No Pain, No Game: Why one ex-NFLer favors pot over painkillers

Former Denver Broncos tight end Nate Jackson, at his home in Marina Del Rey, California. Shaughn and John for ESPN

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's November 14 Pain Issue. Subscribe today!

BROKEN LEG, NO big deal: clean line through the tibia. A Chargers defensive back landed on me in the end zone. Didn't feel like much, just a little click in my ankle. I jogged to the sideline, and one of my Broncos teammates ran on for me. There's always someone ready to run on.

"You OK?" a coach asked. "I think so," I said, and tried to walk it off, then sat on the bench. The game ended, and I limped across the field toward the locker room, my cleats scraping the concrete in the dilapidated bowels of San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium.

Pain does not deter an NFL player. It lights the way.

Every hit induces pain; the very essence of football is to submit your opponent through force. You learn very early that football is pain, that humans covered in metal and hard plastic colliding at top speed is going to hurt. But America rewards the boys who act as if it doesn't. So hit me again! Harder! That's how you climb the football ladder: one lie at a time.

The Broncos put me on injured reserve the day after I broke my leg, ending my 2004 season. Someone handed me a few bottles of pain meds and anti-inflammatories. "Make sure you finish these," they said. "They only work if you finish them." I was still a young player in the NFL and hadn't yet started to question the protocol, so I ate all of my pills like a good boy, and I disappeared into the dark world of rehab. This is how it starts. My team was on a playoff run. I was on Percocet.

Next season, the team moved me to tight end and I had to gain weight: 25 pounds in three months. By June, I had my new body. I still knew how to run like a receiver, but my frame couldn't support the new torque. In training camp, I pulled my right hamstring, high up near my tailbone. No time to be hurt, though. I was trying to make the team at a new position.

"Pain does not deter an NFL player. It lights the way."

The pain was manageable, but it wasn't healing fast enough. I looked around the training room, littered with broken bodies and sad men hopping around on one foot, hooked up to machines. I had to get out of there. I expressed my anxiousness to the training staff -- and out came the needles. Two injections of Kenalog into the hamstring attachment, chased with another bottle of pills, and I was back on the field.

I made the team, but the hamstring never fully healed and I spent most of the 2005 season on the bench. Come the next April, we were back at it. Pills before practice and a Toradol shot before every game. Toradol is a powerful anti-inflammatory that dulls the pain. It was our Superman juice. A crew of us lined up the night before games. We needed our capes.

But nothing comes for free. We would all pay the price in the days that followed, and possibly for the rest of our lives. Toradol thins the blood. Players who filed class actions alleging misuse of the drug say it worsened the effect of concussions, among other things.

In 2007, my groin muscle popped off the bone on a kickoff. Thwap! At the hospital, blood was extracted from my arm and put in a centrifuge. Then it was injected back into the muscle attachment, a procedure called platelet-rich plasma injection, or PRP. I went on injured reserve and -- just like that -- my season was over. Percocet again followed, along with his trusty sidekick, depression.

But I was older now, and I knew what was waiting at the bottom of that bottle: addiction. I watched it eat up my friends. So instead of diving back into the black river of pills, I decided to exercise the green option. I took no pills. I only inhaled can­nabis, and I healed quickly and com­pletely, through optimistic rehabilitation sessions and $100 worth of marijuana. During practice in Week 12 of my sixth and final season, the same problematic hamstring finally popped off the bone. Thwap! Season over, career soon to follow. A month or so later, I was fired by the Broncos' new head coach, Josh McDaniels. His assistant left a message on the answering machine at my parents' house. There are no happy endings to this story.

I'm now seven years removed from football. Recently, I was at the gym and feeling good. Sometimes when I'm lifting weights, the blood starts flowing and I taste it again: the Immortal Man.

Well, the Immortal Man put 225 pounds on his back and did a set of squats. I felt something jam in the lower spine, and the next day I could hardly walk. Sleeping was difficult. No position was comfortable. I have scar tissue along my lower spine, compressed disks, swollen and inflamed, that will never go away.

"The propensity to kill the pain outright has helped create a dishonest relationship between a player's body and the game of football."

The difference now is that I get to choose how to treat it. No one hands me an orange bottle. No one puts a needle in my back. Pills might kill the pain, but cannabis reframes it, allowing a speedier recovery and a more complete understanding of the injury. The propensity to kill the pain outright has helped create a dishonest relationship between a player's body and the game of football.

I guess some would argue that the NFL's approach to pain management works. Look how popular the sport is, after all. Look at the revenue. But in the process, the NFL turns some of the strongest members of our species into pill-popping hospital patients.

We shouldn't forget about the human beings -- our brothers, fathers, husbands and sons -- who breathe life into an industry fueled by pain and sacrifice. We all end up broken in the end.

Nate Jackson's memoir, Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival From the Bottom of the Pile, was published in 2013. His latest book, Fantasy Man: A Former NFL Player's Descent Into the Brutality of Fantasy Football, was published by HarperCollins in September.