Although professional football is America’s most popular sport, there’s a disturbing underside to the game. NFL players are discarded when they’re no longer valuable on the field, retiring with permanent injuries, painkiller habits and few job skills. On the eve of the NFL draft, we present this feature, originally published in the pages of High Times.
Kevin Gogan is a 14-year veteran who played with five different teams and won two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. He’s a gentle giant, friendly and self-assured, and he cares deeply about former players who have fallen on hard times. Now 50, Gogan is a sharp critic of NFL policy and politics. But he sees opportunities for the league to improve its image, starting by allowing its players to use cannabis medically.
This has been the worst year in NFL history as far as scandals are concerned. What’s your take on all this?
Well, I was a player. Seeing it as a player, and seeing it as a parent—an adult human being—I think it’s awfully disgusting what’s been going on. On the NFL side of it, I’ve seen cover-up after cover-up after cover-up. So it’s really not that shocking to me as far as what truths are being brought out.
Nobody thinks that domestic abuse is new to the NFL.
I don’t think it’s anything new to any walk of life. I’m sure this happened at Microsoft with all of the employees that they have. It just doesn’t get on paper.
A lot of players have been very critical of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Is it warranted?
I think we all know the answer to that; his performance was pretty lame. But on the other hand, a lot of those players who were tweeting and dogging him have also been on the downside of one of his fines and suspensions. He should get a chance to make it right—whatever that takes. If he can, then he can. And if he can’t, then he should probably go.
What do you think is the most common misconception about the NFL?
I don’t think the mainstream football fan understands where some of these kids come from, what they’re used to or what environment they were brought up in. I think that’s what’s most misunderstood. When they get the job in the NFL and they look good and dress nice, get a nice car, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t come from a terrible past or a violent home or something like that. It just means that they’re doing good now.
Tell us about your own path to the NFL.
I played at the University of Washington in Seattle and was drafted in the eighth round—a round they don’t even have anymore. That tells you the value I carried: I wasn’t very gifted athletically. I saw a lot of better athletes play my position. But I tried hard and practiced hard; I played extraordinarily hard. I tried to make up for what I didn’t have in ability by being smart, playing hard, giving all I got—and I lasted 14 years.
What was your first year in the NFL like? Did you feel you could match up with these guys?
Great question. It was 1987, and I remember getting the call: I was at my parents’ house, and I remember hanging the phone up and telling myself that I would make that team. The guy who drafted me was Jim Erkenbeck, the offensive-line coach of the Dallas Cowboys. After talking to him, I knew that I had the ability to make it; I just went out and gave it my all at the training camp. I was going up against legendary players like Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Randy White—guys I watched on TV as a kid. I had to go out there and cut my teeth against guys like that!
So 1987 was a strike season. The guy I was backing up quit; he never came back to play after the strike. Next thing I know, I was in Philadelphia starting my first game against [Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer] Reggie White. I had no idea what I was getting into.
You had a reputation as one of the dirtiest players of your era. Is that true, or were you no dirtier than anybody else?
You develop techniques for surviving in the game. The techniques I developed were using my hands and working my feet. As an offensive lineman in the NFL, the guys you’re blocking are bigger, stronger, faster, leaner—better pure athletes who run and jump. Defensive linemen are phenomenal on the athletic side of the chart. So you have to use things to your advantage; you have to find out what your specialty is.
I was a really big offensive guard—6-foot-8, 335 pounds. Guys who are defensive tackles aren’t used to seeing that. I developed what’s called a short set: I got right on the line of scrimmage and got to the guys fast as I could, then held on for dear life. That’s what worked for me. So you learn their tendencies—how they line up, what they do out of different formations. It’s a full-time job, and it requires that you work on and off the field. When you’re less gifted than other players, you gotta do more.
But did you consider yourself a dirty player?
It was smoke and mirrors, really. You had a bunch of guys out there who were scary. Your reputation starts building. I got into people’s heads: “You’d better watch out, ’cause he’s coming!” All of a sudden, people are trying to be your friend out there. So it’s kind of funny.
But if I shove you through the pile or drive you into the ground, that’s my job description. You’re more than welcome to try that back. We can go at it all day long and do that. You’re trying to take food off my plate and I’m trying to take food off yours. So I didn’t look at myself as a dirty player. I saw myself as somebody who tried to take every advantage that he possibly could.
I didn’t lift weights—I was naturally strong out of the box. I didn’t do bench presses; I didn’t do squats. When it came to working out, I played racquetball or basketball—I didn’t have like a diehard work ethic in the off-season. But I didn’t miss practices and I didn’t miss games. I worked hard, and I worked hard in the game. I definitely think it paid off.
What is the culture of an NFL locker room?
It’s like a totem pole. You have guys who are really quiet, guys who are really loud, guys who are really insecure—it’s an interesting pecking order before you even hit the field. For instance, in Dallas before Coach Jimmy Johnson got there, we had a locker room that had four different quadrants. So 50 guys are in there, but they break into four groups. You wouldn’t see your other teammates until practice. The minute Coach Johnson was hired, he took the walls down: “Get to know your teammates better, get to like ’em or dislike ’em more. Know who you’re stepping out on the field with.”
Believe it or not, you build better camaraderie when you yell across the locker room and call one of your teammates something and everyone gets a laugh out of it. It’s fun. It’s an interesting environment, but it also needs to be handled well.
In a locker room, you got 50 guys—some are criminals; some are scholars; some are out there peeing on another guy’s sunroof for the hell of it. You gotta deal with all different walks of life. And you know Johnson handled everybody and knew how to handle everybody—and he had some legendary misfits on his team.
In 14 years, you must have encountered a lot of different coaching styles.
What was amazing to me was how incredible Jimmy Johnson was at the psychology part of the game. I’ve told this story a bunch of times: I know this guy—I’ve been playing with him five or six years. I get up one morning, my elbows are hurting, and I’m like: “I’m not gonna practice. I’m not gonna practice, no matter what.” Now I haven’t missed a practice in six years, but this one day I’m like, “I’m going to take the day off.”
So I go to the training room, talk to the trainer and say I’m taking the day off. It’s hurting pretty good … then I see Coach Johnson about an hour later. By the end of the talk—which is a totally cool talk; he’s not badmouthing you or looking down on you—I’m like: “Oh, I’ll give it a chance.” And I walk away and I’m saying: “Goddamn, man! How the fuck did that just happen? From the minute I woke up, I was not going to practice.”
That guy got more out of every single person, from every different walk of life, than any coach I’ve ever seen, and it had nothing to do with X’s and O’s. He was just plain brilliant.
Did you use cannabis throughout your career?
No. I got caught in 1988 for using cannabis. I got a 30-day drug suspension in ’88, so I went from ’88 to 2002 not partaking in any type of medical cannabis at all.
How prevalent are pharmaceutical drugs in the NFL?
You gotta play a game on Sunday, so you get a shot before the game because you’re getting old. And you gotta go in and run on Monday right after the game. So on Sunday night, you’re taking whatever amount of Vicodin you can get. Thenon Monday, you’re popping Toradol pills. You’re drinking beer on Friday, trying to feel better, and the next thing you know you’re getting another shot in your ass on Sunday mornings just to get going. That goes on year after year after year.
In the off-season, you get surgeries just so you can get back up and do it again. It’s crazy looking back on it, because you don’t think about it at the time. How fucking stupid can you be?
You can get all kinds of painkillers, but what a lot of guys who are playing the game don’t realize is that you’re just a number. When you retire, there’s really nobody that gives a shit about how you feel anymore, because you’re no longer valuable … so go get your own fucking drugs! You usually leave with a couple of years of insurance, but after that you’re on your own.
Isn’t there a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as far as pot is concerned—that as long as you don’t get busted and can perform, coaches and management don’t mind?
No doubt. Then again, they don’t care if you punch your wife in the elevator as long as you don’t get caught—that’s just the truth. I used to say this all the time: If you see a cop showing up at the facilities, they’re not always there for the players. They could be there for the coaches. The coaches are just as bad as the players, because they’re former players. You’ve got some legendary coaches who played the game, and whether they smoked cannabis or not, they knew their teammates did—they knew.
They also know it’s not an enhancer and it’s not harming the moral fiber of the NFL.
How’s your own health after life in the NFL?
I just had my hip replaced five months ago. I’ve had nine elbow surgeries. I don’t sleep well. You see the doctor, but the pain never gets better. You do everything you can possibly do—anti-inflammatories and stuff like that—and it just keeps on getting worse and worse.
Has the long-term pharmaceutical use affected you?
I took the Vicodin, I took the Toradol shots, I took the anti-inflammatories … everything I possibly could, because this job paid well—what else am I going to do? Even after retirement, I couldn’t get pain relief without sucking down pill after pill and beer after beer to make the pills a little bit stronger.
These goddamned pills—they make you sick. Your bowels are messed up. I had to turn to cannabis. Now, I may never take another pain pill—unless I’ve had a surgery. When I had my hip replaced five months ago, I took pain pills for four days, then dropped them and got back on my cannabis and never touched ’em again.
How do you use cannabis?
I like edibles. I’ve never been a smoker. I have a Volcano to vaporize sometimes, but I like to just ingest it. As long as I get the perfect dose—not too much, because I don’t like to be out of control. But really, no pain pills, no beer, no alcohol of any sort—nothing like that. To this day, that’s what I’m surviving on. It works for me, and I know it works for a lot of people.
Do you think cannabis has a future in the NFL?
Yeah. It’s knee-deep in the league already. I really believe the NFL has to appoint a panel of people—guys like myself, doctors who believe in it, former players—put a panel together, get in front of it and deal with it correctly. Here in Washington State, it’s legal. If it’s legal, I don’t understand why a guy can’t grab himself an edible; he can grab a beer. They’re gonna have to quit drawing these fine lines—it’s not a game enhancer by any means. I’m not trying to make anybody feel sorry for players, but the stress and pressure of the NFL can be overwhelming. I’d much rather they use cannabis than Vicodin and alcohol.
Former players have said they suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from playing in the NFL. Is that true?
Yes. What’s really weird is, I never, ever thought I’d be a person who’d have to deal with the things that I’ve dealt with in the last three or four years. I’ve heard about players getting depressed dealing with the trauma from football. I’ve seen my buddies go through it—guys I played with, teammates of mine who’ve killed themselves. It’s very shocking to me, very upsetting and depressing.
Your personal health has been affected permanently. Would you trade your NFL experience for better health? After all, the average life expectancy for a veteran offensive lineman is the mid-50s.
Wow, that’s an unbelievably hard question. At the time, I never worried about it. But now, 15 years out of it, I worry about it daily. I’m a one-day-at-a-time guy—I try to stay positive as much as I can. I do whatever charity I can. And I try to help people who are in pain.