Former lineman says NFL opiate crisis growing; ’87 strike star Vital wants Super Bowl ring


The concussion crisis is not the only health issue facing the NFL today. So, too, is a growing opiate addiction problem surrounding the abuse, of pain killers.

Former New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers lineman Jeff Hatch is marketing director for the largest network of substance abuse treatment providers in New Hampshire and a recovering drug abuser who became addicted to prescription painkillers after suffering a series of back injuries that ended his career at 25.

A former All-Ivy League lineman at Penn and third-round draft choice of the Giants, Hatch injured his back his rookie season and was advised to give up football but refused. He became a starter in New York, but his back continued to plague him. How he abused opiates to try and maintain his career is a story of loss and recovery Hatch shared with the Talk of Fame Network this week.

Hatch is now an outspoken advocate for increased efforts to help active and retired players cope with pain management and addiction, but he also believes the use of those powerful medications are necessary to maintain today’s players.

Asked if there should be a rule preventing players from playing if they need pain killers to function, Hatch said, “To be honest, you’d have a hard time fielding a team if you did. Players do what they need to do to stay on the field.’’

According to Hatch, that incudes large doses of opiates to manage and temporarily ease their pain. But when their careers end, the pain doesn’t. Often, neither does the abuse of pain meds to cope.

“Many, if not most, NFL players cope with excruciating pain,’’ Hatch says, and not all that pain is physical. Hatch vividly recalls for Talk of Fame’s listeners his final play with the Buccaneers, when he reinjured his back. Hatch knew when he took off his helmet that day he would never wear one again … and what he felt was worse than pain.

“Fear,’’ Hatch said of his emotions that day. “Fear I felt of being Jeff Hatch without football.’’

Hatch sunk so deeply into addiction he considered suicide, but how he overcame it to become sober for the past 10 years and a voice for other players facing similar problems is a harrowing story of loss and gain.

The Talk of Fame’s series on the 1987 strike continues with a visit from someone many feel was the best strike player in history. Lionel Vital led all replacement rushers with 346 yards in his three games with the ’87 Replacement Redskins. That team went 3-0 and helped power Washington to a Super Bowl victory. Vital was long gone by then but believes he and other replacement players should not have been forgotten.

“If you’re going to count those three games toward winning your division you need to reward those people who helped you gain that distinction,’’ said Vital, who went on to a long career in scouting and is presently director of college scouting for the Dallas Cowboys.

Vital said the Redskins never acknowledged what he and his replacement teammates did but believes they earned Super Bowl rings, even though they never got them.

“I do,’’ he said. “They never acknowledged us.’’

One guy who finally received some belated acknowledgement of his own is nine-time Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown, who was named on the Hall of Fame’s preliminary ballot for the first time this year. Brown drops by the TOF microphones to talk about why he was forgotten for so long and what he thought of last week’s controversy in Buffalo when former teammate Jim Kelly criticized LeSean McCoy’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem.

According to Brown, the Hall of Fame, “never came into the forefront of my head.’’ But he did say his old friend Cortez Kennedy, Seattle’s Hall of Fame defensive lineman, used to tell him “Rube, you need a (gold) jacket.’’

Does Brown believe Kennedy was right? He won’t say more than this: “Watch the film. That’s what everyone’s done in the past.’’

When they did, they picked Ruben Brown to come play for them.

Talk of Fame co-hosts Ron Borges, Rick Gosselin and Clark Judge also discuss their reactions to the on-going player demonstrations and President Trump’s suggestion they should be fired if they continue to refuse to stand for the National Anthem to protest racial injustice in America.

Ron’s “Borges or Bogus’’ segment explores his view of Steelers’ lineman Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who stood at attention alone last Sunday and then felt the need to apologize for it the next day.

Rick also states the Hall of Fame case for one of the winningest coaches in NFL history, Marty Schottenheimer. Schottenheimer won 200 games in 21 years as a head coach, suffered only two losing seasons and took 13 teams to the playoffs but his teams never won the Super Bowl. So is he Hall of Fame worthy? Rick explores that topic.

The guys also debate the Hall of Fame credentials of three active players some feel are HOF locks – Dallas tight end Jason Witten, edge rusher Julius Peppers and running back Frank Gore, who is within 49 yards of passing Eric Dickerson for seventh on the all-time leading rushers list and might well pass Jerome Bettis and LaDainian Tomlinson by the end of the season. Are they locks, as some feel? Not so fast buster.

There’s all that plus the two-minute drill and much more lively debate during the two-hour show. It can be heard on SB Nation Radio, on 75 stations around the country or by downloading the free podcast at iTunes or the TuneIn app. The show can also be heard on our website, talkoffamenetwork.com.

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