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Despite better safeguards today, pain management in the NFL is still risky business

Michael Robinson (right)  almost suffered liver and kidney failure amid a 'perfect storm' of painkillers. Michael Robinson (right)  almost suffered liver and kidney failure amid a 'perfect storm' of painkillers. (Ben Margot/AP)

RENTON, Wash. -- In August, Seattle Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson missed several days of practice with what was termed "an illness." The one-time Pro-Bowler and team leader was subsequently released by the team on Aug. 30, took trips to visit the Tennessee Titans and New York Giants, but subsequently re-signed with Seattle after injuries to Spencer Ware and Derrick Coleman heightened the need for his presence.

And as Robinson said on Tuesday, his "illness" was far more serious than the flu-like symptoms he originally felt.

On Aug. 17, the morning of Seattle's preseason game with the Denver Broncos, Robinson knew something was wrong.

"That morning, I woke up and knew it was different," he recalled. "Kind of felt chills, like I was getting the flu. I had mentioned it to the doctors early in the day that I may be coming in this week getting fluids. it just went south from there.”

South, indeed -- and downhill quickly. Robinson had been taking the anti-inflammatory drug Indocin twice daily, as prescribed, but because he was physically vulnerable due to previous symptoms, his liver and kidneys started to shut down.

"I was dehydrated before the game and you can’t take those and be dehydrated, and I think I probably got sick at the same time. [The doctors] just said it was the perfect storm. I thought I was just getting the flu, and I come to find out that my liver, my kidneys almost failed. It was pretty bad.”

Robinson spent two weeks, on and off, in the University of Washington Medical Center. His weight plummeted from 240 pounds to 215, and it took a while for the doctors to figure out what was wrong.

"First time I went they didn’t really know what was going on," he said. "They just pumped me with fluids and I come to find out when I got readmitted a couple of days later I shouldn’t have left the hospital. [The second time] I stayed a few days. [Seahawks head coach] Pete [Carroll] came and stuck his head in there and said, ‘What’s up?’ and talked to me.”

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Robinson was desperate to get back on the field for a number of reasons. The fullback position has been dwindling in importance for years as offenses have become more expansive, and with a 2013 base salary of $2.5 million, Robinson knew that he'd have to perform at his best to keep the team from wondering if the value was there. Seattle had selected Ware out of LSU in the sixth round of the 2013 draft and converted him from halfback to fullback. Carroll was effusive in his praise of Ware from the start, and the signing of Coleman from the practice squad in January seemed to further indicate that the Seahawks and Robinson were moving in different directions.

Carroll and general manager John Schneider were indeed preparing to cut ties, and this was now complicated by a balance that every team must navigate with greater or lesser sensitivity: How do you put a guy on the street when he's done all he can for you, and beaten his body up, in the past? The Aug. 30 release of Robinson, who was also a very popular guy in the locker room, was something that the team's front office would have to navigate from an ethical perspective.

"Well, I think it's always a personal thing around here," Carroll told me Tuesday. "We care about these guys tremendously, and particularly when ... he had an unusual circumstance, and I was worried about him. We didn't know what was going on, and we didn't have the answers at the time. I'd like to think that we take a personal interest in all of our guys -- they give us so much and we try to give back as much as we can, to make that connection real. MikeRob has done a lot of great things for us, and he's been here since the beginning, and he's been a fantastic contributor. So when he went down, we weren't sure what was going to happen, and we were concerned. We had to make the move that we made, but with the long-range thought in mind that we would get him back and he would contribute again this season. I think we made a connection that will last a long time, and I do care what's going on with these guys. Particularly Mike's situation, because it was so unusual."

Robinson, who had been cast aside in San Francisco without a second thought after several coaching staffs failed to find an NFL position for the former Penn State quarterback, understood the reality of the situation.

“I’m a realist. I understood that I had two preseason games, and that they had drafted a guy, and that they were high on Derrick. I knew I needed to be on the field to keep my job. I knew my salary, I knew the business of this game and I knew there was a big chance that I would be let go and I was just hoping and praying for an opportunity that I could come back and come to work.”

Following the release, Robinson came close to signing with the Titans, but when quarterback Jake Locker was injured on Sept. 29 against the New York Jets, the focus turned to other positions. He "didn't like the situation too much up there" with the Giants, who signed John Conner instead. In the end, Robinson got his strength back, kept in contact with Seahawks coaches and players and was able to come back to the place he wanted to call home all along.

"I feel great," he said with a smile. "Actually I’ve been normal as far as blood results and all that stuff the last month-and-a-half, so I feel really good other than not playing. But health-wise -- feeling really, really good. All my energy is back, weight is back, everything is good.”

Kenny Easley was one of the NFL's best safeties before kidney failure shut down his career. Kenny Easley was one of the NFL's best safeties before kidney failure shut down his career. (Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Other players are not so fortunate. Robinson was taking a prescribed anti-inflammatory at the correct rate, and a swarm of circumstances overwhelmed him. But with all the talk about head trauma in the NFL over the last few years (covered admirably, by the way, with several articles on TheMMQB.com this week), the use and sometimes abuse of painkillers in the league is a medical issue that sometimes gets overlooked.

In a comprehensive study done in 2009 and '10, ESPN's Outside the Lines program both revealed and recalled several stories of current and former players dealing with pain medication, and frequently losing the battle. Former offensive lineman Kyle Turley and ex-defensive tackle Sean Rayburn spoke candidly about the use of painkillers as a freely distributed panacea for just about anything one could mention.

As for the NFL's recent past, Dr. Pierce Scranton, who served as a Seahawks team physician for 18 years, told OTL that in the 1980s and '90s, the NFL was like the "Wild West" when it came to the dispensation of medication for pain.

"We made a determination in the late '80s that all prescription medications would be locked away in a locked cabinet," Scranton told ESPN's John Barr. "No way was I going to go to court because a guy's kidneys shut down because a trainer dispensed medication without my knowledge."

Scranton was not dealing in the hypothetical when he said that. Safety Kenny Easley, who played for the Seahawks from 1981 through '87 and was one of the greatest players in franchise history, lost his career to kidney failure. In a lawsuit filed in April 1989, Easley claimed that it was the overuse of ibuprofen that either caused or aggravated the failure. Easley said in the suit that he was given multiple Advil tablets every time his ankle hurt following a 1986 surgery, and he was eventually taking 16-20 tablets a day. The condition was first diagnosed in April 1988 when Easley was traded to the then-Phoenix Cardinals, and the Cardinals' team doctors discovered a kidney ailment described as "life-threatening."

Easley received a kidney transplant in June 1990, at the University of Washington Medical Center -- the same hospital that housed Michael Robinson 23 years later. Easley's lawsuit against the Seahawks and team trainer Jim Whitesel was dismissed with prejudice in November 1980. Eventually, the legal aspects of the case were settled, but that left Easley with bitterness and unanswered questions. He distanced himself from the franchise for years, until returning in 2002 to accept induction into the team's Ring of Honor.

"Time heals everything," Easley said then at the team's new stadium. "This is a new organization. These people that run the team now had nothing to do with what transpired ... It would be foolish not to take advantage of the generosity these folks are extending to my family and myself. All the stars lined up correctly. It was time to do it."

For Michael Robinson, it took a few months to find his way back home. For Kenny Easley, it was a much longer and more complicated process. Their common bond is the simple fact that in the NFL, pain management is a risky business. It was then, and it still is today.
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