Imagine, if you will, what it’s like to be an offensive lineman in the National Football League (NFL).
You line up in a state of catlike readiness, and the moment the quarterback snaps the ball, a wall of 300-pound behemoths comes plowing toward you. Your job—your only job—is to keep these monsters from getting past you for the crucial few seconds it takes the quarterback to throw or hand the ball off. Then do it 40 or 50 more times a game.
Now imagine doing it stoned. It’s not exactly the mellow experience most cannabis consumers enjoy. For former NFL offensive tackle Eben Britton, however, using cannabis was a way to combat the pain of the sport without the fistfuls of pharmaceuticals football doctors hand out like Halloween candy. He even consumed it before games a few times.
“I just had a much better experience. I felt much more in my body. The pills have a way of disconnecting you, making it really difficult to feel your feet on the ground,” recalled Britton, who played four years for the Jacksonville Jaguars and two for the Chicago Bears before retiring in 2014. “The connection of your nervous system and the brain-body connection as an offensive lineman is the most important thing. You have to be able to feel your feet on the ground when you’re blocking a defensive lineman, a 300-pound tank.”
“I felt that I was much more lucid, able to feel myself and to execute play after play in the best possible way.”
Most people think of professional football players like the Peyton Mannings and Brett Favres, superstars who might play for 15 years, bouncing back from injury to injury and winning Super Bowls. But the reality is the average NFL career is less than three years, as bodies break down and each new college draft class moves in.
Since retiring, 30-year-old Britton has become one of the foremost advocates for changes in a sport that tolerates opioid addiction, but has a strict ban on cannabis use. He spoke with CULTURE about the pain of football, the realities of playing in the trenches and how cannabis got him through it.
As a young athlete, what was it about playing in the NFL that inspired you to work so hard? I think it was about the gladiatorship, the physicality of the game, the glory of the game. It was very much this idea of living out a hero’s journey. Football players are modern gladiators. Unless you’re going into the military, you can’t get much more violent in sports than football, and for whatever reason I was just drawn to that. The game called to me, something about it, putting on the pads and helmet, the amour, so to speak, and being involved in this team game.
Had you smoked cannabis before becoming an athlete?
I came to the plant as a curious teenager, like most of us do, smoked weed a few times in high school and a little bit in college. But I was very much affected by the stigma, that if you’re going to be an athlete, you can’t be someone who smokes weed.
“I can live a very high quality of life, thanks in part to my cannabis use during my football career.”
Was there a time when the harsh reality of the sport hit you?
When I got into the NFL, I started experiencing injuries, and I started to see the injuries really started to shed light on the business of the game. I started to see that this wasn’t a team sport in a family atmosphere. This wasn’t the family I’d grown up loving, and I realized that the most important thing is obviously winning and from there having guys on the field who aren’t worried about getting hurt . . . One of the most real moments of my NFL career was right before my rookie year, with our offensive line coach we were doing a little rookie line meeting, and our offensive line coach said, “Guys, I don’t know how to put this to you any other way, but every single day we’re bringing guys off the street and we’re working them out to take your jobs.” And I thought, “Damn, that’s how it is.” That’s the mindset they want you in, to understand that at any moment someone is coming in to take your job.
“I think this plant could have a tremendous impact on the league, having guys take it before and after practices, before and after games. I think it can mitigate a ton of that damage that is happening to players’ brains. It would lessen the amount of opiates the guys use.”
Can you walk us through some of your injuries as a player?
I had a torn labrum, which is a dislocated shoulder. I had that repaired with a slap repair, which is a pretty typical shoulder surgery where they repair the labrum, and they have to pull back some muscles and tendons to tighten them up to hold the shoulder back in place. I herniated disc L side S1, had sciatica running down my leg, which was excruciating, causing numbness in my right foot . . . Eleven weeks after that surgery it turned out there was an infection in the disc; I was basically paralyzed from the waist down for about three months with an infection in that disc post-surgery. I had to have intravenous antibiotics for eight weeks. [I had] torn muscles and ligaments all over my body, rolled ankles, broken fingers, toes, a bad neck and a handful of concussions throughout my career.
I realized every time I took these pills, they created this discomfort in my body and my emotions, rage and anger came billowing to the surface. It was very hard to control those things. I felt really insane and manic mentally. It made it difficult to sleep and heal, waking up at 3 a.m. with withdrawal symptoms, cold sweats, chills, pains your stomach, your body needing more pills to quiet this withdrawal.
How did you discover cannabis as an alternative to the pills they were giving you?
When I started really experiencing these injuries and taking the pills, it was very clear to me that these things had a negative effect on me. Comparing that to the experience when I consumed some cannabis, it was night and day. It was the difference between feeling worse and feeling better . . . I could smoke a joint and feel relief throughout my body. I’d feel soothed mentally, calmed, even peaceful. I was able to lie down and rest and heal, and I feel very grateful that I had that intuitive response throughout my career.
“I came to the plant as a curious teenager, like most of us do, smoked weed a few times in high school, a little bit in college, but I was very much affected by the stigma, that if you’re going to be an athlete you can’t be someone who smokes weed.”
Cannabis is not allowed for players. How did you get around that?
As much as [the NFL] likes to punish guys seemingly unnecessarily for getting busted for cannabis, it’s only tested for once a year. It’s on their “street drugs” list. You have a general idea you’re going to be tested sometime between May and August and if you’re someone who is a cannabis consumer you stop your consumption 30 days before reporting back to the team.
Why do you think the NFL is so anti-cannabis?
I think they’re very traditionally-minded. There’s a lot of money from alcohol. God knows there’s probably a lot of money from “Big Pharma” going into the league. It’s easy for them to stand behind the argument, “As long as this is a Schedule I drug federally we don’t have to do anything.”
How much would cannabis help players deal with pain if it was allowed?
Football players are four times as likely than the average American to abuse opiates. Guys are leaving the league in really terrible shape, and they don’t have the understanding about what’s happening to their bodies to be able to make decisions regarding their health, about how to better take care of themselves. Many guys who have spent their entire lives affected by the stigma that this is an illegal street drug don’t have any understanding that, first of all, this thing is a powerful neuro-protectant . . . I think this plant could have a tremendous impact on the league, having guys take it before and after practices, before and after games. I think it can mitigate a ton of that damage that is happening to players’ brains. It would lessen the amount of opiates the guys use.
Was it your decision to retire after Chicago?
They didn’t re-sign me after the second year, but I had really hit a wall. It had become really clear to me that I was done. There was one point I was sitting in the meeting room watching film, and I said to myself, “What am I doing here at this point?” I had done everything I had to do in the game of football, and it was pretty clear to me I was ready to move on to something else.
Tell us about Athletes for CARE.
I got in touch with [former NFL player] Kyle Turley, and he had put together this Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, and they were speaking at cannabis conferences on panels. So I connected with him, and the next thing I knew I was speaking all over the country about my experiences with cannabis and dealing with injuries in my NFL career. I became very good friends with Nate Jackson, another former player who is also a cannabis advocate, and we wanted to keep building this message, making this our platform to spread this awareness. And what we came up with was Athletes for CARE, a nonprofit organization that’s really dedicated to helping athletes in their transition to real life from their sports careers.
You also have a podcast with Jackson called “Mindful Warrior.” What was the inspiration for that?
Nate and I, all these things we’ve been working on together, and the podcast is really the tool for us to allow other athletes to share their stories, to share how they’ve overcome adversity, what it took for them to make it to that highest level that they got to. What the transition out of that was like in reestablishing their own identity as people in the world.
You helped found a CBD company, Be Tr? Organics™. Can you tell me about that?
I wanted to continue this positive messaging on the healing benefits of hemp and CBD. CBD is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid that is also really medicinal, and we wanted to combine this powerful hemp extract with other super-ingredients, like arnica, rosemary and lavender in our topical pain cream, and our oral spray has ginseng and Goji berry extract, so it’s very uplifting. It’s great for your mood an managing inflammation . . . It’s just another way I wanted to continue building on this message that cannabis has amazing healing properties.
Do you still feel impacts and pain issues from your time playing in the NFL?
My back is really a daily reminder of my football career. I can’t turn my neck, my head, in a full range of motion. If I don’t exercise and stretch on a daily basis, I’ll be [disabled]. The stiffness and immobility there takes daily attention. I still can’t feel my right toes on the ground. My feet, it takes 30 minutes to an hour in the morning to where I can take a step. I have creaking and aching in my knees, phantom muscle pains, but I keep a pretty upbeat attitude. I was able to leave all the pills behind me. For the most part my brain and body are intact, and I can be a functioning husband to my wife and father to my daughter. I can live a very high quality of life, thanks in part to my cannabis use during my football career.
Any regrets about playing football?
No, I don’t have any regrets. I wouldn’t be who I am if I hadn’t done it. I learned a lot through my NFL career about human beings, about business, and obviously it took a toll on my physical and mental health that I’ll be battling for the rest of my life, but that was part of my journey. It’s led me to this greater calling of bringing awareness to natural healing remedies.