NFL stars advise Detroit student-athletes to 'be real' about opioid epidemic

Former NFL and University of Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards talks about opioid awareness at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on Oct. 23 during a "Sports Impact Luncheon" and presentation sponsored by Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan and the NFL Alumni Association. The event was attended by more than 800 local students. (Photos by Naomi Vrazo | Archdiocese of Detroit)

Catholic Charities, NFL Alumni partner for 'Sports Impact' presentation at cathedral with 800 Catholic, public-school students

DETROIT — Braylon Edwards knows. Lomas Brown knows. Tim Walton knows.

The opioid epidemic sweeping the nation hits athletes especially hard.

The trio of former NFL football stars have seen how years of injuries, combined with pressures from coaches, doctors and teammates to “stay on the field,” can lead to temptations to use opioids as a crutch — sometimes literally — in order to fight through pain.

“I broke my knee my during sophomore year of high school,” said Edwards, a former University of Michigan star who played 10 seasons in the NFL as a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. “You get prescribed drugs, and those things you take, sometimes they create a chemical dependency and even depression.”

On Oct. 23, the three athletes joined a panel of community health members at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament for a Sports Impact Luncheon to discuss the opioid crisis with more than 800 Detroit-area public and Catholic high school student-athletes.

The luncheon was co-sponsored by Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, the Sports Marketing Agency and the NFL Alumni Association, and emceed by local FOX 2 anchor Huel Perkins.

Over the past year, a record of almost 2,000 people died of opioid overdose in Michigan, with more than one-third of those coming from prescription drugs. Wayne County saw the highest number of deaths, 573 — a major reason for the wide-ranging discussion.

Edwards said for many student-athletes, dreams of making to “the League” can trump other concerns when it comes to making healthy decisions. When a player gets hurt, it can be tempting to turn to opioids as a way to stay in the game and keep the dream alive.

Braylon Edwards speaks Oct. 23 at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Student-athletes from Catholic and public schools in the Metro Detroit area listen to former NFL players' stories of opioid use during their playing days, decisions that the football stars said had long-lasting consequences.

You think, “Am I going to play this year? Is my dream over? Am I going to get to go to Michigan or — ahem — Ohio State?” said Edwards, a Michigan alumnus. “It’s real. But you have to keep yourself from doing that. You have to keep your friends from doing that. You have to tell yourself that you’re better than that.”

Edwards and the other NFL athletes admitted that pressure to take prescription medication can come from many sources — including coaches, parents and teammates — but that young athletes need to research the long-term effects of such drugs and weigh their decisions carefully.

“I was fortunate enough to play 18 years in the NFL,” said Brown, whose career included 11 years with the Detroit Lions. “I wouldn’t change a thing, but it did come with a price. Starting my last 11 years in the league, I had to take Toradol, Percocet, just to be able to be ready for the next game.

“I paid that price because I loved football, but one thing I told myself once I stopped playing was that I was never going to take that stuff again because I knew what it was doing to me,” Brown said.

Brown recommended student-athletes turn to the Internet or a trusted doctor to find out the side effects of any medications they are prescribed.

Walton, president of the NFL Players Association’s Detroit chapter, said he still lives with the consequences of taking various painkillers while playing.

Walton said he routinely experienced pressure from coaches and trainers to take Cortisone injections in order to stay on the field.

Former NFL players Lomas Brown, left, and Tim Walton, right, along with Karlton Akins of the Detroit-based Team Wellness Center took part in a panel discussion about opioid abuse Oct. 23 at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

“And coaches, let’s be real. These kids look up to you as father figures because quite honestly, you guys are spending more time with them than their own fathers,” Walton said. “When the coach says, ‘We need you, baby,’ you feel like, ‘I’ve got to get in the game.’”

Walton said his ankle, which at one point was swollen so large “I could barely fit my shoe on,” still gives out even now.  

“I can tell you before the weather man when it’s going to storm,” Walton said.

Megan Aubin of Meridian Health Services encouraged students to take advantage of online and in-person resources if they or someone they know needs help after struggling with an opioid addiction.

Aubin asked how many students felt like they had a “trusted adult” to whom they could turn when things get rough, which received a mixed show of hands.

“OK, so not everyone here,” Aubin said.

Another panelist challenged that assumption, asking how many students have a “teacher who is hard on you, who is always riding you about homework.”

“That’s your help. That’s your person who cares,” said Jim Hudgens, executive director of New Paths, a Flint-based substance abuse nonprofit. “There’s help out there. Pick up that phone. Go to your teacher and say, ‘I need to change. I need help.’ Be the difference for someone else. That’s the best advice I can give.”

Dave Bartek, CEO of Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, outlined the nonprofit’s services to help those struggling with substance abuse, saying Catholic Charities works with everyone, regardless of faith background.

“Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan is a faith-based organization, but we work with everyone regardless of faith, creed or race. We help anyone who comes through our doors,” Bartek said. “But we do serve our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Students raise their hands to ask questions during a question-and-answer session with the panelists Oct. 23 during the "Sports Impact Luncheon."

Bartek said Catholic Charities offers behavioral health counseling, substance abuse intervention and addiction services.

“We try to follow in the steps of Jesus, but we also don’t impose our faith,” Bartek said. “We also work in community. If we can’t help you, we will find a partner who can.”

Following the panel discussion, students had a chance to ask the NFL stars questions about how they dealt with injuries on and off the field.

One student asked Edwards if he was the same player after his knee injury, while another student asked whether doctors sometimes over-prescribe opioid medications to athletes.

Edwards replied that efforts are being made at the state and local community and government levels to restrict opioid prescriptions in light of the current crisis.

“That is something we need to pay attention to,” Edwards said. “Private practices are often the ones who are becoming the new drug dealers. It’s tough. You get those pills, and you become Superman. But the bad side is there. You have to read those bottles and do your homework. Because it messes with your brain.”