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Nate Jackson Q&A: Marijuana in the NFL, playing through injuries

Former tight end Nate Jackson discusses marijuana use in the NFL, playing through pain and football culture.

Nate Jackson played in the NFL for eight years, most notably with the Broncos from 2003–08.

During his time in the league, Jackson suffered numerous nicks, bruises and injuries, for which he often self-medicated with marijuana. In retirement, Jackson has been outspoken about the NFL’s drug policies, its pill culture and what he perceives as the league’s misguided stance on marijuana. 

Last week, SI debuted a documentary film, “Ricky Williams Takes The High Road,” and an accompanying magazine story detailing Williams’s experience with marijuana and the cannabis industry. 

In 2013, Jackson published a memoir about his time in the NFL, Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile, a critically acclaimed account of the life of a journeyman player. He recently caught up with to explain his position on marijuana, why he preferred weed to pills and the culture of drug use in the NFL.

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Rohan Nadkarni:Do you think coaches care about players using marijuana?

Nate Jackson: No. Coaches don’t care at all. As long as you show up on time, remember the plays, that’s all coaches care about. It’s are you a reliable teammate and player. If you are, and marijuana is part of that routine, they don’t give a f---, truly. It’s the league office that worries about that. The punishment arm, the public relations arm worries about that. Teams know exactly what their guys are about. They much rather their guys are weed smokers than big drinkers and partiers.

RN: What was it about marijuana that made it a better way to deal with pain than whatever teams were recommending?

NJ: Pain serves a purpose, pain is there for a reason. And for football players in particular, they have to know their pain and know their body better than the average person if they’re going to perform at an optimum level. And for me, pain pills dulled my pain, I felt numb, I felt lethargic, I felt slow. And the same kind of strength that I had under my sober mind left me when I was under those pills. I felt worthless. Marijuana didn’t do that. It re-framed my pain. I could still feel it but in a much more bearable context.  

RN: Would the players union ever step in to allow players to use marijuana during the season?

NJ: Hopefully. That’s the goal here. To get the union and NFL on board with it. Just take care of the guys. The NFLPA is run by lawyers and mired in a lot of issues. They spend a lot of their resources defending guys in court who don’t even need it. Of course, marijuana is not really a sound PR move for them. The union should be protecting the guys who are being taken advantage of the system.

RN: There’s a cliché that if you fail a drug test it’s like failing an IQ test. Take me through the process of not failing a drug test.

NJ: You have to abstain the month leading up to the test. You don’t consume. You generally know when the test is going to be. You don’t know for sure. You’re always in pain. You’re always in need of some kind of medication. You can’t always wait until minicamp. Sometimes the test isn’t until the start of training camp. Some teams will have different protocols for their testing program. If you get a DUI or any type of issue with the league, you get put in the substance abuse program as well. Once you’re in it, that’s when the problems really start. It’s up to 10 tests every month. You have a guy following you around. If you get called, you have to pee within four hours. If you’re out of the country, your phone dies, anything, if they can’t reach you it’s a failed test. There are a lot of ways you can fail a test. It’s the guys in the substance abuse program that are in the worst situations. They are forced to medicate in other ways. It really steers them in a much more harmful direction. It’s not as simple as the media portrays it. Someone may be dealing with a serious injury or brain injuries and he’s naturally leaning towards marijuana to try to remedy it.

RN: Are players wary of the pain pill culture in the NFL? Or do they accept that it’s a necessity and there’s no avoiding it?

NJ: It’s unique to the player. Pills were not something that I sought out. There are some guys who have a taste for it. And those guys can get the pills they want. If you are injured in the NFL, they will give you what you need to get back on the field. So if you have a legitimate injury and have a propensity for pills—and look, all these guys have legitimate injuries.  They’re all really f---ed up. We’re used to seeing guys pop up and get back in the huddle and we think, “That’s a routine hit, stop being a pussy,” but Rohan, if you were walking out of your apartment in the morning and I came from the side and hit you as hard as those guys could hit you and said “Okay, have a great day, get up and have a great day Rohan,” you’d f---ing be f---ed up. You’d have to have some medical attention. Not only physical but mental. You’d be thinking of that next hit.  The pills are available.

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RN: Did you ever question why you played with so much pain? At any point did you tell yourself it was stupid and not really worth it?

NJ: Of course, it’s human nature to doubt what you’re doing. I got hurt a lot. It was difficult, but my belief in my journey was always stronger. The cultural significance of this game, it indoctrinates boys to believe this is their journey, this is what they were put on this earth to do. Everyone they know has facilitated their climb to the NFL, and so you’re entire identity is wrapped up in the game. I don’t know who I am outside of it. So if I get hurt, I’m going to get back on the field, where people reward me, where people shake my hand, where people give me a hug, where girls want to f--- me, where coaches slap me on the ass, where people pay me money, where fans cheer my name. That’s where the reward system lies, not outside of it. Any time I got hurt, it was just another speed bump on my way to football glory. I did whatever it took. Pain became just another mountain to climb, and I was okay with it. Yes, people though, “What the f--- am I doing?” I said that a lot. But something more powerful than that drove me to work every day.

RN: Will it ever be easy for you to separate yourself from all the things that happened to your body in your football career?

NJ: Becoming a writer helped me distance myself with my own obsession with my football identity. I don’t feel a connection to that NFL dream anymore. I’ve been through it all in my head and I know what’s real. I don’t have any illusions about what it meant. But the physical stuff will be with more forever, for sure. I had around the clock medical attention on every injury I had so I was able to get back on the field. But out here in the real world, we don’t have that kind of medical attention. If we want to maintain physical health, we have to do it on our own. Find our own doctors and specialists, all while trying to move on with life. All that is kind of a recipe for the crumbling of football players’ bodies. I ultimately don’t mind the physical struggle as long as there is light at the end of the tunnel. I probably need a few more surgeries or whatever but my body is still working.

Ricky Williams believes 60-70% of NFL players smoke marijuana

RN: Have current players and former teammates of yours been receptive to your writing career? Do you hear from them about what you’re doing?

NJ: Everybody is positive. Football players are encouraged to shut the f--- up. It’s never about our ideas. We’re dumb, idiot football players who should just shut up, memorize the playbook, play and make everyone a ton of money. That’s the system. They don’t want my mind, my ideas or my creativity. There are a lot of smart football players out there who have been lying dormant in the system unable to speak up. I think guys appreciate my attempt to do it. Am I right about everything? I don’t think there is a right or wrong, it’s people’s opinions, but I think the more players who are able to find their voice, the better. All we get right now is you guys. It’s your filter, your morality, your sensibilities, and a lot of times, especially on television, it’s such a fairy tale. And all these players have to live inside that fairy tale, recite their lines. But that’s not what I’m doing. I’m trying to show the other side of the coin. There’s kind of a budding group of former players who are trying to share some ideas.

RN: Earlier this off-season we saw the Ravens move on from Eugene Monroe after he became outspoken about marijuana. How quickly do you think teams would move on from guys if they took a stance like Monroe?

NJ: It’s not just marijuana. It’s any stand you take on any issue. If you’re passionate about any issue other than football, you have to be prepared to face the wrath. Football players are not meant to have brains or lives or ideas. Football players are meant to put on a helmet, shut up and smash. Eugene is dealing with that. The NFL’s motive is based on, I don’t want to say a lie, but it’s based on a bubble being formed around the real world and closing football players off. Nothing else matters other than football. From August to however long your season is, nothing else matters. And Eugene is challenging that narrative and that’s what’s happening to him. He’s doing it in a really respectful way. He’s not triggering that reefer madness paranoia. He’s not talking about getting high or smoking weed. He’s talking about funding research that might help his buddies deal with brain injuries. I don’t understand how that can be construed as selfish. But teams that don’t want that kind of attention. It’s difficult to be an individual in the NFL.