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Here's how former NFL quarterback Ray Lucas became addicted to opiates—and how he finally kicked the habit
It's Super Bowl Sunday morning, last Feb. 6, but for Ray Lucas it feels like a postgame Monday. His stomach is churning, and he's hobbling on swollen ankles. On the bright side, he can finally feel his hands again. In a moment the former Patriots, Jets and Dolphins quarterback will slip what looks like an orange postage stamp under his tongue. It releases a drug called Suboxone, which will help wean him off the painkilling pills he's been gobbling at a rate of close to 500 a month. Lucas, 38, is in his first morning at Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches (BHOP), a rehab facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he hopes to reclaim his life from addiction.
On Friday, Lucas, who lives in Harrison, N.J., and works as a football analyst for SNY and as a public speaker, was doing interviews at the Super Bowl media center in Dallas while popping an opiate—Vicodin, Oxycontin or Percocet—almost every hour. Lucas, whose eight-year NFL career ended in 2003, injured his spine while playing for the Jets (left, in 1999) and has been in pain ever since. In 2005 he had surgery to replace a disk and fuse two vertebrae in his lower back, but a severely herniated disk and damaged upper spine still gave him headaches, stabbing pain in his legs and muscle spasms in his shoulders, back and neck. Within four years he needed more surgery, but his NFL health insurance had expired, and he couldn't pay for the $225,000 operation.
By last summer Lucas was living in a fog, induced by painkillers and sleeping pills, that cost him his job in financial services and his house and strained his relations with his wife, Cecy. Finally he contacted Pain Alternatives, Solutions and Treatments (PAST), a coalition of New Jersey--based doctors and facilities that offers former athletes pro bono medical and behavioral health services. PAST got Lucas surgery to fuse vertebrae in his neck, but he was still addicted to painkillers. He had built up a tolerance to them during his playing days, when he would take opiate pills—sometimes five to 10 per day. After the surgery, PAST doctors sent him to BHOP, one of many facilities that administer PAST's rehab program.
Prescription painkillers work by exploiting the pathway that evolved for stress-induced analgesia, in which the body's natural opiates, such as endorphins, bind to opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord and trigger the release of dopamine, which causes a euphoric feeling and mitigates pain. Once the opioid receptors stop getting their fill, the dopamine stops flowing and the brain produces hyperalgesia, or rebound pain. Then addicts are liable to use more pills.
That's where Suboxone comes in. The drug attaches to opioid receptors but triggers a more moderate release of dopamine, allowing an addict to wean himself off the medication more easily.
Today Lucas is clean—off both painkillers and Suboxone. In a call to PAST doctors in February, Lucas thanked them for "giving me my life back" and added, "you can count on me. I won't let you down."