By Steve Sears
For the first time in two years, the Knock Out Opioid Abuse Program, courtesy of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey (PDFNJ) and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (HBCBS), in collaboration with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA), has returned to deliver a powerful message to high school students in the area.
And late in August, current Harrison High School football coach, former Rutgers Scarlet Knight quarterback, and New York Jets/New England Patriots/Miami Dolphins player, Ray Lucas, delivered a key address. Lucas suffered numerous injuries and underwent more than a dozen operations while and after he was a player. After becoming dependent on prescribed opioids, Lucas sometimes took up to 1,400 pills monthly.
Recognizing the concern that teen athletes who get injured can also suffer the same type of addiction, PDFNJ, HBCBS, and the NJSIAA wants to stop the spread before it gets out of hand.
“The Partnership has developed a multi-pronged approach to educating young people in the state of New Jersey on the opioid epidemic,” Angelo Valente, PDFNJ Executive Director, says. “That approach includes events such as what we’re doing with Ray which we’ve just completed at Clifton High School: talking to student athletes who are very vulnerable, unfortunately, because they experience injuries, and as a result, may be in a position where they may be prescribed an opioid. We’re also delivering messages through various media outlets, including but not limited to signs on buses and trains and billboards, and messages on our social media platforms.”
Another part of the process, per Valente, is engaging young people in many of the PDFNJ’s school-based programs, allowing them to become more knowledgeable about the issue. “That’s also another part of the approach,” Valente adds. He also feels that, in addition to Lucas being representative of an esteemed group that had risen to the top ranks of professional sports and had fallen on hard times in addiction, Lucas’s presence is also emblematic of someone who, if he knew back then what he knows now, he would not have become dependent on opioids. “That is one of the reasons his presentation is so important. As a person who has gone through athletics on the high school, college, and professional levels, by speaking to athletes, he can easily relate to what they are experiencing on a day-to-day basis. When he delivers his message about looking at ways to deal with pain other than through opioids, speaking to your trainers, doctors, and coaches about alternative to using opioids to address any sports injuries, I think that’s most important.”
Lucas played for seven seasons in the National Football League, primarily as a quarterback. Two years after he left the NFL, he had major back surgery, and five years after that started to experience serious neck issues. He started to take pills regularly, and his addiction had begun. “I was in a very dark place,” Lucas says. “I don’t know if I’m a role model, but a survivor definitely. Again, I was in a very dark place.” He had also dropped from his playing weight of 215 pounds down to 164 pounds, and he was approached about telling his story. “That night I went home and prayed, and I heard a voice that asked, ‘How many others are suffering in silence like you?’ I didn’t know, but made the decision that, if I could tell my story, then maybe they (others) could get some kind of hope.”
For more information about the Partnership for a Drug Free New Jersey and its programs, visit www.drugfreenj.org.