Study shows painkiller abuse big NFL issue

A study commissioned by ESPN and assisted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows retired NFL players misuse painkillers at a rate of 4-to-1 compared to the general public.

Results of the study are being reported Friday on ESPN's "SportsCenter" and "Outside the Lines" and in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Enterprise reporter John Barr also wrote a series of stories on the findings for ESPN.com.

Miami Dolphins tight end Dan Johnson's teammates called him "King of Pain" because of the myriad injuries he suffered throughout his career from 1983 through 1987. He became addicted to painkillers after two back surgeries.

"I was taking about 1,000 Vicodins a month," Johnson told ESPN. "People go, 'That's impossible. That's crazy.' No, it's exactly what I was taking. I mean, believe me, I'd love to be off medications. That's my worry every day, to make sure I have medication."

Johnson broke down in tears when he admitted he contemplated suicide.

Dr. Linda Cottler and colleagues at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis oversaw the study of 644 ex-players. It was the first time researchers explored how and to what extent retired NFL players use prescription pain medications.

More than half of the surveyed former players reported using prescription painkillers during their playing days. Of that same group, 71 percent admitted misusing the drugs during their time in the NFL.

One of the most notable cases involving a current NFL player occurred in 2008. New England Patriots offensive lineman Nick Kaczur was found with 202 OxyContin pills after being stopped for speeding. Kaczur cut a deal to help the Drug Enforcement Administration bust his dealer. Court documents state Kaczur bought about 100 OxyContin pills every three or four days.

"This is the most frightening epidemic I've seen probably since the methamphetamine epidemic in the beginning of the early '90s," Dr. Alex Stalcup said. "All the professional sports that involve physical combat create guys who need pain treatment."