFL games to investigate teams' medical staffs and look into their use of prescription drugs. When people think about drug problems in the NFL, performance-enhancing drugs is the first thing that comes to mind. But the use, abuse and cover-up of prescription pain medication is just as big a problem in the league, and it goes back to the start of my career in 1961.
When I retired after the 1978 season, I had tremendous pain in my shoulder. I went to an orthopedist, who told me he was shocked at what he saw. I was 39 years old, and he said I had the shoulder of a 75-year-old man. My shoulder had to be replaced. I couldn't throw a pass even if had I wanted to. I struggle today to put on a suit jacket because of my shoulder problems.
Where did all these shoulder problems come from? The misuse of pain medication.
It started when I was in New York playing for the Giants. I hurt my shoulder for the first time in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. At halftime, the team doctor pulled out a big needle, jabbed it into the softest part of my shoulder, and I almost passed out from the pain. It was a combination of xylocaine and cortisone -- to deaden the pain so that I could keep playing. It didn't make me play any better -- my shoulder was still injured -- but it got me back on the field.
For the final 10 weeks of that season, every Friday afternoon I took the subway from Yankee Stadium to St. Vincent's Hospital in lower Manhattan, and they would give me another shot of xylocaine and cortisone. I couldn't practice or throw at all during the week, but with that shot I was playing on Sundays.
The same thing happened in Minnesota in 1974. I took a hard hit to the shoulder in Dallas, and I was in a lot of pain. Every Friday for the rest of the year, I got a shot of butazolidin in my shoulder. I couldn't throw or practice during the week, and it didn't even really help with the pain, but I played on Sundays anyway. I couldn't throw the ball more than 40 yards, and I had nothing on it, but I got by on guile.
Butazolidin is a painkiller used on horses -- and it is now illegal for human use in the United States. I took it every week for a whole season. We went to the Super Bowl that year, losing to the Steelers.
Over the years I also got injections in my ankle, in my knee, all over.
I often hear people say, "Football players know the risks. It's their choice to play." Well, nobody told me I could permanently destroy my shoulder by injecting these toxins. First, my team doctor just gave it to me, no questions asked. And yes, I continued to take those injections for the rest of the year. The team doctor was like my family doctor -- I trusted him. Trusted that he wouldn't give me something that would destroy my body. Trusted that he had my best interests at heart.
Misuse of prescription pain medication messes with your body chemistry, and using painkillers to play means that there are injured players on the field, taking more and more hits on already-injured body parts. The end result was my doctor replacing my permanently destroyed shoulder before I turned 40.
The only thing different in the NFL today is that the painkillers are stronger and more dangerous. The NFL and its teams want their star players on the field. The athletes want to play. And when you combine injured players using painkillers to stay in the game with the unspoken epidemic of performance-enhancing drugs, you have a recipe for disaster.
Is it any wonder that injuries are up across the league? The game gets more and more violent. Too violent. Something has to give, and the human body just can't take it anymore.
For the past five years, I have spoken out against the prescription drug and PED epidemics in NFL locker rooms. It's about the safety of the players. It pains me to see players of my generation, my friends and teammates, looking like a MASH unit. The next generations of players will be even worse off.
When players' bodies are broken by drugs and injuries and their minds are destroyed by the degenerative brain disease CTE from concussions, does anyone care? Or do we care only about getting them on the field come Sunday? The NFL needs to address this before this game I love destroys itself.
Twin Cities Pioneer Press
November 26, 2014
Minnesota Vikings QB Fran Tarkenton: I Spent A Season On Now-Banned Horse Painkillers