These days, as much as I hate to say it out loud, nothing, and I mean nothing, surprises me or most sports fans. When an athlete making millions self destructs and throws away a chance to pull in the big bucks for simply playing a game, it’s enough to leave you scratching your head.
One collects DUI’s and DWI’s like they’re trading cards. Another assaults someone. Yet another has a rap sheet a mile long. What’s wrong with these guys?
We should now be asking what is (or was) wrong with a former Carolina Panther.
Peter King provides us a review of Jason Peter’s new book and a look into the mind of a guy who might have us all asking, “What were you thinking?” for a heckuva long time to come.
After reading an advance copy of former NFL first-round pick Jason Peter‘s riveting memoir about his grotesquely self-destructive life in football and as a drug addict so out of control that he used to take 80 pain and sleeping pills in a day — 80! — I called him Sunday and didn’t know quite how to begin the interview. So I just said it.
“I’m shocked you’re still alive.”
“I am too,” he said.
The first page of Peter’s Hero of the Underground (with Tony O’Neill, St. Martin’s Press, due out July 8) took me to the top of a roller coaster and dropped me straight down. In part, it reads:
When you swallow eighty Vicodin, twenty sleeping pills, drink a bottle of vodka, and still survive, a certain sense of invulnerability stays with you. When you continually use drugs with the kind of reckless determination that I did, the limit to how much heroin or crack you can ingest is not defined in dollar amounts but in the amounts your body can withstand without experiencing a seizure or respiratory failure … when you still wake up to see the same dirty sky over you as the night before, you start to think that instead of dying, maybe your punishment is to live — to be stuck in this purgatory of self-abuse and misery for an eternity.
A lot of people who read this will ask why someone would want to destroy themselves. Others might want to know just how stupid you have to be to do something like this to yourself. That’s EIGHTY pills!
I’ve taken a Vicodin. Hell, I’ve taken something to help me sleep, and a number of other pain pills in my life. Do I admit that I liked how they made me feel? Yes. Certain pills have been prescribed that have given me an indescribable high. I can also tell you that I have always been able to prevent myself from getting hooked and allowing these monster pills from controlling my life.
What is it that starts one of these behemoth players on this road to destruction?
The condensed version: Peter grew up in Middletown, N.J., one of four children of a noted central Jersey restaurateur. He never played football until his junior year in high school, yet he was good enough and big enough (6-foot-5, 275 pounds) after a year of prep school to earn a full ride where his brother Christian was starring — Nebraska. He played well enough there to be the 14th pick in the 1998 draft, by Carolina. But he could never stay healthy for the Panthers, and seven shoulder and neck surgeries later, he was cut in 2001 … for his own good.
This is more than a book about a druggie who had a failed pro football career. It’s a good look into the sordid world of how a pro football player survives when he feels pain every day of his life. And Peter doesn’t blame Nebraska, the Panthers, the NFL or his family.
“I didn’t want to put the blame on anyone for my drug use — anyone but me,” he said. “I’ve got great parents. I had all the advantages any kid would want growing up. I take all the blame for everything. There are guys who come out of the surgeries I had and they don’t get addicted.”
Sometimes, art does imitate life. We’ve seen it on the big screen – a coach wants to win at all costs. A player is injured and is given a shot to cover the pain so he can finish the game. Thanks to the injury, he hurts and needs meds from a “doctor” (or a quack) to help him cope during the week. It’s a pattern that’s played out far more often than we know and far more than will ever be told.
Jason Peter says that his publisher wanted a tell-all book with facts left intact. He said he didn’t mind using his own name or giving facts about himself but he simply wouldn’t do the same with his teammates. He still said enough.
The best football story was the day in 2001 he was told by Carolina coach George Seifert he would no longer be cleared to play football for the Panthers. Called into the trainer’s office with GM Marty Hurney and the team trainer, Peter wrote:
I knew what this was. This was the Death Blow. I approached the office slowly and silently. I felt like a man stepping up to the gas chamber. I closed the door behind me and was ushered into a chair. Everyone sat in silence. I took in the office, the polished mahogany desk, the pictures of the trainer’s family … [Hurney and Seifert] were men who knew and loved sports. They knew what they were about to say to me was one of the cruelest things you could say to an athlete. I had the sudden, confusing urge to laugh, or to get up and run out of the office, pretend that this wasn’t happening. But, crushed by circumstance, I just sat there and did my best to smile.
“You know, [Seifert said] … I’ve coached men who have damaged themselves so badly playing this game … that they can’t even hold their children anymore. They pushed it too far, and once your body reaches a certain point … well, there’s just no coming back. Do you understand what I’m telling you, Jason?”
“Jason, you can’t keep doing this … The bottom line is this: We can’t clear you to play anymore. The doctor has told us that you’re at risk for a major injury. I’m really terribly sorry.”
“Yes, sir.” …
I knew what they were saying was perfectly true. I could feel it, deep inside of myself. I was one good hit away from being a cripple, and that scared the living s— out of me. This little talk in the office was just the final confirmation of something I had known for a long time. It was game over. I was finished.
Maybe Seifert and Hurney did him a favor. Perhaps they were cutting him to help him avoid debilitating injuries and a lifetime of pain and suffering. And maybe they kept him around too long.
Either way, Peter left the game behind and began a real downward spiral.
He had nothing to do. But he had ways of passing the time, writing that he found it easy at first to score painkilling pills like Vicodin. He was still suffering, so it was logical for the team to give him medication. When that wasn’t enough, he’d meet friendly doctors, some in his adopted hometown of Manhattan, more than happy to write him a prescription for a favor like an autographed jersey. But it got to the point, he told me, “where it was easier to buy five eight-balls of cocaine than it was to buy 500 Vicodin.” That’s what led to the rampant drug use. Rampant is putting it mildly.
I had two questions: How did he evade the NFL’s drug policy while he was an occasional user of painkillers and recreational drugs with the Panthers? He didn’t. He got a DWI in his rookie year, and was put into the NFL’s substance-abuse program. But what he was using — Vicodin and other substances that wouldn’t show up dirty in a drug test — made it possible for him to get away with using. And how prevalent did he think painkiller-abuse was in the NFL? “I would have to think there are some guys who walk away from the game with some kind of addiction,” he said. “How many, I don’t know.”
His issues didn’t just involve drugs either.
Vicodin. Ambien. Cocaine. Crack. Heroin. GHB, the date-rape drug. Lots of others I’ve never heard of. He’s not sure if he’s been in rehab six or seven times. He’s blown most of the $6.5 million Carolina paid him over a disappointing, injury-filled NFL career with the Panthers. Nights and weeks with prostitutes so numerous … well, so numerous that his Madame at a high-rolling Manhattan brothel ran out of girls for him.
I could make light of that but in this case we’ve crossed a line into addiction. The question still remains how many others are there out there like Jason Peter? How many borderline players who didn’t quite make it or who couldn’t stick in the NFL are out there with these same problems?
It’s easy to argue that these men choose to play the game. It’s easy to say they placed themselves in this position. And it’s far too easy to think that they always have the right to say no.
What’s the alternative? If they say no to the pills, the shots and playing hurt, they also say no to the fat paychecks and the attention they receive – yet another opiate that players are addicted to: the high of playing.
The good news in this case is that Jason Peter has straightened himself out.
“I hope it helps somebody,” said Peter, who claims he is four years clean. He’s married, living in Lincoln, Neb., working as a radio host and living on six acres with a wife, Sarah, he met after leaving his last — successful — rehab stint in California. The amazing thing is, he lived to tell the story.
How many other players and former players are out there who won’t have such a happy ending?