Broncos stadium in Denver
Photo by Joseph Sohm /

A Sportswriter’s Insight into the NFL and Painkiller Addiction

There’s two sides to the problem of painkiller addiction in the NFL. On one side, there’s the more than 100 million people who watch National Football League games each week, either in person or on television. These viewers root for their favorite teams and may take a moment to wince at injuries on the field. Then they wait for the game to start up again after the player is rolled into the locker room. These people aren’t thinking about painkillers.

The other side is significantly smaller. This side is made up of those who can’t really cope with the pain and injury on the field. They’re thinking about all the stories they have read of NFL players who retire with painkiller addictions after their bodies wear out. You might have guessed that this is the group I inhabit.

An NFL player leaves the field after an injury.
An NFL player leaves the field after an injury/Photo by Richard Paul Kane /

Sports Illustrated writer Peter King just retired and wrote a very long goodbye to the athletes, coaches and other professionals he interacted with throughout his long career. In this column published on the SI website, he also provides some insight into the way painkiller addiction is an occupational hazard for these players.

Brett Favre

King devotes a fair amount of space to his experiences with Favre. He notes that Favre entered rehab not just once but three times. The first time in 1996, it was a 72-day stay in Kansas City for addition to opioid painkillers. Buzzing on painkillers, Favre had been sleeping only an hour or so each night and took as many as 14 Vicodin at one time. His built-up tolerance to this astronomical dosage was what prevented him from overdosing.

As King was preparing to retire, he talked with Favre again and found out about the second and third trips to rehab. Those times, rehab was for alcohol. In his recovery, Favre explained, he learned that the only reason he played golf was so he could drink. If he was ever to play golf again, he told King, he had to learn to enjoy the game itself and not just the drinking.

But that’s not the only insight into NFL addiction in this column.

Ryan Leaf

Ryan was a quarterback in the NFL for a few years starting in 1998. He quickly destroyed his career with arrogance and immaturity and then struggled with the loss of status an NFL player suffers when he’s no longer on the field. King’s column includes an excerpt from a podcast King did with Leaf in which the player describes the way he first learned to use Vicodin to ease his difficulties in life. Here’s the story Leaf told during that podcast:

After his retirement, he was introduced as one of the celebrities present at a Las Vegas fight venue. The other celebrities were cheered but he was booed. That night, an acquaintance offered him Vicodin and he discovered that suddenly, he could walk in and out of all the night’s parties amid Hall of Famers and Super Bowl winners and not feel any pain—emotional OR physical. He didn’t feel any pain for the next eight years. Finally, he ended up in jail for 32 months. When he came out, he went to rehab and then began helping other people avoid the kind of problems he’d encountered with drugs.

It doesn’t seem like NFL fans worry much about the physical abuse and resulting painkiller addiction many players struggle with during their careers and long after they retire. If you have never given it much thought, just do an internet search for “NFL painkiller addiction.” You’ll find plenty of results.

Every person who shares his (or her) story of addiction and recovery helps someone else take their first steps toward sobriety. I appreciate Peter King’s reporting and Favre’s and Leaf’s openness on this topic. It’s all part of what it takes to help America heal.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.