What Does It Take To Stay In The NFL? You Don’t Want To Know

Eben Britton played in the National Football League for six years. He's now a spokesperson for legalization, especially focused on how cannabis can help current and former players. He appeared on our "NFL & Cannabis" seminar with fellow former players Ricky Williams, Kyle Turley and Nate Jackson. In this mini-memoir, Eban looks back on his career and the damage he incurred physically and psychologically. He says: "The National Football League is a grotesque, profit-driven circus, but don’t be fooled  —  as players, our eyes are wide open."           

The red pill or the blue pill.

The choice seemed innocuous enough. I’d been taking Adderall under the NFL’s therapeutic use exemption (“TUE”) during the entirety of my career  —  yeah, we’ll get to that  —  so it didn’t really occur to me that another, similar drug prescribed to treat ADD/ADHD, Ritalin, might put me in any danger with the powers that be.

Guess I should’ve been paying more attention. Not that it would’ve mattered much, though. I’d be lying if I said I was thinking clearly at the time. When it came to football, my goal was singular: To be out there on that field. By any means necessary. No matter the cost.

On that particular day, I remember rummaging through my things, frantically trying to find that bottle. Just because my Adderall had been prescribed by a doctor, of course, didn’t make it any less of a crutch or a necessity. I was anxious. I knew I wouldn’t be able to perform to the best of my ability without it. At least, that’s what I believed.

And then it hit me. Not to worry, I thought to myself, I can get by with one of [unnamed teammate]’s pills.

“But these are Ritalin,” he told me after I tried bumming some of his stash like they were cigarettes; like we were huddled up together in the back alley of a bar.

“They treat the same thing; it will be fine,” I responded, with many thanks.

Later that day (as luck would have it), I was summoned to submit to a random urine test for PEDs by league officials. About three months later, I was notified by mail that I had tested positive for methylphenidate (the active ingredient in Ritalin).

My agent was sympathetic when I relayed to him what had happened. So was Heather McPhee, lead attorney for the NFLPA, who I solicited assistance from. She thought we had a good story: I came back from the bye week, lost my prescription, I took one from a friend not knowing it was any different because it treats the same disorder, blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada, suspension rescinded, case closed.

Britton spoke on the NFL & Pot panel at the 2016 SoCal Cannabis Cup.

Only, that’s not what happened.

My appeal was denied. My four-game suspension was upheld and labeled final. End of story. End of tenure as an NFL offensive lineman. End of life as I knew it. Maybe it was for the best. After all, if the league knew what else I had done to prolong my playing career, I would have been run out of there years ago.

And I wouldn’t have been alone.

Tom Brady and I were hit with the same four-game suspension in the same offseason. Me for taking Ritalin instead of Adderall; Brady for allegedly okaying the fractional inflation of footballs.

Even now, I still can’t figure out which was worse: My not knowing the difference between two, very different medications, or the Deflategate scandal. Both Tom and I, it seems, made mistakes. Maybe he had a better case than I did. Maybe his name carried more weight than mine did. None of that bothers me; it’s part of the business. Really, the problem goes much deeper than the individual infractions, and gets to the heart of how the NFL  —  and Roger Goodell, in particular  —  determines what punishments best fit the crimes.

I began taking Adderall regularly back in 2010, my second year in the league, as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Towards the end of OTAs and mini-camp, I suffered a herniated disc during a workout  —  a mini-explosion just above my tailbone. My right leg tightened as if someone had just stuck a knife in it. There was burning, then cold. My leg felt twisted, even mangled. It had been the best spring of my young football career, and I was about to head to training camp a crippled mess.

At training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars

Camp was a grind. I spent what felt like every waking moment “managing” the pain coursing down my leg. The resulting sciatica was causing complete numbness in my right foot. My pain maintenance program included a core regiment of daily exercises —  to be done religiously —  and a whole lot of stretching.

For anyone who’s never experienced sciatica, imagine someone sticking a piece of glass in the electrical circuit board of your nervous system.

I wore braces and plasters (think of them as extreme heating pads) to every practice, and, needless to say, my play suffered tremendously. Coaches couldn’t understand what had happened to the player they’d seen less than a month earlier. I’d gone from gridiron golden child to roster also-ran. Sure, those same coaches and the team’s trainers knew what was going on — they’d seen the MRIs showing the herniated disc  —  but nobody cared.

“You don’t need surgery. We can manage this,” the trainers would insist.

“Eb, we don’t know what’s going on with you,” the coaches would counter. “But you need to fix it.”

Sure, I needed to fix it. I literally couldn’t feel my right foot on the ground. The muscles in my leg felt like they were beginning to atrophy. Still, circumstances being what they were, I doubled down, determined to prove that I was a player. If they wanted me to do one core circuit workout a day, I’d do two. If they wanted 30 minutes on the StairMaster, I did an hour.

Fuck it, I told myself myself. Whatever it takes.

Flash forward to Week Six. Monday Night Football. We were playing the Tennessee Titans, our divisional rival. Though the pain remained constant, I had managed to keep it somewhat at bay. By then I was taking a double dose of Vicodin as part of my pregame ritual. (Pro tip: It’s never a good sign when painkillers become a vital part of the routine that early in the season.) It was a warm fall night in Jacksonville, and my girlfriend was in town for the game. I was exhausted  — mentally, physically, and emotionally.

But I was a football player, and that’s just the way it is in the game.

Playing professional football is hard enough when you’re completely healthy. Add a nagging injury to the mix  —  meaning roughly 98 percent of all NFL players  —  and the season can quickly turn into a nightmare of pain and doubt. You’re up earlier than everyone else to get treatment, and up later than everyone else to get some more. A little ice, a little pill, and voila: You’re temporarily healed.

In my pregame haze of nerves and jacked excitement, I wandered over to a fellow offensive lineman.

“I need something,” I said, quiet and mellow, though it’s nothing anyone hasn’t heard before.

“Like what?” my teammate says, his bottom lip hugging a gigantic heap of chew.

“I don’t know, something to get me through this game.”

“I got Adderall.”

“I’ll take it,” I say without hesitation.

“If you get tested tomorrow, you’ll get hit with a positive, you know.”

“I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.”

Riding lightning.

That’s the best way I can describe taking Adderall. I took two that Monday night before kickoff.

I was explosive. I played one of the best games of my life against a good pass rusher having a great year. Though we got our asses handed to us  — I n a game where we lost both our quarterbacks  —  I felt dominant.

The following week in Kansas City, I dislocated my shoulder. Twice. My season was over before it ever really began. Looking back, maybe it was all a blessing in disguise  —  the universe giving my body the break it so desperately needed. It was hard to see all that at the time, though, as I dove deep into the secluded anonymity that is injured reserve. I popped pills and chewed tobacco like a fiend. I’d go to the facility in the morning for treatment and have the rest of the day to spend losing my mind.

After that Monday night game, I had taken steps to ensure that my Adderall use was “legitimate.” The team doctor ran me through a battery of tests to identify whether or not I had reason to be prescribed the drug. Sure enough  — conveniently enough  —  it was determined that I likely suffered from ADHD. Not that the diagnosis was completely without merit: there were times during childhood when I struggled with reading, pouring through entire chapters and not being able to recall any of what I’d read.

(Looking back, I sometimes wonder if maybe football had something to do with my ADHD. But I suppose that’s a discussion for another time.)

I started taking Adderall regularly  —  chasing the dragon, as they say, always after the high you had the first time. I didn’t consider myself a drug addict. This was something that was prescribed to me. By a doctor. And given that there was a noticeable difference in my productivity whenever I took it, my usage was easy to justify.

The only downside, as I saw it, was the afternoon crash. It would start off slow, with only slight changes in my energy and mood. Soon, the waves of emotions got stronger. By mid-afternoon, I’d be plummeting hard. Before long, I needed to smoke copious amounts of marijuana just to ease the comedown.

In hindsight, that wasn’t a good sign, but I couldn’t see clearly. I was trying spare my body the pain, and that meant taking my mind as far away from that pain as possible. By then, the league had already grown wary of prescribing painkillers to active players, but in my case (and in many, many other players’), Adderrall wasn’t categorized by the same broad-brush approach.

Simply put, the drug helped me play through the pain. It was legal, and that was good enough for me.

I repeated that cycle over the next four years. Adderall by day, weed by night. Each and every day riding the maelstrom of emotions and hormones. Ups and downs; cliffs and valleys; back and forth. For me, it was the only way of dealing with the physical and psychological grind of the game.

I felt liberation through medication.

Britton spent his final year with the Chicago Bears.

2014 was the beginning of the end. It was both a miserable year both for me personally, and for my team that season, the Chicago Bears. I was cut after training camp  —  my first time ever being released from a team. On the first day of the second week of camp, I had suffered a serious hamstring injury, and even though I made it back for the final preseason game, it wasn’t enough. I was cut the next day.

I knew it was coming, but I was heartbroken nonetheless. Gone was any belief that I was just as important to the fabric of the team whether I was able to play or not. Gone was the idea that I was something more than a depth chart number on a whiteboard.

As fate would have it, two of the Bears’ starting linemen  —  both good friends of mine —  went down in Week 1. I was on the phone with Chicago management before the final whistle of that game blew. I was back.

Only, I wasn’t. The game just didn’t feel the same anymore. And while we were expected to be one of the best offenses in the league that year, football has a way of exposing the phonies; of separating the sharp from the shambolic. Too much was taken for granted. By all of us on that squad.

After we got smoked in New England heading into our bye week, the coaches got that nervous look in their eyes, and the trickle-down process  —  of doubt beating out determination  —  was in full effect. Still, I tried to look on the bright side: an off-week and a chance to hang out with my family back in our native California. It was Halloween weekend, and my high school coach had decided it was time to retire my uniform. Needless to say, it was a beacon of light in what had become the darkest point of my professional career.

After feeling mildly ill most of the day on Friday, I left the game doubled over in pain and throwing up in the street. By Sunday I’d checked myself into the hospital. They told me my appendix had ruptured and, following a battery of tests, I was put into surgery. I was in a Burbank hospital for five days, bloody goop dripping out of my stomach and into an inflatable plastic grenade, with morphine and Percocet the only things keeping me from agony.

By the third day, I’d begun to get antsy, like I needed something else. Something to beat back the boredom. So I had a friend bring me a pot brownie. Of course, because of my depleted system, I ate way too much, and soon found myself inching towards a psychotic abyss. I tried laughing it all off, but the panic began sinking deeper and deeper until I felt like I was holding on for dear life. Waves of anxiety and despair crashed around me. The disconnect was so real, I felt at times as if I was floating away from myself. Having sufficiently scared the nurses, they removed the IV from my arm and ran a series of tests to rule out something more serious. After multiple doses of Ativan and some food, I finally began easing back into reality.

By the time I was discharged and flown back to Chicago, I’d lost 20 pounds. Slowly, I started getting back into a routine. But they wouldn’t let me practice until my white blood cell count had bounced back. And so I found myself weathering team meetings astride a raft strewn together with Adderall and dip, drawn hazily toward the horizon, completely gonzo.

One morning as I headed out of the cafeteria to a meeting, my blind hand came up empty from my bag as images of a little orange plastic cylinder danced torturously in my head. I had left my scrips at home. Then, a sudden wave of relaxation came. A teammate  —  a rookie  —  had mentioned having some of his own. So I went to “barter” for some pills. All he had was Ritalin.

I knew methylphenidate was on the list of banned substances. I knew it was a foolish risk. But I’d convinced myself I was at a kind of crossroads with football, where even short-term satisfaction somehow seemed a worthwhile gamble  —  ike bumming a pinner in the alley behind a police station.

I decided to let fate sort it out. Fate had no problem obliging.

I should’ve known better, but age and injuries —  the surgically-repaired shoulder, the bad back  —  had taken their toll. I was getting old. Too old not to have someone, or something, in my corner.

When you first come into the league, people care about you. You’re “their guy.” But once those people are gone, or you’re forced to sign with another team, the future no longer seems so assured. Maybe that’s why I felt the need to erase the present: It sometimes seemed like the only way to hold onto the past.

I was in my sixth year in the league, and I’d become a mercenary for hire. As the NFL began taking a closer look at the long-term side effects of anti-inflammatories and other painkillers, Adderall and marijuana became the relatively safe  —  if not entirely legal  —  alternatives.

Adderall had brought me back to life. I was energized. Vibrant. Engaged. Enthused. It erased the pain and allowed me to play. For that, I loved it. And if I needed to take a Ritalin to make it through a day of doing what I loved, that’s what I was going to do.

I take full responsibility for my actions, and the punishment meted as a result. I’m not angry with the NFL. To Roger Goodell, I’m barely a blip on the radar. The process of determining suspensions may lack nuance or consistency, but I knew the risk I was taking. I was doing what I had to do to ready myself for another day in the meat grinder. I leave with no regrets.

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