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Fortune and Pain
Kyle Turley, Out Front for the Plant
By: Sharon Letts Photo: Josh Fogel/Stockpot Images

Just a few months ago, former NFL player Kyle Turley was sick with injuries from his 10-year career as a professional football player.

He was diagnosed with early-onset dementia and Alzheimer’s and struggled with emotional issues, severe light sensitivity from his medications, paranoia, and anxiety—while still in pain. Turley said that at 34 he was half the man he was before, with a cornucopia of prescription medications at his fingertips and little healing in sight.

“I was a mess nine months ago,” Turley shared from his home in southern California. “My hands were shaking, I had all these things going wrong. The meds I was on were supposed to help, but unfortunately the pills, over longtime use, really bring out the negative symptoms.”

Turley can be seen in a video on YouTube expounding on his situation. “You know, you hear a doctor that’s got all these credentials and accolades, and he’s a doctor in the National Football League, and you tend to believe him.”

Turley further explained the draw to the world’s most dangerous game.

“Running out of a tunnel with about 80,000 people screaming wildly for you, and you are about to participate in one of the most primal sports there is. As an alpha male, it doesn’t get any better.”

In a matter-of-fact tone, Turley said, “If you play the game hard enough, you get hurt.” And Turley got hurt, more than once, with little protection or support from the very organization for which he was risking his health.

Turley started playing for the NFL in 1998. He missed the 2005 season due to sciatic nerve damage that atrophied his right leg. He had tried to recuperate from a herniated disk, but that year he was in the hospital again for back surgery. Atrophy happens when there is a waste away from non-use of tissue or organs. Turley’s muscle mass decreased by 65 pounds from his usual 300-pound frame.

After surgery, Turley considered early retirement or a switch to tight end. After gaining his weight back, he signed with the Kansas City Chiefs as right tackle. What they didn’t discuss were the ramifications of the prescription drugs he needed to take in order to play. By the end of the 2006 season, he had missed most of the games due to reoccurring injuries.

“As a person who has a real high tolerance for pain, you know, when you have issues that need medication, you know that’s easy to look at a doctor and go, ‘He’s handing out those shots right now, and I really need this if I’m going to make it through today.’”

Vicodin, Percocet, Vioxx: it was all available. When Vioxx was banned in the U.S. for causing heart failure, Turley said he already had a bevy of the meds at home.

“I had to give my dog ipecac one time because he ate one of my bottles, and I had to make him throw up,” he said, sadly.

A League of Hypocrisy

I had stockpiles of this stuff, that’s how easy it was to get,” he remarked about the vials of Vioxx that he and other players were still taking after the ban.

“As much as they want to punish this guy and that guy for performance-enhancing drugs, [the NFL is] using performance-enhancing drugs. ‘We’ll pump up you guys full of this stuff, so you don’t feel nothing when you are out there,’” Turley added, impersonating the coaches and doctors who prescribed the medications. “A fix for the interim and in the immediate to keep you on the field.”

Turley said he was the first one to “dig deep” and be there for the team. “Pushing through” injuries is common practice, and he was a team player.

“When it comes to the serious injuries and the ones that these doctors know shouldn’t be out on that football field, that’s where it should be taken out of the player’s hands. It’s not a doctor’s decision: it’s ‘Can you go?’ That’s the question asked, ‘Can you go?’”

When a doctor asks if a player “can go” despite suffering from a traumatic injury, the NFL fails to keep its players safe, Turley said. The priority is to win the game.

“I was complaining of a lot of pain in my leg,” he explained, “and so I allowed the doctors on the team to advise me, [and they said] that it really wasn’t that big of a deal. ‘You must have something with your hip that’s a problem. Here, let us shoot you up with this, this will take away the pain and numb that and allow you to play.’”

Playing Through a Traumatic Brain Injury

Aside from the chronic neuropathy pain, Turley believes he suffered through hundreds of concussions. He was repeatedly given an ice pack and a whiff of ammonia on the sidelines before being put back in the game.

In 2007 he was knocked unconscious, taken off the field, and put in what he refers to as a “closet” in the locker room. His wife was called in to take him home.

“I should have been in an ambulance on my way to the hospital,” he said. “My wife was like, ‘He’s 300 pounds. How am I going to get him home?’ She took me to the hospital, where regular doctors were very concerned—they were worried something was seriously wrong.”

When the NFL found out he had been taken to the hospital, its own doctors had him removed, stating they would take it from there. Turley said he was back in practice soon after and played in the next game.

“‘No big deal,’ they said. ‘Oh, you have a headache? Don’t worry about it, keep playing, you’ll be alright,’” Turley shared, disgusted at the memory of what was really happening to him at the time.

From Gladiator to Broken

Turley agrees the gladiator reference for football players is real. “At any cost” is the unsaid mantra, with much at stake. “Give them games and cake,” he joked, using a reference from Caesar himself.

“Even more so in the stands. Fans want blood. If someone is down on the field with an injury, everyone cheers. It’s the biggest soap opera on television, and the NFL loves it.”

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is caused by repeated injury or trauma to the brain. It is common in contact sports. A deadly game-stopper for football players, it is what ended Turley’s career.

In 2002, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the federal agency responsible for research and recommendations for the prevention of work-related injury and illness, examined 3,349 NFL players and found the risk of death from neurodegenerative disorders was approximately three times higher than average. The risk of death from Alzheimer’s and ALS was four times greater in the players. Today’s technology is able to discover the injuries earlier; before, the damage would have only been found post-mortem.

“After I retired in 2007, the vertigo was really bad,” Turley shared. “I was vomiting all the time and didn’t know what was wrong. There is no one from the NFL to help you once you are out of the game. I presented to the emergency room shaking in seizure. It took four nurses to hold me down for the MRI.”

Turley said he was hospitalized for four days while neurologists and cardiologists tried to figure out what was wrong.

“They said I was 100% healthy and then they looked at my brain,” he continued. “They showed me a big blurred mass, and I said, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that before, back in 2003.’ That’s when I finally had the understanding of what was going on in my brain.”

Open Letter to the NFL

In June of 2014 Dr. Lester Grinspoon, associate professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and longtime advocate of cannabis as medicine, sent an open letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell urging the league to stop testing its players for cannabis use.

“I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the growing specter that many of these athletes will pay the price of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) to a greater or lesser extent as they grow older,” he wrote. “The skull is nature’s way of protecting this most important organ, the brain.”

Grinspoon went on to explain how the “interest, knowledge, and use of marijuana has grown exponentially” over the past two decades. He shared how “cannabinopathic medicine” is neuroprotective and free of toxicity, with non-psychoactive, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties.

He went on to list the challenges of funding for research in the U.S. and the politics involved. He then urged Goodell and the NFL to decrease the instance of CTE by using its “deep pockets” to fund a “crash research program to determine the right combination of CBDs to THC to protect its players.”

Pot, Politics, and Sports

Turley reports cannabis use is alive and well in the NFL and in the locker rooms.

“I wasn’t tested for street drugs until my second year in the NFL,” he shared. “It’s only done once a year and you have enough time to prepare. It’s no secret. Everyone has always smoked pot in the NFL—coaches do it, owners do it, players do it. This is not something unique to players or the guys in the hood. Across the board, this is going on in the locker room.”

It wasn’t until Turley moved his family to the legal state of California a year and a half ago that he became a legal cannabis patient.

“When I was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and dementia nine months ago, that’s when I finally sat down and said I believed a lot of the prescription meds I was on were contributing to my ailment. And if I’m wrong, I have a bigger problem than I’m recognizing here, but I have to give this a shot.”

The medications he was on were causing severe mood swings, suicidal thoughts, and thoughts of violence.  He decided to go cold turkey and use cannabis to get off the prescriptions.

Those who oppose cannabis as medicine in the home claim that it is potentially harmful to children, but Turley said he never feared his kids getting into or becoming ill from cannabis. He said he absolutely feared the kids getting into the prescription medications he had in the house.

His favorite and most consistent strains are San Fernando Valley and Jack Herer. He bought good supplies of both and hunkered down at home, replacing the prescriptions with smoking cannabis and ingesting medibles.

“SFV to this day I call my spiritual strain,” he explained. “It’s a hybrid sativa with indica and it’s very calming. When I’m out of SFV I also keep a good supply of Jack Herer on hand. It’s my backup. I’ve tried all kinds of Jack, but just Jack Herer is best for me.”

Gridiron Cannabis Coalition

Gridiron Cannabis Coalition was founded in an effort to help the NFL understand the healing benefits of cannabis as medicine. Former player and coach Mike Ditka sits on its board of directors, and many former NFL players are coming forward in testament.

Committed to “the evolution of the natural healing elements of the cannabis plant,” the coalition acknowledges that the game is “plagued with multiple ailments and diseases currently void of non-addictive treatments or cures.”

The coalition is “dedicated to the advancement of medical cannabis in the modern age.” Turley added, “Medical cannabis will save football.”

“At the end of the day, for me and my life, I smoke the plant,” Turley surmised. “It’s been proven over thousands of years to be medicine, and no one has died. That’s my thing: I don’t want to die from my own hand. And I don’t want to die from this disease. And I sure as hell don’t want to die from taking medicine—that’s why I got off the pills.”

As for the rest of the population that has believed the misinformation on the plant for the past few decades, Turley said he really doesn’t care about what anyone thinks about cannabis being his medicine.

“I’ve already been through the fire,” he insisted. “I’m a grown-ass man and this is America. Research tells us cannabis won’t kill you, it won’t give you lung cancer, and it won’t cause upper respiratory disease. I read a story about a lady in India who’s smoked weed every day and she’s 125 now. That’s my inspiration,” he laughed.

As for his young son and his wanting to be like dad and wanting to play football, Turley paused. “No, I don’t think we will let him play football unless things change, and I think they will change—they have to for the game to survive.”

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