Abuse of Prescription Pain Pills Leads to Indictment for Former Football Star

By Hugh C. McBride

In the early months of 1998, one of the main topics of conversation among football fans was which standout college quarterback – Ryan Leaf of the University of Washington or Peyton Manning of the University of Tennessee – would be taken with the first pick of the NFL Draft.

Manning ended up being selected first, but Leaf didn't fall too far. He was taken by the San Diego Chargers with the second pick, and eventually signed a $31 million contract that included a guaranteed signing bonus of $11.25 million.

A little more than a decade later, Manning is considered one of the game's all-time greats. He has won a Super Bowl, been selected to the league's All-Star game nine times, and set more than a dozen league records.

Things didn't work out quite so well for Leaf.

A Drug-Related Indictment

Leaf, whose career included appearing in only 25 games over three years, most recently made headlines in May when he was indicted on burglary and drug charges. A May 22 Associated Press article provided the following details:

The indictment handed up Wednesday in Canyon [Texas] charged the 33-year-old former San Diego Chargers quarterback and former West Texas A&M quarterbacks coach with one count of burglary to a habitation, seven counts of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and one count of delivery of a simulated controlled substance.

The indictment said Leaf presented an incomplete medical history to several physicians between January 2008 and September 2008 to get or try to obtain the painkiller Hydrocodone. ...

Canyon police Lt. Dale Davis said Leaf is suspected of breaking into a Canyon apartment on Oct. 30 and stealing Hydrocodone, which had been prescribed to an injured football player.

Six months prior to being indicted, Leaf had resigned his positions as head golf coach and assistant football coach at West Texas A&M University after acknowledging to university officials that he had asked one of the school's athletes for a prescription pain pill. Several news outlets reported that Leaf claimed that he requested the prescription pain pill to help with lingering pain from an injury he had sustained during his brief NFL career.

County officials told the Amarillo Globe-News newspaper that they were attempting to convince Leaf to voluntarily return to Texas from British Columbia, Canada, where he was reported to be enrolled in a drug addiction treatment program.

Pain, Pills, and Drug Dependence

Though Ryan Leaf's athletic notoriety gives his story national significance, the truth is that what he appears to be dealing with is far from unique.

According to a "Letter from the Director" that was posted on the website of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), experts estimate that 48 million Americans above the age of 12 (or 20 percent of the U.S. population in that age demographic) have used prescription pills for nonmedical reasons.

The website of The Camp Recovery Center reports that prescription drug abuse most often involves opioids, central nervous system depressants, or stimulants.

Hydrocodone, the drug that Leaf is alleged to have stolen, is an opioid, which is one of the most abused categories of prescription medications. NIDA reports that opioid abuse (which also includes the misuse of OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet, and Vicodin), can lead to dependence and the presence of withdrawal symptoms when use is reduced or stopped.

Addiction Does Not Equal Failure

Because of Leaf's epic failures as a professional football player, and his reputation as a less-than-agreeable individual, many bloggers have already begun to describe his drug-related problems as another sign of his lack of character.

However, as the website Prescription Drug Abuse reports, prescription drug addiction is far from a failure of will or a moral shortcoming:

  1. Prescription drug addiction is no different from alcoholism or an addiction to any other substance. However, no one is prescribed alcohol or cocaine for medical reasons. People who suffer from chronic pain are in a very difficult position.
  2. Painkillers do relieve pain.
  3. For people who suffer from constant and chronic pain, narcotics may be necessary to allow them to have any quality of life. The downside is becoming physically dependent and risking the possibility of addiction.

Overcoming a Dependence Upon Prescription Pills

Regardless of why a person begins abusing prescription pills, physical dependency is almost guaranteed, and addiction may add to the problem. But there is good news: Effective treatments exist to end an addiction to prescription pills, and many people have overcome these challenges and achieved long-term sobriety.

From outpatient therapy to long-term residential drug rehab, a wide range drug addiction treatment programs are available to help individuals get clean. From sports heroes and other celebrities to everyday men, women, and adolescents, drug addiction knows no demographic bounds – but neither does recovery.