On Saturday, NFL legend Brett Favre will take his rightful place in the esteemed Pro Football Hall of Fame. But 20 years ago, an addiction to painkillers threatened to cut his storied career, even his life, short. Just recently, he opened up about his addiction to Vicodin. In an interview with Graham Bensinger, the former Green Bay quarterback shared that at the height of his dependence on the opioid pain pills, he was taking 15 at a time. “Two gave me an effect I liked,” Favre said. “After a month, two didn’t do anything, so I’d take three, and then four and so on. … I knew that 15 was hard to come by. A month’s prescription is 30 pills or something, depending on what they prescribe for you, and I was going through that in two days. I would ask this guy for pills and that guy for pills, after a while I was going back around pretty quickly.” That was 1996, the year Favre began making headlines not for his passing numbers but for his addiction. He entered the league’s substance abuse program and spent 46 days in a drug rehab in Kansas to treat his dependency (and also to assess his binge drinking). He announced his upcoming rehab stay at a news conference in Green Bay, Wisconsin. “Throughout the last couple of years, playing with pain and injuries and because of numerous surgeries, I became dependent upon medication,” Favre said in 1996. “During this last surgery, a surgery on my ankle, I suffered a seizure in the hospital. Because of that I sought help through the NFL.” The seizure was a “wake-up call” for Favre, who was told by doctors that his abuse of the powerful narcotic analgesic might have been to blame. That day in the hospital when Favre’s eyes rolled back in his head and his body stiffened, his daughter, who was in the room at the time, asked her mother, “Is he going to die?” In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Favre said that he hadn’t taken Vicodin since the seizure. “I don’t want a pill now, but I want to go into a rehab center because I want to make sure I’m totally clean. The counselors I’ve seen think it’s best for me. The one thing they’ve taught me is that there will always be a spot in your brain that wants it.” The science on that is clear. The use of drugs like Vicodin causes neuroplastic changes that can result in intense cravings. And now, new research shows how quickly that dependence can set in. Scientists at the University of Alabama have found that taking morphine every day for just 30 days can cause a reduction in gray matter in areas of the brain that regulate emotions, cravings and pain response.
Painkillers a Way of Life
It’s been common practice for NFL players to find comfort in prescription painkillers. The rigors of professional football will take a toll on any athlete, especially someone like Favre who plays for so long. Would he hold the record for most consecutive starts had he not been popping pain pills? Only Favre knows that, but the NFL is accused of doling out such a huge number of narcotics that even the Drug Enforcement Administration has become concerned. The stories, like the drugs, abound, and help to explain a lawsuit that more than 200 players filed against all 32 NFL teams in 2015. The players allege that the teams pressured them to take painkillers without a prescription and with minimal — if any — explanation of risk. Former NFL linebacker Scott Fujita said he once received a bottle of Percocet that was nearly the size of a soda can. “It was the craziest big pill bottle you’ve ever seen,” he told the Washington Post. Said ex-defensive back Fred Smoot in a separate interview: “Painkillers are like popping aspirin. They get to that point.”
Favre is not the only member of his family to have a problem with substance use. In 1996, his brother Scott was arrested and charged with DUI after an accident that killed one of their close friends. In 2005, Scott Favre told the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel that he had left the reckless days behind him. “When we drank, it was all or nothing,” he said. “If we drank, ‘let’s go get a case and go till we can’t go no more.’ We were out of control. Couldn’t see it at the time. Now we look back at it — and Brett and I talk about it all the time — quitting is the best thing we ever did.” In 2011, their sister Brandi was jailed on charges of manufacturing methamphetamine and generating hazardous waste. A year later, however, a grand jury decided not to indict her. While there isn’t an addiction gene, research shows that genetics are responsible for about half the risk for addiction to alcohol and other drugs. It’s important to remember, however, that your genes aren’t your destiny. Even if you come from a family with a history of substance abuse, it doesn’t mean you have to follow in their footsteps. Many other factors, such as whether your friends use drugs, your level of education and the environment you grow up in all play a role in your chances of becoming addicted. Among Favre’s biggest regrets through it all was what he called the “trickle-down” effect of his addiction. Drug abuse has an enormous impact on everyone in the family, and the NFL superstar’s home was no different. He nearly lost his wife, Deanna, and daughter, Brittany, due to his drug use. They are the reason he got sober. For her part, Deanna has described their relationship post-rehab as being stronger than ever. It’s no secret that building and maintaining a solid support system is crucial for recovery, but you don’t need an entire state or NFL league pulling for you. Mere mortals can do just as well with the help of therapy, family, 12-step programs, non-drinking, non-using friends, and support from the community, such as a minister or rabbi. Favre serves as proof that you can excel while in recovery. Here are a few stats to consider:
- In January 1997, less than a year after entering drug rehab, Favre passed for two touchdowns and ran for another in Green Bay’s first Super Bowl in 29 years.
- In December 2003, just a day after the sudden death of his father, Favre passed for 399 yards and four touchdowns in a blowout over Oakland.
- In September 2007, Favre connected for a pair of touchdown passes — his first being the 421st of his career, making him the league’s all-time leader in that category. (Today, Favre ranks No. 2, having been eclipsed by Peyton Manning.)
But Favre’s most important battle was fought off the gridiron and he left it all on the field, as they say. At the time, Favre said that he wanted to “help other people.” “Hopefully other people are watching, whether NFL players, or kids throughout the United States, and can learn something and get better,” he told the Los Angeles Times. Green Bay’s iconic No. 4 got better, so much better that he returned to his record-setting ways post-rehab. The evidence can be seen not only in the game film, but in the fact that his wife will be the one to introduce him this weekend. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it’s only the second time a wife has presented her husband for the honor. Favre’s body, mind and family were healed through rehab. Yours can be, too.