“I went from taking 125 pills a month to 1,400 pills a month.”
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Rutgers Hall of Fame and NFL QB Talks Bluntly to Student Athletes About Opioids
By Thomas Vincz, Public Relations Manager
Ray Lucas faced a lot of tough opponents over his career in the NFL and as starting quarterback for the Rutgers Scarlett Knights. Speaking athlete-to-athlete during a town hall at his alma mater, Lucas shared how an addiction to opioids, which began after taking pain medication for a sports-related injury, was the toughest challenge he faced on or off the field.
“I went from taking 125 pills a month to 1,400 pills a month. I could have killed everybody in the front row with how many pills I was taking monthly,” he said. “Being an athlete in any sport, you’re going to get hurt, you’re going to get sore. No matter what we do, we’re going to be in pain. Be smart. All roads can lead to addiction.”
Lucas added, “I made the choice to get sober. If I reach one of you that is sitting here now taking pills and you know that I survived, so can you. There is always a way out.”
The Rutgers’ Hall-of-Fame QB was one of several speakers who spoke with current Rutgers’ student-athletes and others during a Knock Out Opioid Abuse town hall in October. The town hall was part of a two-year collaboration between the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey (PDFNJ) and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (Horizon BCBSNJ). Funded through the Horizon Foundation for New Jersey, the Knock Out Opioids initiative addresses the opioid epidemic through community outreach and education along with a statewide campaign to increase awareness of the crisis. The Rutgers’ town hall was the 29th held by the partnership, but the first focused on student athletes.
Athletes can face a higher risk for opioid addiction due to the potential for injury and subsequent use of pain killers – the #1 pathway to abuse and addiction. “Every day student athletes are prescribed opioids to manage pain,” said Horizon BCBSNJ’s Vice President and Chief Medical Officer Don Liss, M.D. “We want you to appreciate the risk inherent in using opioid medications and how to protect yourselves and your loved ones.”
However, the message came through loud and clear that opioid abuse isn’t limited to athletes or celebrities. It can strike anyone.
An all-star lineup of speakers joined Lucas to share their own stories of how addiction and overdoses have touched their own lives, and their friends and family.
Greg Vetrone, Director of Player Development for the Rutgers men’s basketball program, shared that his 27-year-old daughter is in treatment for substance use. Her struggle began at age 15 with alcohol and then later progressed into opioid and heroin use, including overdosing twice.
“We had to learn that this is a disease,” said Vetrone. “The first day I opened up about my daughter, the response was unbelievable.”
John J. Hoffman, Rutgers University Senior Vice President and General Counsel, also shared his experience with losing a family member to an overdose. He stressed the importance of opening the public dialogue around addiction and breaking down stigma.
“When I was growing up, we didn’t talk about cancer. Slowly but surely, it became destigmatized. That has to happen with addiction,” he said.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal shared that the state is taking an “all-hands-on-deck approach” to the crisis focusing on enforcement, treatment and prevention. But he and Athletic Director Hobbs encouraged the student athletes to speak up when they see their friends and teammates having a substance abuse problem.
“With you all being part of this solution,” Grewal said, “I am confident that we will start to turn the tide.”
After the presentation, student athletes stepped up to pledge to do their part to knock out opioid abuse. They signed individual pledges and posted them on the 12-foot commitment wall.
Beyond these personal stories are the startling numbers. More than 3,000 people died from drug overdoses in New Jersey in 2018, a majority of which were opioid-related.
To promote community awareness of this epidemic, the Knock Out Opioid Abuse initiative is sponsoring a series of town halls like the one at Rutgers throughout the state. To watch videos from each event, read and share personal stories of the impact of the opioid epidemic and learn more about how to stop it, visit knockoutopioidabuse.drugfreenj.org.