By Jennifer Vazquez
A panel of retired professional athletes took part in a forum this past Wednesday, Sept. 19, at The Brownstone. The event was in an effort to raise awareness for health issues that athletes, at any level –from youngsters to retired professionals –deal with as a result of playing the sport that they so much love.
The night focused on the development and ongoing expansion of a pro bono concussion treatment for retired athletes and to introduce a new education program relating to concussions in sports for young school athletes, including those still in high school. Concussion prevention and information has seen a rise in interest given the recent controversy surrounding former players who are suing the National Football League proclaiming that the NFL knew well the dangers of the game in terms of concussions but either mislead or did not efficiently or correctly inform the players of such harm.
The retired athletes that participated in the event ranged most professional sports, including football and basketball. These athletes are patients of the P.A.S.T. Retired Athletes Medical Group of New Jersey –”a medical organization that has provided $4 million in medical to retired athletes and others who support the organization,” according to a press release.
Some of the athletes that took center stage and shared their personal experiences were former running back for the Kansas City Chiefs Christian Okoye and Harrison’s own Ray Lucas, who went on to play collegiate football at Rutgers and was later an NFL quarterback, some of the athletes present, candidly sharing his heart wrenching personal journeys.
During his testimonial, Lucas, honestly and openly, shared his ongoing struggles –neck and nerve injuries during his quarterback career which subsequently brought on a dependency on prescription pain medication and street drugs. His relationship with drugs started as a result of self-medicating himself to alleviate the chronic pain he was in day after day.
“I was up to 450 pills a day,” he said. “I’m not joking, this was what my life had become.”
Many might wonder why former professional athletes may need pro bono treatment –after all, many had lucrative, money-earning careers.
“After five years of retirement, I lost my insurance,” he explained. “With pre-existing issues, no (insurance company) wanted to insure me.”
While many are not insured, others are under-insured. In any case, the need for assistance is ever present for these former athletes.
With non-stop excruciating pain, an addiction to painkillers and a mounting pile of medical debt, Lucas was at a crossroads where he saw suicide as an only option.
However, a change of heart –mostly the image of his young daughters being raised without a father and leaving his wife alone– led him to seek help, ultimately coming across P.A.S.T.
Okoye’s experience was a bit different. After all the hits the former running back endured on the field, his body started showing the effects of the brutal plays.
“I went to (P.A.S.T.) because I couldn’t feel my palms,” he said. “I said, ‘What’s going on?’ but P.A.S.T. took care of me. They saved my life.”
Indeed they did. They informed him of the fact that if he, so much just fell, he would become paralyzed. They immediately treated his condition.
Okoye poignantly asked: “Could you imagine just, so much as tripping, and you could end up paralyzed?”
Though the event mostly focused on the work P.A.S.T. has done with college and retired athletes –the topic of concussion education came up. P.A.S.T., as well as Lucas, are dedicated to bringing awareness of this specific medical situation to young athletes, particularly those in high schools.
Lucas is not only involved in going to schools and helping students understand concussions but he is also now a mentor, one might say, guiding individuals and holding group meetings in P.A.S.T. who are experiencing what he once experienced with drug dependency and the hardships of chronic pain and injuries.
He is also a voice for retired players, not afraid to showcase his disdain with not only the league but the National Football League Players Association for not doing more to help athletes, both current, but in particular, retired, who are facing consequences due to injuries that were sustained while playing the game.
Special guests also pointed out that P.A.S.T. is not limited to only evaluating and treating retired players’ with their existing pain and medical conditions, but they also have a complete preventative aspect as well, such as colon cancer screening, colonoscopies and cardio metabolic programs among many others.
The night also brought quite a few clips from upcoming documentaries focused on P.A.S.T.’s cause and the life and tribulations of some of the athletes that are dealing with health and substance abuse issues, including a clip from a documentary produced by Lucas.
P.A.S.T. is head quartered in Clifton with medical department heads located in both New Jersey and New York.