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Clayton Holmes On Drug Abuse In The NFL

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Once a week leading up to the 2008 NFL Draft, three-time Super Bowl winner Clayton Holmes will personally explain some of the pitfalls he fell into as a player: Money problems, inability to say “no,” the gold diggers, the party culture, his own demons from childhood. As told to BC sportswriter James David Dickson.

In my Father’s Den

I remember my first experience with marijuana like it was yesterday.

My sophomore year of high school. Just got off the bus from school on a Friday. Entered the house to the sounds of my dad guitar in his den, cool as I’d ever seen him. At his left was a gin and juice; on his right a joint. He worked on the railroad, so he made sure to enjoy his weekends. I was headed straight to my room before:

“Clayton, come on in here,” he called. “Son,” he said before taking a long drag, “I don’t want to see you doing this. What you do when you’re a grown man and have your own place is your business. You don’t make enough money to support a habit. In this house, the only man who drinks and smokes is me. You understand?”

To his way of thinking, being able to come home after a long day of work and play some guitar, enjoy a stiff drink, and smoke the occasional joint was a privilege that only a working man, with a family and a mortgage, could enjoy.

Fast forward to my third year in the League. Still hadn’t done much drinking or any smoking by that point. My marriage was falling apart at a time when I should’ve been on top of the world. I was 24 years old and I’d already earned more money in two seasons than my father had his entire life.

So I’m at a teammate’s car on the way home, we’re just talking, chilling. Then he lights up a joint.

“Pass that,” I said. I’d just decided to file for divorce. I was in a contract year. Something had to break, and something did. Regardless of what they tell you on television, the first hit ain’t free.

Why Ask Why? You Can’t Afford Not To

When you go from winning Super Bowls to playing $200-a-night “professional” football, you have a lot of time to think about how you went from point A to point B.

At first it felt good to blame the whole world. My parents, my teachers, the kids at school, even my hometown – anyone who had ever made me feel less-than. But a real man must take responsibility for every part of his life.

And in my search for answers, my thoughts often returned to that chat in my father’s den. It’s not that that talk made me want to smoke (if anything, I hated the smell), but it was the way he framed it: as a privilege for adults –- as a rite of passage.

But that only explains how I tried it. Doesn’t explain why I kept coming back, even at great personal and professional cost. Every once in a while I’d think back and wonder I was in my life that getting high meant more than anything the NFL could offer. Even more important than asking “where was I?” was asking “why was I?”

That was an important question, one that I wish I’d known to ask a lot sooner, because it unlocked the door to a whole new ways of seeing things. But if my mistakes can help even one of you play longer, fuller careers, then it was all worth it.

Breaking the Habit

The average NFL playing career is about three years long. Pro football will demand every bit of concentration and dedication you can manage. You don’t want to get into any type of trouble before landing that big second contract with all the guaranteed money. Guys who are new to smoking will find it easier to quit, since they’re not hooked.

The guys who’ve been doing it more or less every day since high school will find it much tougher. First thing a chronic smoker wants to do is sit down and write out reasons why you enjoy smoking. Does it make you more confident? A better writer? Relieve stress? Does it just feel good? Write down every reason you can think of.

Then you want to identify someone in your team’s organization that you can trust. This can be tough as a rookie, but it’s important. This person can be a veteran, a team trainer, a front office type, even coaches sometimes.

Present your list to that person and ask for their help in constructing a replacement plan for marijuana. I can’t tell you what that plan entails because everyone is different, but the idea is to find natural replacements for issues you’ve been treating with a chemical remedy. You will go through a period of withdrawal, just like you’d have withdrawal if you drank a Coca-Cola every day and stopped cold turkey. But that, too, will pass.

If you want to play ball, the question isn’t whether you’re going to smoke or not, but on whose terms you’d prefer to quit. You can do it on your terms, supported by people who know you and have your best interests at heart. Or you can be forced to quit by going into the NFL’s drug program and taking three urine tests a week, rehabbing with junkies, and seeing a psychiatrist. Personally, I’d like to see the NFL set up an anonymous hotline that players with drug issues can call into and speak with a trained professional in a safe, solutions-based (as opposed to shame-based, as much of the NFL’s drug treatment program is) setting.

Playing in the National Football League is a privilege. Commissioner Goodell has made that very clear since taking the reins. Professional football isn’t a birthright or something you’re entitled to just because you have talent — ask Pacman Jones how the game can be taken away at a moment’s notice. Even when you haven’t been convicted of anything.

So you can imagine how teams feel about illegal drug users. Anyone remember former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Quincy Carter? In 2003 he led the team to a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance. Failed a drug test in 2004 training camp. Released on the spot. Signed as a backup with the New York Jets for a season, then filed for retirement. Never competed for a League starting job again. The last team he played for was the Bossier-Shreveport Battle Wings in the Arena Football minor leagues. That was before he was arrested again on felony marijuana possession charges last October.

So don’t think that your situation is so unique or that that couldn’t happen to you. Everyone thinks it can’t happen to them; the trick is having the tools to turn to in case something does happen. A list of reasons why you partake in drug use and a person you can trust is a good start.

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what I, or you, or anyone else thinks about drugs. In the eyes of the law, they’re illegal, and in the eyes of the NFL, use is ab-use. I’m not saying it’s fair and I’m not saying it’s right – I’m saying that that’s how it is. Getting branded as a drug abuser will cost you millions of dollars in the end. Field-tested.

Ask yourself which privilege you value most: getting high, or reaching the heights in pro ball.

Clayton Holmes was a three-time Super Bowl winner with the 1990s Dallas Cowboys. Today he is a personal trainer and lectures young athletes. Next week he will be writing about the fabled Rookie Wall, and pacing yourself for playing in the National Football League.

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About James David Dickson

  • michelle

    Your daughter Cassie, that you have never had any contact with, is now 12 and the greatest thing in this world. I tried many times to contact you and never got any response. I wish you the best of luck in getting you life back together. Although I disagree with some of the things you said, in your heart you know what’s true and you are the one that has to live with that. I will keep you in my prayers.

  • dfg

    drugs are bad.

  • The only things the “war on drugs” in the USA has achieved is to have enriched every drug smuggler in the world; financed terrorism; criminalised huge swathes of American society; and militarised the American police.

    Is that what you mean by “drugs are bad”?