NFL Hall of Famer uses football fame to steer kids away from opioids

Detroit native Jerome 'The Bus' Bettis works to change lives

DETROIT – Detroit native Jerome Bettis wants to talk to young football players, but his message is not about X's and O's --instead, it's about drug abuse: specifically, opioid addiction.

Bettis, the former Pittsburgh Steelers running back known as "The Bus" played for 13 seasons. He retired after the Steelers' Super Bowl win against the Seattle Seahawks in 2006. The game was played in his hometown of Detroit.

The former professional football player said the opioid problem is in all of our communities, and if we don't deal with it, it will affect more and more of our children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, opioids were involved in 33,091 deaths in 2015, and opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999.

For athletes, playing comes with injuries, and they face the added pressure of returning to the field quickly.

"To me, we have to look at the future and tomorrow," Dr. Anthony Colucci said. "To just throw out narcotics and opiates just so you can play a game is inappropriate."

Colucci, the medical director at Henry Ford Macomb, in the Detroit area, is also the team doctor for the Detroit Red Wings. He said the use of opioids should only be prescribed for 48 hours post-surgery.

"The doctors started this whole problem," Colucci said. "They were giving out 60 tablets -- a week's worth, two-week's worth, (with) unlimited use. (People) get dependent on it without an education piece and then this receptor needs it," the doctor said as he pointed to the brain.
In 2013, Phillip Veliz, assistant research professor at the University of Michigan Institute on Women and Gender, conducted a three-year study of 743 male and 751 female adolescents in southeast Michigan. Veliz found male adolescent athletes who participated in competitive sports had two times greater odds of being prescribed painkillers and had four times greater odds of medically misusing painkillers.

"I found that certain sports, more likely high-contact sports, those athletes were more likely to misuse opioids," Veliz said. "Also there's the culture around high-contact sports. (It involves) playing through pain and, you know, athletes are going to be more likely to fight through that, or they might want to mask it with some sort of drug so they can get back on the field as soon as possible."

Oftentimes, the problems start in high school.

By the time high school athletes become seniors, approximately 11 percent will have used a narcotic pain reliever such as OxyContin or Vicodin for nonmedical purposes.

Veliz said we can't say that simply because they're misusing them, that athletes or young people are going to become addicted. However, they are increasing the risk.

Colucci said he takes care not to prescribe his athletes narcotics, if he can help it. 

"We manage them with the goal to get them back out onto the playing surface as soon as possible, but you can't be snowing them with opioids or narcotics," he said. "We don't promote it. We don't push it."

Bettis said he has never dealt with an addiction to opioids personally, and he was lucky not to sustain a serious injury in his football career, but he's seen other NFL players struggle.

"There were some horror stories about guys that abused the pain medications," Bettis said. "It didn't start big, it started small and it started because of an injury, but then after that injury was healed, you still saw those issues linger."

And then there can sometimes be a jump to heroin.

Eventually, prescriptions expire -- but the addiction can remain, and the jump to heroin can be an easy one.

According to a Sports Illustrated article from 2015 titled "How pain medications are turning young athletes into heroin addicts," it said 80 percent of all users arrive at heroin after abusing opioid painkillers such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin.

"I call it a pool of addiction," Colucci said. "How do we get them out of that pool? I mean, they're swimming around. (We) throw them a life preserver, we help with pain specialists, behavior addictionologists and it's pretty challenging."

Colucci said a solution to this opioid problem is education.

"The biggest thing is, as we as clinicians have to be responsible with education and the prescribing practices," Colucci said. "There's a point where players have to take responsibility. The parents have to take responsibility. Don't just bury your head in the sand. They know there is an opiate problem."

Enter big-star athletes such as "The Bus," who are driving the message home -- right to those who look up to him.

Stay informed on the latest updates on the epidemic. Subscribe to our Opioid Nation newsletter.