Greg Gaines Faced Fight of Life with Prescription Drugs
September 8, 2010
By John Glennon – The Tennessean
On Good Friday in April 2009, Greg Gaines’ daughters thought their father was about to die.
Their father — a Nashville high school football legend, a standout player at the University of Tennessee and a seven-year NFL veteran — lay unconscious on a bedroom floor, making guttural noises as foamy liquid spewed from his mouth. His breath was faint. His eyes appeared to be shaking in their sockets.
They thought he had finally lost his battle against prescription drug abuse, a legacy of his football career.
This was not the first time that Gaines, now 51, had overdosed on pain medication, not the first time he had passed out and not the first time emergency workers had been called to the family’s Franklin residence. Nor was he alone in his problem. Indeed, Gaines’ continuing struggles are representative of life after football for many ex-players. In his case, 40 surgeries and the pain medicine prescribed to cope with them helped make him an addict.
Whether it is addiction to drugs or crippling injuries brought on by the abuse to which football players subject their bodies, the legacy of a playing career can be a lifetime of pain or disability. Eighty percent of more than 1,000 NFL retirees ages 30-49 reported feeling “pain that lasted most of the day,” according to a 2009 University of Michigan survey. That’s more than four times higher than the rate among all U.S. men of the same age.
The NFL doesn’t track the number of former players with drug issues, but anecdotal evidence alone is chilling and should send a warning to today’s players. Former Pro Bowl lineman Conrad Dobler said in 2007: “If you put down (the names of) 50 former players, I might know one who isn’t on drugs.”
For Gaines, the Good Friday overdose was the worst incident. His daughters Kelsey and Jenaleigh turned Gaines on his side so he wouldn’t choke and then they called 911. Then they prepared themselves for their father’s death.
“I didn’t expect he’d pull through that,” Kelsey said. “I looked at my sister and said, ‘We’re about to lose him. Brace yourself, because he might not make it until the ambulance gets here.’ ”
Gaines came from a prominent football family in Hermitage and played for DuPont High. Brothers Chris and Brad played for Vanderbilt, and Greg, the oldest, went to the University of Tennessee. Gaines started all 11 games for the Volunteers as a senior safety in 1980 and piled up 90 tackles, but no NFL team drafted him. The Seattle Seahawks gave him a chance as a free agent in 1981 and shifted the 6-foot-3 Gaines to linebacker, though he weighed a comparatively light 215 pounds. He made up for his physical deficiencies with ferocity. In college, his kamikaze style had earned him the nickname “Bullet.”
“I would say pound for pound, there was nobody tougher than Greg Gaines in my football career, and that’s high school, college and the pros,” said Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent, a teammate in Seattle. “I just never met a guy that was that crazy, really, just that tough and that mean. He’d be playing and he’d have broken bones, pulled muscles and everything else, and you had to drag him off the field.”
Much of that fuel came from an inexhaustible supply of determination, but there were other factors at work. It was common for NFL players to use illegal drugs, Gaines said. “Steroids were rampant. Guys didn’t really talk about it, but a great majority of people did them,” he said. “I did them for about two years, and I didn’t like them because I thought they slowed me down. But amphetamines were rampant, and I did take those.”
No amount of drugs or force of will, however, could prevent Gaines from suffering injuries. One of the worst occurred while he was training for the 1988 Seahawks season, as he blew out a disk in his back. It would end his career, lead to a handful of surgeries and play a significant role in his descent into addiction.
Gaines stayed close to the NFL for the next decade, serving as a scout for the Los Angeles Rams and as director of pro personnel for the San Diego Chargers, and he continued to undergo surgeries for back, knee and shoulder injuries sustained during his playing career.
“Every time you go in the hospital, they put you on very powerful medication,” Gaines said. “And then you come out and they give you more pain medication. When you try to get off it, you have to deal with that. It’s hard. You’re talking about days of sleeplessness coming off that stuff, and it’s hell.”
The Chargers fired Gaines during a 2001 housecleaning. The family returned to Nashville, where he filed for full permanent disability from the NFL and underwent surgery to correct a botched effort to fuse disks in his back. During the recovery, Gaines was prescribed medications including fentanyl, which is more potent than morphine, and OxyContin.
If the seeds for drug abuse had been planted in Gaines years ago, this is when they flourished. “I was sent to a pain doctor who put me on way too much stuff,” Gaines said, “and the medicine he had me on was very, very addictive.”
Gaines said he went doctor shopping to obtain multiple prescriptions. “It was very easy for me to manipulate a physician. A lot of it had to do with the fact I used to play football,” he said. “It’s like in Hollywood. People with a little notoriety.. become very good about that.”
But he said doctors should have seen warning signs. “The first sign is when you’re running out of your supply early. And you call back and you make an excuse as to why — I left them in another city or my wife lost them, something like that,” Gaines said. “But I would also be mentally just out of it, absolutely out of it during this time. Still, I would go back every month, and the guy would continue to give me medicine. Sometimes you just have to say no if you’re a physician.”
At first his appetite was more physical. Gaines needed to numb the pain so he could work out. Over time the need became more mental. “It became something I just did,” Gaines said. “It was just a way of life. And I would still take it to work out, but also to go to family functions and when I just didn’t need to.”
Gaines said pain medication made him feel zombie-like. In July 2005 an overdosed Gaines fell asleep while driving to Memphis. His car flipped several times, skidded across Interstate 40 and landed on its wheels in a ditch. He suffered compound fractures of the wrist and leg, and all his ribs were broken. He was taken by helicopter to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he was told he had come within millimeters of paralysis.
More surgeries followed, only worsening his cycle of abuse. Months later, doctors tried starting Gaines on methadone, a pain medication sometimes used to prevent withdrawal symptoms in patients addicted to opiate drugs. But Gaines said he didn’t get the correct instructions and suffered a serious overdose. Doctors pumped his stomach and hospitalized him for three days.
“You’d think that would stop me, but it didn’t,” he said. “I didn’t understand what condition I was in, and the doctors were still writing out the drugs for me after I got out.”
In 2007, Gaines decided to run for alderman in Franklin, but a DUI charge short-circuited his bid. A year later, Gina Gaines discovered her husband passed out downstairs. An overabundance of pain medication had caused a bleeding ulcer. He lost more than half his blood. “If I had laid down there much longer,” Greg Gaines said, “I would have died.”
Family In Turmoil
As much as Gaines was hurting himself, he was making life hell for his family. They were afraid whenever he got behind the wheel. He’d pass out at a big barbecue and wake up covered in food. He’d traumatize his younger daughter, then a cheerleader at Brentwood High, by making a scene or falling asleep in the stands.
“When my dad is sober, he’s the most fun, pleasant person to be around,” Kelsey said. “But when he wasn’t sober, it was hard because it wasn’t him anymore. Looking back, it was very embarrassing. It was talked about, and it disrupted my life. I took it very hard.”
Worst of all were the medical emergencies. Gaines survived the Good Friday overdose thanks to paramedics, but it was the back breaker for Gina, who felt the only way she could help her husband was to leave him until he helped himself.
“I’d made a lot of threats, but I didn’t really follow through,” said Gina, a former Tennessee cheerleader who’s been married to Greg for almost 30 years. “That time I did because I thought, ‘You know what? He’s going to die in this house, and I don’t want to be around when it happens. I don’t want to find him or see him that way.’ ”
A couple of days later, Gaines entered New Life Lodge in Burns, in Dickson County, and was treated for almost six months. “It took that long to get me cleaned out,” he said. “I mean I was in bad shape. I was a drug addict.”
Changing His Ways
It would be nice to say that life has progressed smoothly for Gaines since he left rehab, but that’s not the case. He recently overcame a two-year bout with an MRSA staph infection that led to a second knee-replacement surgery and seven weeks of incapacitation. He must have shoulder surgery soon.
It’s unlikely that Gaines will ever be separated from pain medication, as his disabilities and dozens of surgeries will always require treatment. The difference now is that he takes no more than what is prescribed because Gina keeps the medication under lock and key.
Gaines says he has attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He says he no longer drinks. He says his mind is sharper and his spirits are higher than they have been in a decade, allowing him to enjoy things like playing with his tiny granddaughter, Blakeleigh.
His family supports these assertions. “I am at peace with it right now,” Gina said. “He seems to be doing really well. But as I say that, I cross my fingers because my life tends to have big roller-coaster surprises. It’s always going to be one day at a time with him, just like (with) anyone who’s had a problem.”
Sharing His Message
Gaines was on his back recovering from the knee replacement when he began to feel like telling his story, one that he’d always done his best to hide. The message is an important one, considering the government says that abuse of prescription painkillers ranks second to marijuana as the nation’s most prevalent illegal drug problem, and that abuse of prescription drugs has become increasingly prevalent among teens and young adults.
Gaines believes God spared his life so that he can help save others. “I had to drop my pride and drop my emotions, however much anxiety I might have about saying I am a drug addict and will always be a drug addict,” he said. “I just have a conviction that God wants me to go out and tell people about this and that he wants me to try to help people, and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not going to run from that no more.”