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I Wish I’d Never Become The NFL Weed Guy | Defector



My friend called to say he saw me on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel’s final episode. It was a retrospective of the best of the 29 years of the show and my story made the cut. What hard-hitting piece of journalism landed me that honor? What story brought Andrea Kremer and crew across the country to set up their equipment in the loft just outside my bedroom in my home in Colorado? Well—marijuana.

This is a story about weed. I am not going to call it cannabis. Not yet.

This house began as my happy place. I bought it during my third year in the NFL. It was quiet and tucked away, the front door hidden from the street, behind it a view of Cherry Creek State Park. Out in the world, I was Nate, the Denver Bronco. In the house, I could be Nathan—and Nathan liked smoking weed.

Like with many of us, before we grew up and donned our adult personas, there was a teenager named Nathan who liked getting high with his friends. This was back when cannabis was just weed and you didn’t get it from a budtender who told you that Blue Dream was a lot like your morning coffee. Nathan discovered weed before Blue Dream, thankfully. When it wasn’t an industry. When it was recreation.

It was still recreation after high school when I got cut from my college football team and went back, devastated, to my apartment. My friends knew what to do. They loaded a bong and handed me a controller and started up Mario Kart. The next year, I put down the bong and transferred to Menlo College, where I picked up a helmet and didn’t look back.

But in my very first game I cracked a rib on an overtime catch, and for the next few days, lay in bed, unable to breathe deeply or laugh. I had no access to pain pills then, so I took a little weed, and wouldn’t you know it, the pain wasn’t as bad. This wasn’t just recreation.

Later in the season, a few hours before kickoff, I emerged from my dorm room at the same time as one of my teammates who lived across the hall. He was followed by four more teammates and a cloud of smoke. Internally, I shook my head. Smoking weed before football wasn’t for me. I had done it once in high school, and had the worst practice of my life. It was embarrassing and I vowed never to do that again.

But there was an aspect of team-building associated with getting high with the fellas that I appreciated. The few times I smoked with my college teammates that year, on a day off or after a long practice, it brought us closer. It aided in the creation of special moments off the field, which is incredibly important. Moments make memories. And memories, when shared, form bonds. Dudes from different neighborhoods with different skin colors passed a blunt around and clicked into a frequency that stuck with us when we walked out of that dorm room or that Ford Explorer and went our separate ways. The next day in class or at practice, when we saw each other, there was a twinkle in our eyes. That twinkle made our team a little bit stronger.

But the goal for me was the NFL, and so I aligned my actions with that goal, and that meant staying sober for football. I rarely partook. But when I did, it felt right. I was the kind of kid who would have been given Ritalin had I been born 20 years later. Instead I just got in trouble a lot and played outside until I was tired enough to fall asleep. When I discovered weed as a teenager, I felt a leveling. It downshifted my racing brain, and, when I began to focus my attention on sports, allowed a sort of measured but lofty confidence that allowed me to believe in my vision.

For the first few years I was in the NFL, I rarely touched the stuff. I was terrified of getting caught and I ran in a weedless circle and had a girlfriend who didn’t smoke so it just wasn’t around much. When I got hurt, I took the pills handed out by team doctors—Percocet, Vicodin, Celebrex, Vioxx—like an obedient soldier. But as my career dragged on, and the allure of the NFL wore off, when I went home to the big empty house, Nathan would start talking to Nate. “You’re in pain,” he’d say. “And you don’t like the pills. They make you sad and sluggish. They make you constipated. You like pooping. Smoke this instead.” And I would, and it would help. As my body broke down and the injuries piled up—broken tibia, torn groin, torn MCL, separated shoulder, cracked rib, torn hamstring, concussion—I became more and more intimate with the healing process. 

By my fifth year in the NFL, I knew what worked for me, and what didn’t. In the fifth game of that season, I tore my groin off the bone with a violent THWAP! that felt like I had been electrocuted. Soon my groin turned black and swelled up like a watermelon. It was a gruesome injury in a troublesome spot, and I was put on injured reserve, ending my season. I was handed the requisite pills and began my rehab. But this time, knowing that my season was over and I could tinker with the process, I decided to do things my own way. For the week following the injury I took about half of the dosage of the anti-inflammatories and a quarter of the dosage of the opioids, and supplemented them with weed. The pain was manageable and the swelling went down. I only needed the quarter dosage of opioids for two days, and after one week on the anti-inflammatories, I stopped taking pills altogether, instead smoking a bit of weed at the end of the day when I got home from rehab. The speed of my recovery surprised me and my trainers, and with four weeks left in the season, I felt completely healed. The team doctor agreed. I was considered fit to play football.

The next season, in a Week 10 Thursday night match-up in Cleveland, I was nearly decapitated by Willie McGinest coming across the middle. I laid out for a ball, snagged it, and then the lights went out. I woke up on the turf to a roaring crowd. What are they roaring about, I wondered. Oh yeah, you. Our trainer was holding my neck still and telling me not to move. I knew my mom was at home watching, so I moved my legs around to let her know I wasn’t paralyzed. For the next few days I could barely move my neck and I had a pounding headache. But we had the weekend off, so I knew what to do. I stayed home and smoked weed by myself and by Monday my headaches were gone. I slipped my helmet on again and walked back into the tornado of hammers.

A few years later, when my career was over and I began to write about my football experience, these were among the things I wanted to share, so I put them in my book, Slow Getting Up. But it was hardly a major theme. Two paragraphs, really, stating that I preferred weed to pills after an acute injury and that the NFL would be wise to remove marijuana from its banned substances list. Don’t make a big deal about it; just stop punishing guys for it. The demands of the job prevent weed becoming a problem. And often it keeps players on the couch and out of trouble, instead of going to bars and being handed free shots then trying to figure out how to get home. Like I said, two paragraphs in a 270-page book.

But when the book was released, those two paragraphs got the most attention. Everyone seemed to want to talk to me about weed. I had a book to sell, so I obliged anyone who asked about it. And in the case of the weed itself, I was ignorant of how playing football changed the effect that the weed was having on me. Now retired, sitting alone in that house, day after day, smoking bowl after bowl without physical pain to lessen, it was no longer making me feel better.

Substance abuse is a trap waiting for any ex-athlete. The checks on your usage that existed when you were on a team—drug tests, itineraries, workouts, playbooks, paychecks, film sessions, intense competition, and simply just having something to do—all disappear. In an instant, you find yourself alone with nowhere to be, a laundry list of injuries, no doctors around to treat them, maybe some brain trauma, probably some depression, some money in the bank, and a propensity to medicate. There is a reason that ex-NFL players are four times more likely than the average American male to become addicted to opioids.

As Andrea Kremer sat across from me in the loft outside of my bedroom, the truth about opioids was the devil I wanted to undress, even if it meant putting the weed in its Sunday best. I had just finished telling Andrea about the McGinest hit, how I knew I had a concussion, and how I stayed home that whole weekend and smoked weed by myself, and how by Monday I was ready for more violence. 

“And this is where you smoked … marijuana?” She said, leaning in and motioning to my bedroom.

“Yes,” I said, defying every fiber of the reticent-stoner instinct I had honed over the previous 15 years. 

“And you think it helped you recover?”

“I do. I weeded as needed.” 

I was proud of this quip, and it made it onto the show. Like Gore Vidal once said, never pass up an offer to be on TV. But for a kid who had spent his life chasing one dream—the NFL—I had just officially lost the plot. 

I was the NFL Weed Guy.

My Real Sports episode aired the week before Super Bowl 48 in New York. I went out there to promote my book on Radio Row, where everyone is broadcasting simultaneously and trying to talk loud enough so that their voices are picked up by their competitors’ microphones. If it’s hard enough to tolerate the presence of A Radio Guy; imagine a thousand of them, all talking at once. But if you have something to promote, it’s the place to be, and I was excited to talk about my book. The writing of it. The idea that a former player could tell his story. The idea that a football journey could be different from Tom Brady’s or Peyton Manning’s. The idea that the arc of a football career is much broader than the one fans witness. I was eager to explain all this, and of course, sell some fucking books. But to my surprise—and, in truth, a little bit of dismay—everyone seemed to have seen the Real Sports piece, and it was all they wanted to talk about.

Late in the week, I was asked to appear on Alex Wagner’s MSNBC show, and of course I said yes. It was all very exciting: checking in at 30 Rock; sitting for hair and makeup; waiting in the green room, where a well-dressed woman informed me that I was in her seat. I wasn’t sure who she was, but she had the air of a very important person, someone who knew exactly where the Coke machine was. I cheerily moved over and awaited my handler, who soon arrived and brought me down a long hallway, through some brown doors and down another hall, where bright lights and strange faces ushered me to a tall desk, where a bearded dude attached my mic and pointed me to a chair. 

Try to sit up straight, I told myself, and don’t look at yourself in that monitor, try to focus on Alex. As the commercial break ended, she still hadn’t looked at me yet. Then the segment began and I understood why.

“People will call it the Stoner Bowl, the Bud Bowl and my personal favorite, the Super Doobie Bowl. This Super Bowl Sunday, the pot-punning will be in full effect as teams from the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana, Washington and Colorado, will face off against each other.” 

There was a full minute more of pot-punning, including positing how many fans would attempt to sync up the game action with Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. All the while, a graphic next to Alex Wagner’s head was a helmet with a marijuana leaf on it.

When it was finally time for me to talk, I did my best to rein it in. I steered the conversation toward pain management and brain trauma, but the twinkle in her eyes nullified my attempt. Not to mention I was pushing the words out through a throat made gravelly from the previous night, when my editors and I had used the substance in question in none of the ways I was describing. But the segment went well, I guess. A harmless wink-wink moment, for the hard-hitting news crowd to take a break from their regularly scheduled doomsday reports and fondly recall that one night in college when they got high and ate a whole pizza.

After the Super Doobie Bowl, I was asked to appear on CNN. A black car came and picked me up from a hotel in San Francisco at 3:30 a.m. to take me to a downtown studio for a 4:15 a.m. hit on live TV. I sat alone in a studio with an earpiece in, trying to wake up, listening to the producer and the host in my ear, but not seeing anything but a cold camera lens in front of me. When the segment began I didn’t know where to look. When I watched the segment later, I learned the first rule of talking-headism: Look at the camera.

Marijuana in the NFL was also a good topic for NPR, because the scourge of opioids was becoming a known American catastrophe. My intent, as the NFL Weed Guy, was always to discuss the more dangerous aspects of pain management: the deadly pills and the physical violence itself, both of which I thought were far worse than the weed. And what I had learned about TV news is that your viewpoint has already been vetted. You’ve been invited on to say the things you’ve said before—the things they want you to say again.

The next month, High Times magazine called and said they wanted to interview me. Look, ma, I made it! I agreed and met the writer/photographer, a guy named Dan Skye, at the Santa Monica City College football field. I was bearded and wearing a flannel and Chuck Taylors. As I parked my car and walked in, I asked myself a question I had been asking a lot lately: “What the fuck are you doing?”

Dan Skye was an affable fella with longish white hair and at least a hundred Grateful Dead shows under his belt. He handed me a joint, hoping I’d light up. I stuck it behind my ear and proceeded to strike various nonchalant poses on the sideline bench, trying to “act natural” but understanding, once again, that I had lost the plot. 

A few months later, Dan sent me several copies of that June 2014 edition. I opened the manilla envelope and pulled out the gold standard of marijuana culture. On the cover was the “Mount Kushmore” of weed-smoking rappers: Snoop Dogg, B-Real, Method Man, and Redman—all heroes of mine, no doubt. But none of them, I was pretty sure, were smoking weed to alleviate the pain of football injuries. And then there I was on page 100, gazing off into the distance with that joint behind my ear, a look of contemplation in my eye.

The next thing was a cannabis industry event for a “weed university” called Cloverleaf. I was asked to speak, and then be part of a panel discussion at a business expo. It was in the middle of the day in the middle of the week in an up-and-coming industrial area north of downtown Denver. When I checked in, I was struck by an unusual vibe. To me, weed was still something you got away with. But this crowd was making no such effort. Colorado had just passed sweeping recreational marijuana laws. The guard rails were down. Everything was green. Everything smelled green. And the place was populated by old dudes with ponytails and young, heavily tattooed ladies with firm handshakes and dark lipstick, all gathering to promote something that had until recently been a secret—for many a shameful one. And now the cat was out of the bag. And the cat was drawing up business plans.

I walked on stage and looked out into the crowd. Not stoners; I knew plenty of those back home. The way they were looking at me was unsettling. I am used to being looked at like a piece of meat: My first contact with NFL scouts was standing on a stage in my underwear. But this was different. There were calculations being made that had nothing to do with my height or my weight or the size of my hand. 

Certain phrases or anecdotes would perk up the audience more than others, and they’d start nodding along and smiling. Whereas the cable news folks had seen me as a circus act, these folks saw me as one of their own. One who was a little rough around the edges, but who could be a very valuable asset. So I gave them what they wanted, extolling the virtues of a plant I knew so well. One that had, for so long, been so good to me. One that, in my football life, had helped me deal with the realities of my profession. And one that, in recent years, was dragging me down.

There is such a thing as too much weed, and I knew it. But like a band whose least favorite song turns into their most requested, I was being conditioned to play the hits. I talked about the pain and the violence of the game. The pills. The injuries. The brain trauma. The surgeries. The healing process. The blood and the guts and the agony, and at the end of it, the soft landing of the marijuana.

After I got off the stage, there was a line of people waiting to talk to me, and all of them gave me business cards and told me they’d love to work together. On what? I wondered.

After the event, the organizer pulled me aside and told me that I did great, except for one thing: Don’t say weed. Say cannabis. “Weed” undermines the movement. Plays into the stigma. This is not about getting high. 

I nodded. I understood. Cannabis, not weed. Medicate, not get high. Consumed, not smoked. Compare it to Percocet and Vicodin, talk about pain, and there you have it.

Press coverage from the event hit the AP wire and USA Today, Fox Sports, ESPN,, Yahoo, and others all picked it up and ran with the headline: “Former Player Calls for NFL to Allow Marijuana.” There was no turning back. POT Radio, NORML, Culture Magazine, op-eds in the New York Times and the LA Times, Sports Illustrated, ESPN Magazine—everyone wanted to talk about weed—er, cannabis. 

Why? What was this really about? Did people really find cannabis that interesting? Everyone in America knows about it. What is it about this particular intersection—sports and weed—that was giving it life? 

Until this point, I was always the only athlete in the conversation, because they only ever needed one of us for the TV news segments. But there were others out there who had taken up the cause. Important to note that when I say “the cause,” I mean talking about it, not just doing it. There were plenty of guys who believed what I believed. Plenty of players who discovered what I discovered and who never got caught and had long, fruitful NFL careers. They just had no reason to mention it. But there were a few guys who did have a reason to mention it, and I was about to meet one.

The Cannabis World Conference and Business Expo took place on a sunny September day at the Los Angeles Convention Center. When I started smoking weed in the ‘90s, we’d meet a dude named Russ at Cherry Park under the cover of darkness, and he’d hand us a baggie and we’d pass him some cash and we’d walk away with our heads down and our hoods up. It wasn’t until we got back to Evan’s house and opened the bag that we’d see we got skimped and the weed looked like it had been lodged in a donkey’s ass for three weeks. Of course we smoked it anyway, and of course we called Russ again when the bag was empty.

So this L.A. convention was a culture shock that was hard for me to process. The hangar-sized room was full of rows and rows of booths with products I didn’t understand—products that were somehow related to that thing I used to get from Russ. CBD gummies, CBG oil, extraction machines, terpene profile charts, creams, salves, tinctures, sprays, lotions, vaporizers, grow equipment, fertilizer, high-tech light systems, powders, packaging companies, dispensary mapping technology, rolling paper companies, truffles, cooking oil, payment processing systems, legal services, licensing firms, marketing firms, automated pre-roll systems, vacuum sealers, cannabis industry consulting—on it went. 

From the convention floor, I made my way up to the second level where our panel discussion was happening, where for the first time I’d be sharing the stage with another ex-NFL player, Kyle Turley. Kyle was a former offensive lineman, a first-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints, perhaps most famous for ripping off an opponent’s helmet and chucking it about 50 yards down the field. He was, for a time, the fiercest and most recognizable badass lineman dude in the league: long blonde hair, tattoos, biker tough. When I met him that day in L.A., he had trouble walking and was using a cane to steady himself. It is a harrowing experience to see the former behemoths we idolized become shrunken shells of their superhero selves. Fans like watching the games; they don’t want to see what happens when the games end.

In what would come to be a common setup for these events, it was a panel discussion involving several cannabis industry insiders. Joining Kyle and myself onstage was Joel Stanley, CEO of CW Botanicals. CW was short for Charlotte’s Web, a strain of cannabis named for the little girl, Charlotte Figi, whose epileptic seizures had been drastically curtailed and whose quality of life somewhat restored after her parents moved to Colorado and gave their daughter CBD oil. 

I shared my origin story first. I found cannabis early, never got caught as an adult (I did get popped as a juvenile smoking weed in the Disneyland parking lot), never failed a drug test, never got punished by the NFL. Any sort of woe-is-me existentialism I was experiencing around being a solitary home-stoner was put into a different context when Kyle told his story.

Kyle hadn’t discovered cannabis until fairly recently. Never touched the stuff in high school, college, or the pros. Always believed that it was bad for him. Instead, he had managed his severe and frequent injuries with an alarming cocktail of pharmaceuticals that he matter-of-factly stated had made him suicidal and homicidal, to the point where he couldn’t be in the kitchen with his wife and kids because he was looking at the knives and worried about what he might do with them if he snapped. His steep cognitive decline was diagnosed as early-onset dementia and he’d become addicted to a dozen different pharmaceuticals, fighting daily bouts of dizziness, vertigo, and memory loss. In a last-ditch effort, Kyle tried cannabis, and almost immediately, things began to change for the better. That day in L.A., he was happy to report that he was off pills and no longer suicidal. Cannabis, Kyle said, saved his life.

And here I was, worried about taking too many bong rips.

Joel Stanley explained some of the powerful therapeutic results they were seeing from their CBD oil, specifically in treating seizures in epileptics. They had founded a non-profit that treated children whose parents had tried everything else, and who had taken the relatively drastic step of eschewing western medicine in favor of CBD oils that, in many cases, were illegal in their home states. Those parents moved their families to Colorado to have this access, as CBD oils were not only unavailable where they lived, but also illegal to ship across state lines.

The combination of the different voices enhanced the effect of the argument. This was the opposite of Mount Kushmore and High Times. This was the human experience of suffering and the ways in which pharmaceuticals had made it worse. The room came alive during the Q&A segment. Someone who called himself a doctor raised his hand and said that he owned 50 dispensaries and told us that there was no way the NFL would ever get on board with this. You are fighting a losing battle, he said. In the past, I might have agreed with him, but when I heard Kyle’s story, I thought that there might be something here. Kyle’s journey was not uncommon. I knew lots of guys with similar medical histories, and where were they now? Suffering in silence, alone in a dark room, dangling over the precipice. If there was a way to avoid that fate, wouldn’t the NFL be interested?

When we got off the stage, there was another line of people waiting to talk to us, and my pocket once again ended up filled up with business cards. “We’d love to work together,” they said again, and again I nodded and said, “That would be great!” even though I still didn’t know what they meant. Would we be selling weed? I didn’t want to sell weed. I wanted to sell books. I just knew that whatever this was, it felt good. 

From there it was a trip to Arizona for another expo, and this time there were four of us up on the stage—me, Kyle Turley, Eben Britton, and Ricky Williams, the most famous athlete-hyphen-stoner of all time.

I had never met Ricky before, nor did I understand his counterculture significance until we were walking around together at the event. Every 20 steps you’d hear: Ricky! Fans stopped him for photos and handshakes, and he happily obliged. Eventually, I kept walking and left him to the mob. Ricky was a bona fide weed celebrity. He was a Heisman Trophy winner and Pro Bowl running back who was kicked out of the league for smoking pot. I called myself the NFL Weed Guy as a joke, but Ricky really was him. He embraced it. He embodied it. The problem was, his story did nothing to change anyone’s mind. It was simply a fascinating parable about an incredible athlete who loved weed more than he loved his sport, and when given the choice between the two, chose the weed. But if this “movement” was going to gain any traction, it would require a more diverse range of voices. 

I’m not naive enough to believe that my whiteness didn’t contribute to the warm reception I received. It helped that I had never been punished for weed, and it helped that I understood the acceptable language around it. But America has a history of silencing black dissidents where it might let white ones speak. The players being caught and disciplined by the NFL for cannabis use were almost always black. And I knew that plenty of white players smoked. The common theme was pain and the need to manage it, and in a country that had begun to embrace medicinal cannabis, we had an opportunity to present a unified front that erased the color line in the same way the game of football often did. 

Eben Britton was also on the panel, a former offensive lineman fresh out of the league and looking for the next thing. He was a towering, tattooed teddy bear who moved and spoke almost in slow motion. He had smoked weed in the NFL, but he also took Adderall and ended up in the drug treatment program when his prescription ran out and he scrounged up some Ritalin instead. He understood the perils of pill addiction and the ravages of football on the human body and was ready to talk about it. He was an aspiring yogi who wore Tom’s of Maine and quoted Ram Dass, and seemed constantly on the verge of weeping. 

When Ricky took the microphone, his voice came out soft and shy, but steady and deliberate, clearly relishing the chance to tell his story in front of a receptive audience. The definition of preaching to the choir. He spoke in-depth about the stigma, about mental health in America, about how he got caught up after getting traded and not knowing when the drug test was, and then he veered into his time living in a tent in India and studying with gurus and learning astrology and accepting his calling as a healer and that is where I started to zone out. It’s also when I began to understand that just because we both smoke weed and we both played football didn’t mean we had much in common.

When Kyle began speaking, the crowd held its breath. His intensity and conviction were startling. You rarely hear someone state what they believe so vehemently: Cannabis saved my life. He rattled off the names of every pill he had been on. He talked about his injuries. His concussions. And then he mentioned a government patent on cannabinoids for the treatment of brain trauma, number 6,630,507. 

The idea that weed could be a treatment for brain trauma was something that we, as football players, all had an interest in. The sport we played, the sport we loved, the sport that now earns nearly $20 billion a year in revenue—had a brain trauma problem. Has a brain trauma problem.

There is a reason why they hand you a helmet your first day on the job. Your head is in danger. And since the discovery and publicity of CTE, there appeared to be very few therapeutic answers for it. Depending on whom you asked, the NFL’s concussion settlement, the “heads-up tackling” initiative, the concussion protocol, and various rule changes either made the game safer, or muddied the waters by only appearing to make the game safer. The fact remains that the most effective way to stop a large man in his tracks is to lead with your most dangerous weapon, which happens to be the helmet, and to hit him in his most vulnerable part: his head. That’s a reality that will never change on a football field, no matter how many fines or suspensions anybody hands out.

What was Kyle talking about when he mentioned “neuroprotection”? Is that what my friends in college were doing when they smoked weed before the game? And what about “neurogenesis”? Is that what I was doing in my bedroom the days following my concussion on Thursday Night Football? I wanted to find out. But there just wasn’t, and still isn’t, much data on it. Cannabis is still difficult to study for a variety of reasons: It’s federally illegal, only pro-cannabis groups want to study it, control groups are hard to create, the same “strain” can vary from grower to grower, dosages can be hard to regulate, and every human reacts differently to it.

There were a lot of questions that we wanted answered, and after a few more expos, it became clear that we had the momentum going to try to answer them. Beyond the brands that wanted us, doctors wanted to work with us, too. Scholars wanted to do research. Nonprofits wanted to partner. And the athlete group diversified, most notably with the additions of Riley Cote, Jake Plummer, and Jim McMahon. 

Riley was a former NHL enforcer. It is one thing to know you’ll have to go on the field and hit each other, but a whole different animal to know that you’ll be the one guy who has to go out there and fight. Bare knuckles. That was Riley, and to witness the control and precision with which he talked about his transition to cannabis and plant medicines, and the abyss over which the pills and alcohol had him teetering prior to this discovery, was to take him seriously. This was not a man seeking a spotlight.

Jake was reluctant to go all-in. It was one thing for Ricky Williams to throw his hat in the marijuana space—hell, it had been thrown in for him. He was defined by his marijuana use. Jake, on the other hand, was a marketable star who was never linked to weed and didn’t have any gnarly pill stories. Jake is just a nature-loving, anti-establishment, free-thinker type who, in his retirement, had rejected the totality of the apparatus, and the league’s draconian marijuana enforcement fell into that category. 

Jim was a superstar quarterback, famous for iconoclasm and for being pile-driven into the astroturf. He was dealing with a variety of cognitive issues and addicted to a cocktail of medications, and when he discovered the benefits of cannabis for him, he became the type of matter-of-fact, common-sense advocate that I believe moves the needle. But what was the needle? What were we actually trying to accomplish? Depended who you asked. We wanted to make a difference. We wanted the NFL to address its cannabis policy. We wanted to help our brothers. But we also wanted to make money.

No matter who the athlete was—Ricky, Eben, Kyle, Riley, Jake, Jim, Leonard Marshall, Marvin Washington, Darren McCarty, Cliff Robinson, Todd Herremans, Boo Williams, John Salley, Al Harrington, Frank Shamrock, Lance Johnstone, Bas Rutten—all of us had one thing in common: We were outsiders in an industry that looked at us as moneymaking opportunities. Whether it was to be an “ambassador” for a cannabis product or to help secure funding for research for universities and non-profits, they needed us more than we needed them, and we lacked the business sense to navigate this reality. So we went along for the ride.

Vegas, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, New York, Houston, Boston. (At Harvard. That one my mom was really proud of.) Green rooms and autographs and cocktail hours with vapes being passed around, more lines of more people wanting to slip us business cards. Montel Williams was heavy in the cannabis game, I learned, and was a frequent keynote speaker. Melissa Etheridge gave a keynote address too.

It was all very exciting, but the juxtaposition between the medical and the recreational became hard to square in my mind, like when we went to the High Times Medical Cannabis Cup in San Bernardino. It was called a medical event, but as we were paraded through the tailgate area, it became clear that it was just a big-ass weed party. Barely dressed cannabis vixens taking 10-foot bong rips while dancing on monster trucks. This is medicine? What the hell goes on at a Lipitor festival? I did not belong here. I was handed a joint. I hit it, then we were ushered onto a stage in a large barn and did our whole panel thing again, while blaring hip hop bled into the space, competing with the poor sound quality of my microphone. 

Away from the commercialism of the speeches and trips and panels, there was an effort to facilitate research and attain some sort of practical data that could be presented to the NFL and NHL to encourage them to address their retrograde marijuana policies. But to do this, we needed to get organized. This was the impetus for the creation of Athletes for CARE (A4C), a nonprofit that would, ideally, fund research and provide resources for current and former professional athletes. 

(Not all of the cannabis-advocate athletes were on board with A4C, for a variety of reasons. Some started their own foundations. Some didn’t trust our leadership. Some just didn’t care. Some wanted the credit to themselves. Soon there were competing cannabis-advocacy groups who were jockeying for position, trying to secure funding, clout, and press coverage, usually at each other’s expense.) 

Another reason to form a group was that we were being taken advantage of on the speaking circuit. It was a world we were unfamiliar with. We didn’t see anyone’s books. We didn’t know who was making what. We didn’t know what was fair or what to ask for; we were often doing these events for free. Though the auditoriums were packed and people were paying to get in, we weren’t seeing any of that money. An organizer would offer me a spot on the panel. If I asked for money, they’d tell me they’d get back to me and then they’d call the other canna-athletes until someone agreed to do it for free. A4C hoped to end that by creating a unified force. We deserved to be paid for our time.

In 2016, two active NFL players challenged the NFL’s marijuana policy: Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan and Ravens offensive lineman Eugene Monroe. Morgan joined A4C, but also, along with Monroe, became co-chair of the “NFL Steering Committee” for an organization called Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. DFCR was headed up by David Nathan, a Harvard doctor whose efforts became geared toward establishing himself as the go-to speaker when it came to this topic. They penned an open letter to the NFL imploring them to revisit their marijuana policy. I agreed to put my name on the letter, albeit reluctantly since I disagreed with some of the language in it, specifically the part that encouraged the NFL to treat cannabis like alcohol, and use the same policy they already had in place for alcohol violations to treat weed violations. I saw the coupling of those two substances as problematic, but all in all, it was a comprehensive and sensible declaration, so I signed it.  The letter got a small amount of publicity then quickly faded into the background of all of the other similar declarations. But the letter, I soon realized, wasn’t the point. It was the money-making opportunities that it could generate that were more important to DFCR, which began to place its athletes on panels around the country. I later found out that DFCR was collecting $10,000 for each ex-pro athlete they secured for an event. 

When I confronted them with this information and argued that the athletes should be paid, they said they had operational costs, and needed to pay the full-time salary of their executive director, Brian Muraresku. After I got one-two punched by Muraresku and Dr. Nathan, Eugene Monroe chimed in, admitting that he had funded DFCR with a substantial seed deposit and telling me I should accept the setup as it was and support it. In other words, even though he just got here, this was Eugene’s ballgame. He had invested too much of his own money—not just in DFCR but in many facets of the industry, including licensing, research, grow operations, and dispensaries—and I needed to fall in or back out.

I was sick of weed. Sick of smoking it. Sick of talking about it. Sick of listening to other people talking about it. Sick of the egos. Sick of the big plans that amounted to nothing. Sick of seeing cannabis everywhere I looked. I didn’t want to sell it. I didn’t want to grow it. I didn’t want to go to any more of these stupid fucking events. I had tinctures and salves and oils all over my house. Vaporizers in the package that would never be opened. Edibles dumped in bags and foisted upon me at events. Hats. Pins. Towels. T-shirts. Grinders. Lighters. Rolling papers. Pre-rolled joints by the handful. They were busting out of my every drawer and every backpack.

There are moments, when you reflect on a journey, at which you should have seen what was happening, and you didn’t. Around this time, I was contacted by a documentary filmmaker named Gary Cohen. Nice guy, maybe smoked a little weed in college, but 30 years my senior and probably called it “grass.” He flew to Denver and rented out an Airbnb that was “cannabis-friendly,” and he set up all of his cameras and lighting and sound and paid me $500 to smoke weed and let him film it. I needed the money, so I agreed. There I was, mic’d up, prominently placed on a high-backed chair between two large lights, lighting up a fatty. I had become a for-hire weed puppet. Pull my string, watch me toke.

What do people do nowadays when they want to have a conversation but they also want to control it? They start a podcast. Eben and I were both living in L.A., and we were both getting sick of the same old weed conversations, so we did just that. An old buddy of mine named Ged would produce it and it would be called—are you ready—The Mindful Warrior. Get it? We’ll kick your ass then go home and cry about how it hurt us more than it hurt you.

Our first handful of guests were from the cannabis world, but those dried up pretty quickly and tended to offer the same basic back-and-forth, so we started to branch out into fitness, nutrition, and therapy. I had some writers on, my editor, some medical folks I knew. Eben’s guests started running down a different, more mystic track. L.A. shamans and gurus that made me giggle inside, but Eben was riveted so I followed as best I could. Then one day, Eben called me with some exciting news. I wasn’t going to believe it. The craziest shit. Everything is aligning. Mike Tyson is starting a weed lifestyle brand called Tyson Ranch and he wants us to come to a holistic health summit and take part in an athlete panel to help launch it. It’d be followed that night by a party on a hotel rooftop. Eben’s old team doctor for the Jags would be on the panel and they wanted us to be on it, too, sitting in a circle with Mike Tyson and other cannabis-friendly athletes. Eben would moderate. 

Iron Mike. My mind immediately went back to 1989, sitting bleary-eyed on the carpet in front of our rabbit-eared television, NES controller in my hand, punching in the code on the home screen of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out so I could take another crack at the champ. It wasn’t easy. It took dedication. But eventually, I would learn to beat Mike, a matter of memorizing the timing of his punches and being patient with my own. Mike Tyson’s cultural significance to an American kid of that era is hard to overstate. He penetrated the veil of white suburbia further than all but a few black cultural figures in my lifetime. Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, and Mike Tyson. And now my athletic life, in its own weird way, would intersect with Tyson’s. 

On the day of the summit, I drove to El Segundo, where Tyson Ranch’s headquarters were, and walked into an industrial building teeming with heavy hitters. There was a buzz in the air, and it wasn’t just the weed this time.

This should have been an exciting day, but I was gripped by a sense of tension as I stepped into the building. My palms were so sweaty I had to wipe them on my pants right before I greeted someone, and still I’d see them wipe off their hand after shaking mine. There was something here that made me uncomfortable, and I would learn in the next few months what that feeling was—that feeling that made me look for the exits. It was the presence of the type of person that glommed onto Mike Tyson. Not Mike himself. He barely spoke three words that day. It was everyone around him. The leeches.

Eben started off the panel discussion by introducing the general premise: same shit we’d been talking about for four years now. I told my same old story, and the panel had the same old conversation. But the interesting part was watching Mike. He didn’t talk at all during the panel, and seemed like he was about to fall asleep. At the end he stood up and thanked everyone for being there, but he spoke so quietly I am sure most people in the room couldn’t hear him. He was in a near-catatonic state; it was obvious he’d been convinced by someone else to take this step into the world of cannabis. He didn’t seem to know anything about it, or care much about it either. He was here to make money off it, and to make other people money.

That night was the launch party at the Londoner in West Hollywood. They had the whole place rented out and we each had a room. Valeted the car. Checked in, dropped the bags, got cleaned up, and went up to the rooftop, the fanciest weed party I have ever seen. Open bars, tons of food, lo-fi hip hop, beautiful people, and joint-rolling stations with their own budtenders.

This was the top of weed mountain. We had clearly made it, whatever it was. You could smell the money; this was not a stoner crowd. This was show business. Tyson was nowhere to be found.

The next morning while I waited for the valet, I ran into one of the Tyson Ranch guys who was loading up a black car with merch. He told me to open my bag and he dropped in another few ounces of weed. Tyson Ranch: sleek packaging, killer marketing, a streamlined business plan, and movers and shakers to make it happen. But they didn’t just want to sell weed, they wanted to create weed-themed content. They wanted to start a podcast.

The next week, Mike’s people brought us in to talk about bringing our podcast to Tyson Ranch. We’ll build you a podcast studio, they said. Ged gave them a list of the equipment we’d need. We told them about our show and brainstormed about what we could do here. They said they wanted Mike to get into it, but they weren’t sure if he would be up for it, so they figured getting our pod going and producing it out of their headquarters would be a good start. We left ecstatic about the possibility. We were looking for funding. We had 50 shows banked; we were ready to take it to the next level. Shit really was aligning. We left on a cloud of optimism.

We halted the recording of our podcast while they built the studio. Ged was going over there to oversee the construction. Eben was hanging out there as a “consultant.” I was itching to get started and asked for updates. It kept getting delayed, and when we tried to get together to work on a new pod, our schedules kept conflicting. I left for Virginia to get married, then went straight to my honeymoon. When I returned, about a month later, Ged and Eben said they had something to tell me. While I was gone, they had gone to Tyson Ranch and recorded a few podcasts with Mike. The next week, their new podcast launched: Hotboxin’ with Mike Tyson. Eben was Mike’s co-host. Ged was the producer.

Although they assured me that the plan was to continue with our podcast, too, it soon became apparent that this would not be the case. I watched from afar as episode after episode was released, featuring true icons of sport and hip-hop culture, running the same playbook as The Mindful Warrior. Dudes I grew up watching and listening to. Music I knew by heart. Actors whose movies informed my childhood. Everyone drawn by the allure of Mike Tyson. 

After a few months, I stopped hearing from Eben and Ged. I haven’t seen or spoken with either of them since.

I liked it better when cannabis was just weed.

The only one I’ve kept in contact with has been Jake Plummer. He was my football teammate before he was my cannabis teammate, and one bond was clearly stronger than the other. He has since started his own mushroom company called Umbo, and has stayed in touch with a lot of the cannabis folks. The game goes on. People still smoke weed. Athletes start cannabis brands. A few are profitable; most go belly-up. Ricky Williams started “Highsman.” Kyle Turley and Jim McMahon started “Revenant.” Tyson Ranch is still the gold standard.

A few years ago, the NFL changed its cannabis policy. They now have a much higher threshold for cannabis in the bloodstream, they’ve shrunk the testing window to two weeks, and they no longer punish guys who test positive; they offer them treatment instead. It’s almost exactly what I suggested 10 years ago in my book. Did it make me feel good to see it finally happen? Yes and no. Yes, because it was the right thing to do. Players who make it to the NFL should not have their dream derailed because they chose to smoke weed, a substance that most of America now sees as harmless and for which most police officers won’t waste their time writing tickets. Like I said, the demands of the job are the deterrent to becoming a loser stoner. If you smoke too much weed, then it will affect your performance and that’ll be why you get cut.

But part of me can’t help seeing a darker side. To folks in the cannabis industry, there is no such thing as too much weed. To me, not only is that false, it is dangerous. The NFL’s tight restrictions were never a problem for me, and forced, in my opinion, a more careful approach to consumption. For a pro athlete, a little bit of weed goes a long way, and they need to know that.

And in addition to the relaxed restrictions, the politics of collective bargaining allowed the NFL to use cannabis acceptance as a bargaining chip, to force union concessions in other areas. Go ahead and smoke your weed, they said; now give us our 17-game season and let’s take comprehensive, post-career health coverage off the table. You win some, you lose some.

To address that post-career healthcare gap, Kyle Turley and Jim McMahon got involved with a charity called Gridiron Greats, which aids retired NFL players in financial distress. For this year’s Super Bowl, they hosted a golf tournament in Vegas. Jake encouraged me to come, so I did. They flew us out and put us up in a cannabis-friendly hotel called the Lexi. I was put on the smoking floor, room number 420R.

The next day, right before the shotgun start at the tournament, as I scrambled to my cart holding a boxed lunch and a fresh sleeve of golf balls I was ready to lose, I ran into Kyle. He was standing outside of the pro shop with his wife, surrounded by well-wishers. I hadn’t seen him in probably five or six years. He looks younger now, happier. No cane, no limp, a man with a purpose. He asked where I’d been. I told him I’d gotten married, had a kid, and left L.A. I told him I was proud of him for everything he had done. He thanked me for being there and gave me a hug, and then I rushed off and joined my foursome. It was two ex-MLB guys plus Steve Bono. Greg Maddux was right behind us ripping darts all day. I didn’t see anyone smoking any weed.

When Kyle spoke at the banquet, he talked about the work they were doing to help former players who needed medical interventions, surgeries, and help paying their bills. He didn’t mention cannabis at all. He talked about the brotherhood and looking out for each other. This, I thought, is what it was supposed to be about all along.

After the banquet I walked through the lobby of the hotel, past booths and signs for the plant medicine expo taking place the next day called “BloomCon.” When the elevator let me off on my floor, a smell of marijuana hit me in the face. I waded through it to my room and keyed in, falling onto the bed, exhausted. The ashtray sat next to my bed, unused.

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