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Bitter Pill
Peter King
May 27, 1996
Packer Brett Favre tells SI how the pain of playing in the NFL led to his addiction to painkillers and, nearly, his death
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May 27, 1996

Bitter Pill

Packer Brett Favre tells SI how the pain of playing in the NFL led to his addiction to painkillers and, nearly, his death

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Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre can pinpoint when, where and why he got scared straight. It happened on Feb. 27 in room 208 of Bellin Hospital in Green Bay, where he had just undergone surgery to remove one bone spur and several bone chips from his left ankle. One minute Favre, the NFL's MVP last season, was talking to his girlfriend, Deanna Tynes, their 7-year-old daughter, Brittany, and a nurse. The next thing he knew, there were tubes and IVs coming out of him everywhere.

He doesn't remember the 20 minutes in between, during which his limbs thrashed, his head banged backward uncontrollably, and he gnashed his teeth. During those minutes his body told him in a loud wake-up call to stop popping painkillers as if they were Lifesavers. He never heard Tynes scream to the nurse, "Get his tongue! Don't let him swallow his tongue!" He never heard a terrified Brittany ask, as she was being whisked from the room, "Is he going to die, Mom?"

After the seizure had ended and he had come to his senses, Favre looked into a sea of concerned medical faces and saw Packers associate team physician John Gray. "You've just suffered a seizure, Brett," Gray told him. "People can die from those."

Favre's heart sank. Upon hearing from doctors in the room that his dependence on painkillers might have contributed to the seizure, he thought, I've got to stop the pills, I've just got to.

Last season Favre went on such a wild ride with the prescription drug Vicodin, a narcotic-analgesic painkiller, that Tynes feared for his life. He scavenged pills from teammates. At least once he took 13 tablets in a night. But on Tuesday of last week, during his final telephone call before entering the Menninger Clinic, a rehabilitation center in Topeka, Kans., to treat his dependency (and also to evaluate his occasional heavy drinking), Favre told SI that he hadn't taken Vicodin since the seizure. "I quit cold turkey," he said, "and I entered the NFL substance-abuse program voluntarily. I don't want a pill now, but I want to go into a rehab center because I want to make sure I'm totally clean. The counselors I've seen think it's best for me. The one thing they've taught me is that there will always be a spot in your brain that wants it."

A source close to Favre told SI that Favre initially balked at entering a rehab facility. The source said Favre also did not want to comply with a demand from his NFL-appointed addiction counselors to sign a 10-part treatment plan that called for him, among other things, to stop drinking for two years. Favre claims he doesn't have an alcohol problem. However, the league's substance-abuse policy mandates that a player who turns himself in for treatment comply with his counselors' recommendations. Had he refused to sign the treatment plan and enter a rehab center, Favre could have been considered in noncompliance with the policy. That could have triggered the penalty clause, under which he could have been subject to a four-game suspension in 1996 without pay (which would cost him $900,000). So he signed the document, revealed the depth of his problem in a press conference in Green Bay on May 14 and traveled by private jet to Kansas at 5 a.m. the next day.

The news hit the quarterback-starved NFL hard. Favre is the newest star in the NFL galaxy, a fresh-faced 26-year-old savior with Bradshawesque leadership skills, charisma and Deep South backwoods likability. Outside of the Dallas Cowboys' Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, he's probably the most significant player in football, both for what he has done on the field at a young age and for what he means to the league long-term. Many of the NFL's star quarterbacks, including John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Warren Moon, are in the twilight of their careers, and most of the Generation Xers—Drew Bledsoe, Trent Dilfer, Rick Mirer, Heath Shuler et al.—are struggling to make an impact. Not Favre. In the last two seasons he has thrown 71 touchdown passes, including a team-record 38 in 1995. His two-TD machine-gunning of the San Francisco 49ers in a 27-17 playoff victory last January put the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, their first title contest in 28 years, which they lost to Dallas 38-27.

But in building the longest starting streak among active quarterbacks, 68 games, Favre has paid a painful price. He has had five operations in the last six years, dating back to a July 1990 car accident before his senior season at Southern Mississippi. "Brett's not coming out of the game unless a bone's sticking out," said Ty Detmer, his Packer backup of four years, who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in the off-season.

Like many pro football players Favre would—almost without thinking—take a numbing injection or a painkilling pill to get through a game. It's tough to determine just how widespread this practice is, because painkillers aren't detected in annual NFL drug screenings. But in the wake of Favre's revelation, Robert Huizenga, a former team doctor for the Oakland Raiders and a past president of the NFL Physicians Society, said, "This is not an isolated incident. We want people to play hurt, and when someone doesn't play hurt, he's no longer our hero. We need a system where a physician, without fear of losing his job, can say to an athlete, 'The injury is not healed. You cannot play.' "

As he walked out of the Chicago Bears' training complex last Thursday carrying a small box of club-prescribed anti-inflammatory pills for a bulging disk in his back, linebacker Bryan Cox said that he thought half of the players in the NFL needed painkillers or anti-inflammatories to make it through a season. Phil Simms, who quarterbacked the New York Giants for 14 seasons before retiring in 1993, estimated that each NFL team would need a roster of 250 players to make it through a season if games were played with only healthy, nonmedicated players.

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