– Eugene Monroe – ESPN

IT WAS, LIKE, the first high he ever experienced. He was 11 years old, the youngest of 16 children. His mother battled an addiction to crack cocaine. His father had just died. He was, he says, “one of the biggest kids in Plainfield, New Jersey, but not one of the most athletic,” and football transformed him. In sixth grade, he joined a Pop Warner team and went from being one of the kids picked last to a kid who put other kids on the ground, every play. “I was laying people out,” he says, “and being highly appreciated for it.”

So he got hooked. He got hooked on the game — the adrenaline, the violence, the absolute license of it, the intricacies unfolding all around that no one can know about unless you stand right in the middle of them — and he stayed hooked even when, inevitably, he got hurt. In a spring practice in pads in preparation for his sophomore season at the University of Virginia, he dislocated his left kneecap and ruptured his patellar retinaculum. His knee had to be grafted back together when he was 19, and it was never the same. “It made me grow up quick,” he says. “It taught me what it was like to really work for something, and it redefined me as a player.” His mind had always been part of his life; now he made it part of his game. “No matter where I was on campus, I’d be thinking. In my dorm, in my apartment, at the bus stop, I’d be thinking, trying to figure out what angles certain defenders would take. I was so ingrained in becoming excellent. It was part of my existence. And it showed on the field.”

Of course, to stay on the field after an injury like that, well, you don’t think it’s just a matter of grit and perseverance, do you? No — it’s a matter of drugs, the whole dizzying pharmacopoeia that makes our weekend entertainments possible. Players can’t play without them. Monroe couldn’t play without them. He started taking them in college, when he was recovering from the reconstruction of his knee, and he kept taking them when he played for the Jaguars and the Ravens. On Sundays, he stood in line for injections of the anti-inflammatory Toradol, and the rest of the time he took the pills the team doctors and surgeons prescribed for him. A 10-year prescription for the anti-inflammatory Celebrex; another for the gastric distress the Celebrex caused; another for Ambien, when he was too jacked up or in too much pain to sleep; another for the migraines caused by his concussions; and then the prescriptions for pain, Vicodin and Oxycontin, when he was either trying to forestall surgery or trying to recover from it. His intake wasn’t out of the ordinary. It was typical, and so was the fact that it got him high.

“Those drugs, they stone you,” Monroe says. “They have psychoactive components. If you get a bottle of any opioid drug, it warns you not to drive, not to operate any heavy machinery. They cause drowsiness and fatigue; they cause lethargy. But we don’t like to talk about that.”

And that’s the thing you have to remember when you hear debates about marijuana and the NFL, and especially when you hear the anecdotal estimate that half the players in the NFL regularly smoke weed. It’s not that they’re choosing to get high.

It’s that they already are.

HERE’S HOW MONROE met his wife, Nureya: She needed a ride. She was a freshman at Virginia, heading home to the suburbs of Baltimore for the weekend but late for her bus. She stopped the first person who drove by, and it was Eugene, on his way to deliver a paper to one of his professors. She didn’t know who he was — didn’t know that he played football — and as soon as she sat down, she demanded his name and called two friends to say who she was with, in case anything happened to her. Eugene talked the entire ride about his love for Japanese anime. “We kept talking,” Nureya says, “and never stopped.”

So she knows a lot about Eugene — knows a lot about what made him “a little different” in the estimation of his coaches and the reporters who covered him. At 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, with long arms and what draft experts called a “thick lower body,” he might have been a “prototypical left tackle” in regard to his dimensions but never in regard to his temperament. Teams want their linemen to be “nasty,” but Monroe is typically described as “soft-spoken,” “thoughtful” and even “philosophical” — “a nerd.” Nureya knew better because she knew how intense he could be, how “when he believes in something, everybody has to believe it”, how friends who argued with him wound up calling him “Google” because he knew everything. She knew how badly he needed a cause, a fight, to be a warrior, and how deeply football satisfied that need.

She also knew — she was the only one who knew — how badly football had hurt him. She was on intimate terms not only with him but with his pain. Indeed, Monroe’s life with his family was largely about pain. “It’s the morning after the game, and he wakes up and can hardly move,” she says. “Or he wakes up in the middle of the night and he’ll be screaming out, asking me to run and give him water and a Tylenol, it’s hurting so bad. Or he’s forcing himself into the ice tub, telling me to get him ice and Epsom salts. Or he’s trying to play with the kids, and I know how much he’s hurting, I know that he’s bummed out because he can’t pick up our son, Xavier. Knowing that he hit 300-pound guys, for him to say ‘I can’t lift my son up’ … there was like a thought: ‘Is that how it’s going to be in 15 years, is that where this ends, he can’t play with his kids because of the things he has to do to play football?'”

And yet what she couldn’t have known, what she couldn’t guess, what she couldn’t even have imagined, was the cause he would choose. It was something they agreed on back in college: “I had family members who experienced the negative effects of drugs in their lives, and so had Eugene. He had always been like, ‘That’s not me …'”

And for the longest time, it wasn’t. “Drugs were huge in the community where I grew up,” Monroe says. “People using them, people selling them, people being arrested for them because they were associated with them. All sorts of drugs came through my house, and I saw some things I’ll never forget. It was all right in front of me, and I became averse to them because I saw how damaging they were.” Even marijuana: “I used to believe, literally, in those commercials — ‘This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs,'” he says. “Your brain is some eggs frying in a pan … and if you smoke marijuana, that’s what happens. For years I never considered having anything to do with it. I just thought it was dangerous.” And it wasn’t just marijuana itself he feared; it was the NFL. When one of his roommates in Jacksonville got high, he used to cover his face and go outside until the dreaded ritual had ended. “I was always afraid of failing the test, tarnishing my name. A failed test is a huge hit on your character in the NFL world.”

And then one day … well, you might think he got high and then everything changed. But that’s not what happened. Eugene being Eugene — a guy who gives endless and even agonized consideration to what turn out to be snap decisions — he watched a documentary on getting high, and then everything changed. Reported by Dr. Sanjay Gupta for CNN, it was called Weed, and it told the stories of families braving opposition so that they could use marijuana to treat the intractable illnesses of their children. Monroe, who would soon be traded from Jacksonville to Baltimore, recognized himself in it because he too had an intractable illness: He made his living playing football. He had always done everything he could to stay on the field, at one point spending his own money on stem cell injections for his ruined left knee, a procedure then considered experimental. Now he began going online to read everything he could about the benefits of marijuana, and eventually he had a talk with his agent, with NFLPA director DeMaurice Smith and with Nureya. “When Eugene started discussing changing how marijuana is perceived, I was like, ‘Hold on — you’re the health advocate, there’s no way this can fall in line with that,'” she says.

That was seven months ago. He was committed then; he’s, like, enlightened now. He’s Saul on the road to the dispensary. He’s part househusband and part bodhisattva. “I am having time to learn who I am,” he says. Nureya says it best: “Cannabis has given Eugene a stone he can use to kill many birds.” And what has it given her, in exchange for accepting a lifestyle she never foresaw? It has given her what Eugene has been fighting to be all along: a husband not defined by pain, a father who can play with their three children.

Says Monroe: “I wake up in the morning and my back hurts. And my feet hurt. And my neck hurts. And my knee hurts. My shoulder hurts, and sometimes my hands ache too. And this is every day.” Benedict Evans for ESPN

IT IS DIFFICULT playing with pain. It is harder still not being able to play and having to live with doubt. Ask Monroe about his worst time in football and he doesn’t mention the injuries that never really went away and so changed his body and his life. He talks about the injury that changed his relationship to his team.

It was a high ankle sprain, a sometimes crippling injury often prefaced with the word “nagging.” He suffered it at the end of the 2014 season, when the Ravens were making a playoff run. The team doctor cleared him to play in the first game of the playoffs, but he remembers being “barely able to walk, much less run, much less push off.” He sought a second opinion, the advice of his own doctor, and did not suit up for the Ravens’ wild-card win over the Steelers. Against New England in the next round, Baltimore’s coaches played him on special teams and not at left tackle. “It felt like punishment,” he says. Baltimore lost.

The Ravens declined to answer any questions about Monroe. But a reporter who covers the team identified the high ankle sprain as the turning point of Monroe’s years in Baltimore. He’d started the season signing a contract extension that gave him $17.5 million guaranteed; now the Ravens began to doubt not just his “nastiness” but his very love of the game. It is, in the world of the NFL, a serious accusation, hurled against a player’s very essence, and Monroe answers with vehemence: “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, and I’ve yet to have anyone from the team come to me and express that man-to-man.”

Six months later, Monroe entered the marijuana business. Maryland had recently legalized medical marijuana, and Pete Kadens, partner in an Illinois-based cultivator and distributor called Green Thumb Industries, was looking for local investors. By this time, Monroe was more than just a football player, he was a man who saw “a business opportunity in an industry where there’s not only a high level of growth but also a chance to provide something for people who need it … who are suffering, who have to decompress, who need cannabis. Philosophically, it made sense. Everything I stand for is there.”

Kadens asked, “How many players feel like you do?” Monroe said, “A lot.”

“We wound up talking to some high-level players — very high-level players,” Kadens says. “But after three weeks they’d fall off the face of the earth and never come back.”

Monroe never worked harder on his body than he did before the 2015 season. “I wanted to demonstrate that I was the guy the Ravens signed, that I was the guy they thought they were getting,” he says. He spent most of his NFL career at 330 pounds; now, by concentrating on diet and fitness, he was down to 285. At the same time, he began investing in medical marijuana dispensaries in Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Nevada. He did not tell the Ravens or the NFL. He did not believe his business was any of their business, and he began the 2015 season at the fulcrum of two apparently opposing forces: expecting to dominate on the field and believing he had begun to find his way off it.

And then, in the first drive of the Ravens’ first game of the season against the Broncos, he got his mind altered, NFL-style.

“HOW’S THE YAKITORI chicken?” Monroe asks me.

“What?” I’m not eating yakitori chicken. I’m not eating anything. I’ve followed Monroe in from the patio, and now I’m sitting in his basement, watching him work out.

“How’s the Jack in the Box?”

“What?” I’m not eating Jack in the Box. I mean, like, I could eat. But still …

Monroe walks over, bathed in sweat and beneficence. “I said, ‘How’s the Jack treating you?'” Oh, right, the Jack.

“Excellent,” I say. “Excellent.”

For all of Monroe’s enthusiasm for strains of marijuana that don’t get you high, Jack Herer is not one of them. It is, instead, a strain of marijuana that makes you realize the difference between just getting high and getting high for a reason that goes well beyond the euphoria, maybe even well beyond the enlightenment. I’m entertained that Eugene has turned his unfinished basement into, like, one vast dorm room, with two tall floor speakers pounding out nihilistic rap music chosen by his teenage cousins from New Jersey, his teenage cousins from New Jersey crowding a sectional couch and playing video games on a large-screen TV, a beanbag chair on the floor the size of a bed and a fully made bed flanked by a nightstand on which sits a bong and a Volcano Vaporizer, and even the foil on the exposed insulation gleaming like the foil on the fabled walls of Andy Warhol’s The Factory. Monroe, on the other hand, has chosen to use the Jack because it energizes him for his workouts, and now, by god, he works out as if to demonstrate its power. He wants to slim down and shed his NFL-sized body for a civilian one. But he works out like an NFL player, works out as if to prove he can still play in the NFL, works out so hard he leaves puddles on the floor, works out as if to express how much he misses football, how much the longing still resides in his muscles and lingers in his cells.

His phone rings. It’s his trainer, a former college player named Andre Washington, and he begins chiding Monroe for retiring.

“You just an old washed-up player, just like me,” Washington says.

“I don’t know about that, man. I got my film. You got your film? Let’s compare film.”

“You come on over, we’ll just start talking about them old memories …”

“I know I got my film. I don’t know about you …”

“Oh, I know, I know,” Washington says, with sincerity suddenly softening his voice. “You could still be out there, if you hadn’t taken the stand you took.”

“I’d be somewhere starting tackle,” Monroe says. “Easily.”

“But you’re doing something revolutionary. I talk about you all the time. You stood up for a cause. A great cause.”

“I knew it would be risky,” Monroe says. “But creating a safer medical environment for players, reducing the number of pills prescribed, that meant a lot to me, because I was still living to play, and I didn’t want to keep taking pills to deal with pain …”

And here, Eugene Monroe begins telling his story to a good friend who already knows it. But Andre encourages it: “I tell you, man, I could not be more proud of you, you’re still up for something great, of that magnitude, and that’s a pretty awesome story to tell for a football player.” And, hearing an echo of intervention, I finally begin to understand. The trainer he relies on to push and inspire him is no longer working to help Monroe stay in the NFL. He is working to help him stay out.

Monroe still has the bottles of the prescription drugs he used to take to play and recover from football. Benedict Evans for ESPN

MONROE GOT HIT in the head. He knows that much; he’s seen that much on the film. But he has no memory of what happened when the Ravens played the Broncos in the first game of the 2015 season. His only memory is of what happened afterward, his two weeks in the black chrysalis of concussion, his slow emergence into the pain of the light. He remembers wobbling down the hallway of his hotel the next morning as he made his way to the team doctor. He remembers the “constant headaches — a little man, squeezing my head all day long.” He remembers the pills he was given, and how they didn’t work. And he remembers Nureya’s terror of his isolation, terror of him recoiling from light, sound, touch.

He came back. But then he tore his labrum, and the season dissolved into a montage of pain and pills. He ended it on injured reserve and underwent shoulder surgery in December. He went home with a prescription for Vicodin, but the pills made him feel groggy and listless. He had never liked the way opioids made him feel, had never liked the opiate high. Now, in the aftermath of the concussion, he couldn’t tolerate it: “I was sitting there practically drooling, thinking this was not a good idea.” Six days after his operation, he stopped taking not only the Vicodin but all the other pills stocked in his medicine cabinet. He could endure pain more easily than he could the reminders and harbingers of addiction.

He expected to keep playing football. His agent had told him he might be released because of his difficulty staying on the field — and because the Ravens would soon owe him another year’s salary if they kept him. And so, Eugene being Eugene, he began to contemplate talking about marijuana, figuring that he’d have more impact as a member of the Ravens than he would as a Ravens castoff. The night before he gave his first interview, he called Pete Kadens of Green Thumb. “It came out of left field,” Kadens says. “He said, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ I was like, ‘Seriously, man?’ He said, ‘This is it, man. I can’t stand by idly anymore, watching guys destroy their bodies with the wrong medicine …'”

It was his strategy from the start: to broaden the terms of the debate. He would talk not just about the NFL’s marijuana policy but also about its legacy of chronic traumatic encephalopathy; not just about the state-by-state relaxation and repeal of marijuana laws but about the national epidemic of opioid addiction. He never spoke about getting high because he wasn’t yet getting high. He spoke instead about marijuana as an alternative to addictive painkillers — as an alternative to something that was dangerous, something that led to enslavement and overdoses and lives thrown away. And once he started, he never stopped.

“DOES THE NFL have a marijuana problem?” I ask Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive VP for health and safety.

“We have a program for testing jointly negotiated with the players’ association on the advice of our medical advisers,” he answers. “We test players, and should they test positive they hopefully get the kind of help and assistance they need. If they repeatedly test positive, there are punishments for it.”

It is the answer he gives, with variations, the entire interview. The issue of marijuana has already been dealt with in the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA. Yes, state laws and public perception regarding marijuana seem to be changing rapidly. And yes, the league has said it is open to further research. But until the NFL’s medical advisers see a need to change the policy, the policy will stay as it is — “a policy consistent with prevailing medical opinion and federal law.”

And, in a way, Miller is right. The NFL doesn’t have a marijuana problem. It has, like, five. The first is that an awful lot of its players ignore or find ways to get around league policy and get high. The second is that because so many players get high, the policy is widely regarded as a joke, even by league officials speaking off the record. The third is that the policy causes many players to lose weeks, months and even years of their already short-lived careers. The fourth is that despite — or because of — its restrictive policies, the NFL has become crucial to the cause of legalization, a wellspring of pro-marijuana advocacy and activism.

And the fifth? The fifth of the NFL’s marijuana problems is that it’s the least of the NFL’s problems. The gravest, of course, is the increasing awareness that playing football is inherently dangerous — matched by an increasing reluctance of many players to brave the risks and keep playing it. Eugene Monroe is not just the first active player to challenge the league’s marijuana policy; he is one of a dozen or so players who retired this past offseason though they had been performing at a high level. Like Monroe, they had tired of playing with pain, had come to fear the next injury, worried about the game’s long-term effects on their bodies and their brains, had families to think about and had enough money to get out. What distinguished Monroe from the likes of Calvin Johnson and Marshawn Lynch was that although they might have been saying that the NFL was dangerous, he was somehow driven to say, again and again, that the NFL was demonstrably more dangerous than marijuana.

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