I was invited to Canton, Ohio, recently, during the NFL’s annual Hall of Fame week, to speak at a medical marijuana conference. I had been to Canton once before, about 14 years ago, when I was playing for the Denver Broncos and we played in the Hall-of-Fame game—the first preseason game of every NFL season. They took us on a tour of the Hall-of-Fame the night before the game.
I gazed upon the bronze busts as I would a statue. I felt no reverence. Part of being a pro football player is never being in awe of another man—even the super heroes. That sacred cow was butchered the first time I walked into an NFL locker room in 2002. Fandom evaporated.
My career in the NFL lasted six seasons. 2009 was the last time I put on a uniform. That means my five-year waiting period for induction was up four years ago and I haven’t heard from the Hall-of-Fame committee. It’s to the point now where if I do get that call, I’ll boycott the event, because I should have been first ballot Hall-of-Famer.
Many of the heroes enshrined were medicating with cannabis while they played, I reckon. They didn’t know it was medicinal at the time, but it was. It is. And every single one of those guys now faces health issues—like chronic pain, arthritis, depression, and brain damage—that can be alleviated, to some extent, by cannabis.
But to what extent?
That’s what I travelled to Ohio to learn, as Ohio prepares to roll out its medical cannabis program. We need the expertise of doctors and scientists, buoyed by quantifiable research, to help us understand this complex plant. But there is more. There is an experiential perspective missing, whereby the language has not caught up to the feeling. There is the application of the plant and its effect on the spirit of movement. And this can only be determined by the users themselves. Those with an intimate relationship with the plant. This is why athlete testimonials are important. Athletes are dialed in to their bodies in a way that non-athletes might not be. An athlete is always tinkering with the process, listening to every little murmur. Sleep, recovery, strength, pain management, appetite, circulation, hand-eye-coordination, digestion, energy levels, mood—everything effects performance and can be the difference in winning and losing, in having a job and getting fired. If cannabis fits anywhere into the regimen of a world-class athlete, it is worth studying.
And also worth noting, is that there is no boilerplate path to the NFL. Each man is the sum of different experiences, different genetics, and different circumstances. We all have a unique story. It is only through its faithful telling that we are rewarded with perspective.
Before I was a pro football player, I was a kid in San Jose, CA, son of two public school teachers. Youngest of six kids and was the most serious athlete. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but in this case, it must have hit a root and rolled because I ended up with some anomalous physical attributes to those of my family.
I was more muscular and was reckless. Always running ahead of everyone, always on the go, rough-housing, climbing trees, skateboarding, wrestling, getting stitches in my head, ripping holes in my jeans.
I gave my teachers hell at school. Disrupted class a lot. I remember on many occasions, dreading the ringing of the telephone, because I knew it would be my teacher wanting to talk to my parents, and it wasn’t because I aced a test.
In short, I was a little shithead, and had I been a child today, I might have been a candidate for ADHD medication.
In middle school, I continued my mischievous ways. Only the stakes were higher. Theft. Vandalism. Beer. Cigarettes. Heading into the wrong place with the wrong people. Now this is the part that gets interesting, because usually, the Reefer Madness story says that Marijuana, the Gateway Drug, led the adolescent into an irreversible life of crime and depravity.
But the opposite was true for me.
I was introduced to cannabis in the summer before freshman year of high school. Of course, no one called it cannabis back then. It was weed, grass, dope, pot. Whatever the name, it was a recreational substance that was ubiquitous in California. And being the little shit that I was, grass was a logical progression for me.
But unlike other forms of mischief, when I did it, I felt better. It was fun. It was funny. And it was exciting. The fact that cannabis is fun, funny and exciting is part of the Medical Conundrum surrounding the plant. Can Medicine be fun? Can Medicine make you happy? The traditional western medical approach says absolutely not. Medicine is supposed to be yucky, taste bad, and feel weird. That’s how you get better. And that is one of many stigmas that rattle the industry. How can something that feels good also be good for you?
Well, a lot of things are. Exercise. Sex. Laughter. Massage. Etc.
But cannabis is a substance, and a complex one at that. So back to my own consumption. The effect that cannabis had on me, a hyper adolescent, was calming. It helped me relax. It made me think before I acted up. It made me more empathetic. More inquisitive. And not just while I was under the influence. It seemed to carry over and apply itself in complete sobriety.
I stopped getting in trouble in class. Stopped stealing. Stopped causing problems. The only trouble I would get in henceforth, would be for the weed itself.
So, right off the bat, there was a discernable medical result from using a recreational substance with my friends: I became a better person. But that is, of course, subjective.
Perhaps more concrete: one month after my first cannabis experience was my first organized football experience. My parents wouldn’t let me play until high school, so I actually consumed cannabis before ever sustaining a head-shot on a football field. Considering what we now know about head trauma in football, and the Political Games that the football industrial complex plays trying to cover it up, it was a blessing.
Science is telling us that cannabis may be a neuro-protectant. Meaning, it protects the brain in advance of a brain injury. And it helps the brain heal after sustaining one. Which explains why it is so popular among football players and fighters.
There are few professions/hobbies in which you know for sure that you’ll be sustaining brain trauma. Football is one of them. So, in addition to managing my ADHD, I was adding a layer of protection to my brain that would act as a Second Helmet during the next fifteen years of my life, smacking heads for money.
Now, I mentioned that the only times I got in trouble after discovering cannabis were for cannabis itself. I was caught smoking it in the Disneyland parking lot with some buddies when I was 17. They don’t call it the “Happiest Place on Earth” for nothing. But after calling our parents and telling them what had happened, Mickey Mouse, after pocketing our joint, let us go with a warning.
But that same year, I was arrested by the San Jose Police Department for possession of a very small amount of cannabis at a house party. Because of that arrest, I had to go to Marijuana Anonymous (MA) meetings, write an essay, and make a $100 donation to a charity. In the days following the arrest—which happened at the house of one of our football team’s most active boosters—my father made me tell my football coach what had happened, so that he didn’t hear it from someone else. I was terrified. My football coach was like a second father to me. Disciplinarian. Former Cop. Straight edge. But when I told him what happened, he was more understanding than I thought. He said, look, “Everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you respond that matters.”
The way I responded was to be more careful. I never got in trouble for cannabis again. Never failed a drug test, never raised any red flags because football was still more important to me.
Almost twenty years after that arrest, a few years ago, Coach was near the end of a five-year battle with Pancreatic Cancer. He had lost 60 pounds. Couldn’t eat. Couldn’t sleep. The toxic medicines he was getting were wreaking havoc on his system. He read about the work I was doing with cannabis and asked me if I could help him. I know how hard it was for him to make that call. Above everything, he was a proud man.
I brought him several kinds of CBD and THC infused coconut oil. It provided him some relief, he told me. But he had only a few months to live. I wish I had been able to get those products to him sooner.
It wasn’t until I was playing college football that I began to understand the medicinal value of cannabis. I had been consuming it occasionally with my teammates, and it had brought us closer, like cannabis tends to do.
But the “aha!” moment for me was after cracking a rib in a game, I was on bed rest. I couldn’t laugh, could barely talk, walk, breathing deep was painful. But when I smoked a small amount of cannabis—like, two small puffs—many of the symptoms subsided. It was an obvious physical relief from an acute injury.
That’s when I knew that, for me, cannabis was a medicine.
Then the next season, I suffered a dislocated shoulder on the field. that they couldn’t get it back into the socket. Yank as they did, the muscles were spasming around the head of the humerus, locking it against my chest. I had to go to the ER and be put under anesthesia for them to get it back in. When I woke up, I was on morphine and my shoulder was reduced, resting in a sling. On the ride back to the hotel, I had to pull over to vomit.
In addition to the morphine in my system, I left with opioid pills in my pocket, which I tried to take over the next few days, but they, too, made me nauseous. Plus, sluggish and depressed.
Opioids do not agree with me, I realized. But I would continue to be handed large bottles of them over the next ten years as my college career ended and my NFL career began. I played for six seasons, racking up a long list of injuries along the way. Dislocated shoulder, broken tibia, broken fingers, separated shoulders, torn MCL, torn groin off the bone, torn hamstring off the bone, plantar fasciitis, cracked ribs, bulging discs, neck contusions, concussions—you name it. And always, the prescription was pills. Not just opioids, but powerful anti-inflammatories that have eaten away my stomach lining. I now have severe acid reflux that has damaged my vocal chords and my digestive system. That is an ongoing puzzle for me, and I am actively trying to figure out how cannabis fits in.
I have read some accounts of stomach problems with cannabis users. This is another area of cannabis research that is in its infancy. But as long as cannabis is federally illegal, banks won’t touch it and scientists can’t study it—so its stays in the shadows and green lights the medical community to push ahead with the pills. But many Americans, and many players in the NFL, have now determined that cannabis is more effective than the pills they are being given, or can be used in conjunction with the pills they’re given, and they want safe and legal access to the plant.
As my football career went on and the injuries piled up, I began to medicate my style, supplementing a reduced dosage of pills with a dosage of cannabis.
And when I did it that way, I healed faster and kept my head clear. Because in addition to being a great pain medication, cannabis is an effective anti-inflammatory and helps you sleep.
I went into work with minimal swelling, making daily progress. My trainers were impressed with their work. I wanted to tell them, “Its not you, fellas”, but I couldn’t say a word. The stigma is too powerful, even for those at the top of their craft. The absolute best in the world can not weigh in on the subject they know best.
It wasn’t until I was done playing for good that I felt empowered to speak. This is the Catch 22. You can not truly express your soul until the NFL releases its grip on it. For those within its clutches, the muzzle is pulled tight. We were all conditioned for silence.
But the man lives on after the football player dies. And the man must find his peace away from the sport. Cannabis can be a piece of that peace. The trick is to figure out in what capacity it does actually work, for who it works best, and when.
Over the last several years, a network of former athletes has emerged—athletes who have found relief with cannabis, either during or after their careers, and have felt empowered to speak it. All of us with different experiences in the same professions. All of us with our own stories to tell.
From this network of athletes sprouted Athletes for CARE. A4C seeks to find a healthier approach to pain management, rehabilitation, and general wellness for athletes, especially former athletes, who need help, and who want more than just more pills.
We want to empower them with knowledge. To understand their choices. To understand their bodies. To understand cannabis. To learn to articulate their ideas. To tell their own stories. In their own words.
Nate Jackson is a retired Tight End for the San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns. Since retirement, Nate has become a New York Times Bestselling author and freelance writer for a variety of popular websites and newspapers. His latest book Fantasy Man was released in September 2016. You can hear from Nate regularly on the Caveman Poet Society Podcast he hosts with Eben Britton