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Kings of Pain: Watching a Broncos Game with Ex-NFL Player Nate Jackson Will Lay You Out

Playing in the NFL is dangerous. Smoking cannabis is not. So why won’t the NFL allow its players to use a substance with proven pain-relieving properties — even in states where it’s legal? Leafly writer Rod O’Connor met up with former Denver Broncos tight end Nate Jackson in the Mile High City, at a Broncos game, to discuss the pain inherent in America’s most popular game and the hypocrisy of the NFL’s continuing ban on cannabis.

Nate Jackson remembers his first injury as a football player: He was playing receiver for Pioneer High School in his hometown of San Jose, Calif., and a linebacker crushed him as he was cutting across the middle on a passing route. Boom! His young body gave out, crumpling like a cheap suit. Concussion.

It was the 1980s. Injury protocols were decades away. “I know now that it was [a concussion] — because I couldn’t get up for two minutes and I had a headache for a week,” the former Denver Broncos tight end tells me. “I got laid the fuck out. I think it was a fateful coincidence that I started smoking weed at the same time I started playing football. I think it actually protected my brain in the long run.”

Jackson and I are sitting on the back flap of a classic hardtop pickup in Section J of the parking lot of Sports Authority Field at Mile High. It’s a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in mid-November. The Broncos crazies are out for today’s tilt against the division rival Kansas City Chiefs. Until a few weeks ago Denver had been undefeated, the team’s stingy defense masking the accelerated downslide of legendary quarterback Peyton Manning. A three-point loss to the Colts the previous Sunday has done little to dampen the enthusiasm of the orange-clad tailgaters. 

With the sun shining down as he sips his pale ale, Jackson, 36, seems to be enjoying himself. He doesn’t keep in touch with many ex-players, but Jake Plummer, the quarterback who tossed him his first NFL touchdown, is an exception. It’s Plummer’s truck that Jackson is resting on when I find him. He’s sporting a dark beard, a Cali-style flat-billed hat, and an orange-and-blue striped T-shirt. Jackson now lives in California but maintains a house in the Denver suburbs. He’s excited to be hanging out with his old pal Jake “the Snake,” who lives an hour away in Boulder. 

Former NFL player Nate Jackson at a tailgate party for the Denver Broncos game with Leafly

As players, both carried themselves a little differently. They bonded over their shared iconoclasm, their determination to maintain some semblance of free thinking amid the military-like rigor of professional football. In recent years Jackson and Plummer have also urged the NFL to change its zero-tolerance policy toward marijuana. Jackson has spoken publicly about the issue as a member of the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, a group dedicated to the advancement of medical marijuana as a treatment option for injuries and illnesses. He and Plummer have argued that the medical benefits they experienced from using it should be open to all players, not to mention the general public. 

Since retiring in 2008, Jackson has attended only two NFL games. This will be his third. He still loves football, but his relationship with the game and the NFL is complicated. “[There are] a lot of complex emotions,” he says. “Not that I’m trying to avoid them.” Still, he seems excited to revisit the field where he carved out a solid, six-year career. 

When Jackson suggested we meet at a tailgate party I expected a private VIP affair. But that’s not how Jackson rolls. The other attendees at our modest gathering include a couple of friends he met through Plummer. Shortly before we head into the game, former Broncos wide-out Charlie Adams, another ex-teammate, pops by and offers Jackson sideline passes. “I’ve got extras if you’re interested,” says Adams. But Jackson declines without giving it a second thought. Today he’s hanging with me in the nosebleeds.

 

Over the past few years the connection between cannabis and pain relief has become impossible to ignore. In 2012, a series of randomized clinical trials at the University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) found that “cannabis significantly reduced pain intensity.” Those results are consistent with last year’s findings from McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, which deemed medical marijuana a safe treatment option for pain. And back in 2011, a study from the University of California San Francisco showed that patients suffering from chronic pain experienced greater relief when they added cannabinoids — the main active ingredient in cannabis — to an opiates-only treatment. 

Cannabis-based pain medications are already approved in Canada and in some parts of Europe. Even the U.S. government, which demonizes marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, holds a patent on the use of cannabinoids as neuroprotectants, helpful in the recovery and regeneration of the nervous system in sufferers of strokes and other traumatic injuries such as concussions. And yet for NFL players, the only way to experience these benefits is in the shadows. Those who get caught are punished with suspensions, lost paychecks, and career setbacks. 

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As game time approaches, Jackson locks up Plummer’s truck — the Snake decided to head in early — and Jackson and I amble toward the turnstiles. Jackson enjoyed six seasons as a Bronco, but he’s anonymous among the fans in the security line. That is, until a guy in his late 20s wearing an old-school Broncos cap recognizes him. “Nate Jackson! I really dug your book,” says the young dude, referring to Jackson’s entertainingly gonzo 2013 memoir, Slow Getting Up: Life at the Bottom of the NFL Pile.

“Thanks man,” Jackson says. “Thanks a lot.” He seems genuinely appreciative. Unlike other ex-jocks who trawl for endorsements and milk their past glories, Jackson is committed to having a second act of his own choosing. “You have to figure out who you are outside the NFL or else you're going to be carrying water for them the rest of your life,” he tells me. These days, he sees himself first and foremost as a writer. And he should — he’s a damn good one. His book, about his longshot tenure in the NFL, is honest and hilarious, profane and poignant. His byline has appeared in the New York Times and on Deadspin, and his second book, which he tells me has something to do with fantasy football, hits the shelves later this year. 

With the health of football players becoming a front page issue — whether it’s the concussion crisis or the class-action lawsuit from ex-pros alleging the NFL illegally pushed dangerous painkillers — Jackson’s voice has become a vital one in a battle between the league and its players. 

Former NFL player Nate Jackson talking at a Denver Broncos tailgate with Leafly

Clearly, many current players are already using cannabis. You only need to glance at the ever-growing list of NFL players suspended for positive marijuana tests — even names from Denver, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., where it’s legal. Jackson and other former players have estimated that at least half the players in the NFL consume marijuana in some form. But to truly understand why a substance with analgesic benefits and powerful neuroprotective properties remains outlawed by a league populated with the very men who stand to benefit from them the most, Jackson says you have to consider the cultural and institutional bubbles that professional football players live in.

“Really, marijuana is about choice,” Jackson explains as we climb the stairs toward our 500-level seats. “And these guys,” he adds, speaking of the players stretching below us on the field, “don't have a choice. The food they eat, the plays they run on the field, the medicines they take … this is all predetermined for them."

To most fans, NFL players are disposable characters, gladiators who don’t bleed. But once you start to think about those gladiators as real people (and especially if you sit down and talk with one), you begin to understand the freedoms they relinquish to keep their NFL dreams alive. 

One of the first pieces of autonomy they forfeit, Jackson says, is their freedom to choose the best treatment for their constant, unrelenting pain. “Based on the condition of their bodies, NFL players could go to any doctor in this city and get a prescription for [marijuana],” he points out.

“The interesting thing about football is, there are very few industries that you know [that there’s a good chance] you're going to get a brain injury,” he adds as we reach our seats in the second-to-the-last row, which is almost literally in the clouds. (It takes me a minute to catch my breath, but I take solace in the fact that Jackson, who has stayed in solid shape after his playing days, also needs a moment to recover.) “And [studies now show that marijuana] helps the brain heal. The NFL might be acting negligibly by not studying it and denying it to players. Instead, they get pushed into the arms of more dangerous products.”

From the league office to the team doctors to coaches and players, the winning-is-everything culture of the NFL has created a system geared toward getting injured players back on the field at whatever cost. That means pills. Lots and lots of pills.

“The anti-inflammatories were always something I took without question,” Jackson tells me. “I finished those bottles. But the Vicodin and Percocet I didn't really like. They made me feel high and slow and dreamy. And that's not how I want to be.”

So after a game or practice, Jackson would fire up a joint, replacing as much of his opiate cocktail as he could with cannabis. “I used it to let my mind and body escape,” he says. “My body always healed very fast. I'm not going to say that it's because of cannabis, but I think it helped.”

What about before a game? I ask him. 

“I would never smoke weed and go into work,” he responds emphatically. “But I never took pain pills before work, either. Football is high alert all the time. I needed to be sharp."

"[Football] was the most violent, visceral, emotional part of my life — and weed helped me deal with that."

A majority of Americans now believe that marijuana’s outlaw status is absurd. A 2015 Pew poll found that 53 percent believe marijuana should be legalized. But cultural change often moves at a glacial pace. Until, of course, it doesn’t. On issues ranging from gender equality to marriage rights, the federal government eventually caught up to shifting public opinion. 

Don’t look for the NFL to embrace that change anytime soon, though. Jackson believes the NFL will likely remain one of the last holdouts when it comes to medical marijuana. Why? Look at the commercials that air on most Sunday afternoons: big pharma ads pushing boner pills and drugs that combat opiate-induced constipation. Two years ago NFL commissioner Roger Goodell promised that the league would “follow the science” on medical marijuana. Some read that as a sign of thaw. But for now the league appears very comfortable with the status quo.

Former NFL player Nate Jackson smiling at a tailgate for the Denver Broncos with Leafly

“[The NFL’s] constituency is old-school America — right wing, with, generally, more conservative sensibilities,” say Jackson. “It's [about] cultural fear: What does it mean to be a marijuana user? [To some], it’s a group of thugs, smoking blunts in the corner with their pants sagging, about to harass some white grandma.”

“They're definitely not going to be ahead of the curve,” he adds. “They are going to wait until they have to do it.”

After settling into our seats for a few series, I hail the beer guy for two Coors Lights. While Jackson locks in on the action on the field, I strike up a conversation with a young couple sitting in front of us. Based on their comments, the NFL’s feet-dragging on the issue might not be the smartest move if it wants to appeal to the next generation of season ticket holders. 

“If it's something a team doctor could get credentials to prescribe, then I think it makes sense,” says Owen Diver, a 21-year-old Denver University student wearing a Champ Bailey jersey. 

Jazz Lahsaizudeh, a fellow student wearing a Broncos knit cap, puts it more bluntly: “If you're good enough to be a professional athlete, you should be able to make the call as far as what you want to do after a professional football game,” she says. Just then, the Broncos quarterback tosses a wobbler that the Chiefs’ Sean Smith picks off. 

Diver, irritated and sounding a little drunk, turns around again and interjects. "But, if you told me that Peyton was using medical marijuana right now, I’d be pissed,” he says. “The way he’s playing, at least he would have an excuse.”

 

Mile High Stadium — I still can’t make myself say “Sports Authority Field” — is a fantastic place to watch a football game. I soak in the scene of downtown Denver in the distance, sprawled along the high plains on the eastern edge of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains. Jacked up by high-energy tunes, the crowd cheers every hit by the Broncos defense. But every time the offense takes the field, there’s a sense trouble is afoot.

After a promising 7–0 start, Denver’s season is suddenly looking shaky. The fans aren’t confident that Peyton Manning can make it through the next game, let alone the rest of the season. Today’s start offers little assurance. The game has barely started and he’s already thrown his first pick. He redeems himself a few minutes later by offering the fans a piece of history: Manning completes a three-yard pass and breaks Brett Favre’s all-time yardage record. By the end of the first quarter, however, the cheers turn to boos as another feeble toss is intercepted. 

“Oh no!” Jackson exclaims, gasping alongside the two old-timers sitting next to him. He puts his hands over his face, barely able to look. Manning is imploding.

This being my first Bronco game, I’m surprised by how quickly the stadium is turning on the future Hall of Famer. “I thought Bronco fans would be more forgiving,” I say. 

Jackson takes his hat off and flips it around. He’s felt that heat before. "They're spoiled is what it is,” he says. “They're rabid, but they expect perfection.”

Nimble second-stringer Brock Osweiler soon replaces the hobbling 39-year-old veteran, who has been nursing a series of injuries all year. This too may be a piece of history, though not one any of us wanted to see. We may be witnessing the end of Peyton Manning’s career. 

Jackson nods in sympathy with Manning. "Football guys are tough guys,” he says. “They don't tell you when they're hurt. The guys who make it the furthest are the ones who endure it the best. That's the culture. To move up the ladder, you don't show pain.” Or, in Manning’s case, you have to fight through lingering foot, neck, and rib injuries to stave off the young, mobile heir apparent. 

Incidence of Concussion in the NFL 2012-2013 Chart


Chart Source: National Football League

Jackson played for Menlo College, a small Division III school near his home in San Jose, and landed with the Broncos as an undrafted free agent. He lived a very different football life than the celebrated Manning, a No. 1 draft pick who became one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. What they shared, however, was an unnatural ability to endure pain.

“Look at those guys,” he adds, motioning toward the Chiefs as they line up to punt on fourth down. “This is their frequency. It's flight or fight.”

“So, at this point in the game, how banged up would you feel?” I ask him.

He glances at me with a look that says, You have no idea what you’re asking about, do you?

“I never felt pain during a game. You don't feel pain while you’re playing. But, you come home and your adrenaline goes down. And then you feel it. Everyone does.”

When he was down there on the field, a special teams play like this was Jackson’s bread and butter. To prove his worth as a nonstarter, he had to make an impression — so he didn’t hold anything back when he went screaming down the field to crush the return man. 

In fact, when I ask him his favorite memory as a player, he doesn’t recount his first touchdown catch or his first experience lining up as a pro. “There was never, like, this one moment,” he says. Instead, he talks about the strange allure of the physicality and violence that’s inherent to the game.

“You become desensitized,” he says. “And that’s something you have to adjust to" in life after football, he adds.

"I enjoyed contact. I enjoyed the banging. I enjoyed fucking somebody up. It felt good to me. I didn’t mind being hurt."

That’s a good thing, because he was hurt a lot. By the time Jackson’s playing days were over, his medical file looked like a dictionary. Over six years, he shattered his left ankle, broke his right wrist, crushed his ribs, suffered multiple shoulder separations, popped his groin off the bone, and tore both hamstrings. Those were the major ones. The minor were too numerous to recall. 

“I just couldn't stay healthy,” he tells me. “It was so frustrating. But you are pushing yourself to do things on the field that aren't natural. You're trying to go further every time … until your body doesn't want to do it anymore. And that's what a lot of these [players] do. They keep doing it until they snap.”

And when they do, there’s a team doctor waiting to get them back onto the field, pronto. "The medical attention is very good,” says Jackson. “But they might not always tell you what's going on in a way that allows you to make the best decision for yourself.” They’re called team doctors — not player doctors. “They have the team's best interests in mind, not necessarily the player’s.”

 

By the fourth quarter, the jolt of enthusiasm provided by Osweiler’s fresh legs starts to wane, and the reality of the 29–13 deficient sinks in for Bronco fans. All around us, the seats start to empty. Across the row, a guy in a floppy orange hat and an Ed McCaffrey jersey is talking on his phone with his feet kicked up. Ironic clapping accompanies any positive yardage. No one could have predicted they would see the first-ever benching of Peyton Manning’s career. A few weeks later, these same fickle fans will embrace the old workhorse when the tide turns and a second-string Manning leads a comeback against the Chargers. That win would ultimately spark the Broncos’ improbable Super Bowl run — and the chance for the great Manning to follow the path of Broncos legend John Elway and ride off into the sunset a champion.

But today, less than a week from Thanksgiving, the mood in Denver is cold as the mountain chill that overtakes this once-glorious day. As the game staggers to a finish, Jackson and I bond not over football, but about the grind of the writing process. 

Jackson says he writes for four hours every day, usually in the morning. I tell him that reminds me of Hemingway’s writing regiment. Papa was a stickler for getting words down on the page early, before heading out into the world to fight, drink, and fish. I ask Jackson how he got into writing, and he opens up about about how he used to write for his high school newspaper, how he’s kept a journal since he was 19.

“I’m going through a new phase of my life, learning new parts of myself,” he says. “The words are just pouring out of me right now.”

Former NFL player Nate Jackson laughing with friends at the Denver Broncos game with Leafly

With eight minutes to go, we decide to abandon ship. Jackson is unfazed by the home team’s poor performance. He’s more interested in talking with the woman sitting behind us, in the black bangs and leather jacket. She kicked him with her suede boots in the second quarter — and hasn’t stopped chatting him up since. 

Throughout their flirtation, Jackson never plays the ex-jock card. In fact, he messes with me a bit and tells the woman and her friends that I’m a famous writer. “Watch what you say in front of this guy,” he says, smiling broadly. When I let them know that Jackson used to play for the Broncos, they laugh. They don’t believe me.

And that’s how he likes it. Walking anonymously among the fans who once cheered him, Nate Jackson can be himself, not the former gladiator who sacrificed his long-term health for their game-day pleasure. 

As we continue down the concourses toward the exits, I think I see Jackson struggling to walk a bit. Earlier that day, I’d asked him how his body was holding up these days.

“I had an ankle surgery a few months ago to get rid of some old bone spurs,” he told me. “My hamstring's not great. I have some other aches and pains that pop up every once and a while. But, for the most part, I'm pretty good.”

Unlike many other ex-players, Jackson has been able to not only survive, but thrive after living through the NFL meat grinder. He doesn’t have a peer-reviewed study to prove that marijuana was responsible, but it certainly seems to have been a factor. Now he wants to give the guys who came after him a fair and legal shot at something that’s still too elusive: a healthy life after football.

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Image Sources: Sean Costin