He was dying. Even in the drug-induced stupor that had taken control of his life, Randy Grimes knew that much. Even worse, the thought of death no longer bothered him.
His skin was ashen, almost gray. His weight was down. As usual, the drugs were in control. Grimes no longer resembled the athlete who played center for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for almost 10 years.
In his most lucid moments, Grimes knew what the pills were doing to him. One of these nights, an overdose was going to get him. One of these days, he wasn't going come out of one of those seizures he had begun to suffer. It was Sept. 22, 2009, and Grimes was down to his last chance.
That's why he was here, why he had flown Air Vicodin to Florida. There was nowhere else to go. His job was gone. His house was gone. His reputation was gone. Soon, his family would be gone.
Grimes stood in the bathroom of the Fort Lauderdale airport. He had flown from Houston, numbed again by the pills that had become his comfort and his curse. He had come to turn loose of them, but not yet.
He twisted the cap off of the bottle again. He shook the last of his pills, 15 or so, into his mouth and swallowed them all at once, the way he had for almost two decades.
Grimes had taken another 15 or so before he boarded the plane in Houston. The pills no longer left him with a buzz, the way they had in the beginning. Now, they merely numbed him so he could endure the pain in his knees, in his back, in his neck.
By the time the town car pulled into the driveway of the Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches detox center, Grimes was out of it.
He opened the door, and he tumbled out of the car and onto the paved driveway. Slowly, he began to crawl on all fours toward the front door. His addiction had beaten him down to his hands and knees.
For Grimes, there was barely enough left to struggle in the general direction of miracle.
This is the story of one man's tragedy, one man's descent, one man's journey from pain to pills and beyond. These are his recollections, raw and ugly, of the addiction that almost took everything.
During Grimes' decade with the Bucs, the combination to the drug safe back in the trainer's room never changed. It was 33-78-52, the jersey numbers of defensive starters Mark Cotney, John Cannon and Scot Brantley. Everyone, he says, knew it.
Need some pills? Just take them. No one wrote anything down, and no one looked twice. You just dipped your palm into the jumbo jar of little white pills, and you took what you wanted. It was, Grimes said, as easy as picking up a roll of tape.
Someone knew. Someone had to refill the pills when they got low. Someone had to notice how fast they were going. But in 10 years, from 1983-92, as Grimes crossed into addiction, no one ever said a word to him about how many pills he swallowed.
"I wasn't the only one doing it," said Grimes, who is now in training to be a recovery coach at the Behavioral Center. "I know that's the addict in me talking and wanting to bring others down with me, but I wasn't the only one opening that safe before I went home."
Over the years, the easy access to the narcotics seems to have claimed its victims. In 2008, former teammate Tom McHale died from an overdose. From conversations Grimes has had, he also believes they were at least a contributing factor in the death of Ron Hall, another teammate, back in 2007.
"Did we have a pain pill problem?" Grimes said. "Yes. Was it different than other teams? Probably not."
(Cotney and Brantley say they were unaware of a drug problem during their playing days. Both say they did not know their jersey numbers were used in the combination. "A couple of Bud Lights, and I was good to go,'' Cotney said. "I'm not saying it didn't go on, but I wasn't aware of players raiding the drug safe.'')
These days, it is more difficult for a Bucs player who requires pain medication. Prescription drugs are no longer stored at the team facility.
"It's just like anyone else getting a prescription in this country,'' said general manager Mark Dominik. "You have to see a doctor, and you have to get a prescription. The only difference is that instead of going to CVS, the prescription is delivered to One Buc Place.''
In his day, Grimes didn't have a problem finding pills. In many ways, the NFL is about pain, about absorbing it, about enduring it, about making sure it does not keep you off the field. There is always a pressure to perform.
When he first came to the Bucs, a wide-eyed, eager kid from Baylor, Grimes said he knew almost nothing about pain medication. It was his third year or so, he remembers, that he first began to use them regularly. At first, he used them in the proper dosage, a couple of Vicodin every six hours. Then he would take a Halcion to help him sleep.
As his pain grew worse — knees, his back, his neck — the more medication he needed. He began to take 10 a day, then 20. At his worst point, Grimes remembers, he was up to 50 a day.
"The injuries were the reason I started taking them, and the injuries were the excuse I used to keep taking them," Grimes said.
It was a difficult time to be a Buc. When Grimes arrived in 1983, a second-round draft pick, the franchise showed promise. It had made three of the previous four playoffs, and John McKay was the coach, and Lee Roy Selmon was still on the defensive line, and Doug Williams was still the quarterback.
Soon, all of them were gone, and success left with them. In the 10 years Grimes played for the Bucs, the team lost 117 games. Grimes would spend his Sundays banging helmets against the most imposing defensive linemen in the game, Keith Millard and Reggie White and Dan Hampton and the rest. Grimes was good enough to be a two-time alternate to the Pro Bowl, but not to stop the losing.
"We were like wildebeests on the NFL's Serengeti," Grimes said. "We were food for other teams to fatten up their won-lost record. The best record we ever had when I was there was 6-10. That's pitiful. You can only say the checks didn't bounce for so long. Everyone has some pride."
In 10 years, Grimes had five head coaches, five offensive line coaches and 11 starting quarterbacks. The only constant was chaos.
"I would have preferred Super Bowls, maybe Pro Bowls. But I played 10 years, and I played with some great people,'' Grimes said. "I loved Tampa. Even through all of this, I don't know what I would change."
The longer Grimes' career went on, however, the deeper the dependency. He would come home, take his pills and crash. Finally, his wife, Lydia, said something.
"She knew," Grimes said. "It was more with the sleeping pills, though. I would lie in bed and just throb, aching because I couldn't go to sleep. I wasn't being a husband, I wasn't being a father, I wasn't being a companion."
The downward spiral was worse every year, but it was not until his career was over that Grimes really hit bottom.
It was 1992, and although Grimes had been out with a torn triceps the previous year, he felt like he had plenty left. With three weeks left to play, however, then-coach Sam Wyche approached Grimes at his locker in the corner of the old One Buc Place.
"Your services will not be required next year," Grimes remembers Wyche telling him.
"I didn't take that well," Grimes said. "I thought I was going to be the first guy to play until I was 100. Instead, I just packed all my stuff in a big black garbage bag and walked out the door. I certainly didn't think they were going to name a freeway after me. But a handshake, a slap on the back, would have been nice."
Grimes had a tryout with the Oilers, but that didn't take, either. His career was over. His addiction was not.
Suddenly, there was no easy access for Grimes. He went doctor shopping, then pharmacy shopping, doing what he could, paying what he had, to get his pills. At his lowest point, Grimes says he was spending as much as $400 a week on his habit, taking as many as 600 pills a month.
He tried detox "a couple of times'' without success. He tried to quit, but then the seizures began. Once, he turned off his car and had a seizure in his driveway. If it had come a minute earlier, he could have driven into someone. Another time, he had a seizure just after getting out of the pool. A minute earlier, and he might have drown.
"You could have died in your sleep," Alan Stevens, the CEO of Behavioral Health, tells Grimes. "You cheated death every way you could cheat death."
It was coming. McHale's death hit Grimes hard, especially knowing it could have been him. He and Lydia separated. He lost his job in construction when he began to nod off at meetings.
"I was in such a dark place," Grimes said. "I can't even describe the pit I was in. I was ready to check in. If my next handful of pills does not last, I was fine with that. I won't say the word, but I was done living. That's the place this disease takes you. When I fell out of that car, all I had was one shot. If it didn't work, I wasn't going to make it."
These days, Grimes fills the halls of Behavioral Health with life. He is 51 now, a grandfather of three, but he still looks like he could play a series or two.
Two years later, Grimes still thinks of the facility as holy ground. Perhaps he always will.
His life is simple these days. Grimes lives in a one-bedroom apartment not far from the facility. Here, he has found a purpose, and here, he has saved his life. Now, what he wants is to save the lives of others. This is better than football, he will tell you. Better than touchdowns. Better than anything.
"This is so much more rewarding," Grimes said. "I get to see them leave, and it's like they have life back in their faces. I know they've figured it out. I get to see the same miracle that happened to me."
Most patients stay in detox for 5-7 days. Grimes stayed for three weeks.
It was in his second week, Grimes said, when he had his "burning bush" moment. It was 8:45 a.m, and Grimes still wanted nothing more than to throw pills down his throat. He sat on a patio, writing down his thoughts, weeping openly.
"It was like someone came up and draped a warm quilt across my shoulders," Grimes said. "I still remember the weight. I had a spiritual moment right under that freaking patio."
In that moment, Grimes said he figured it out. He wanted to help. Over the last eight years, pain pill addiction has risen by 400 percent. A recent study at Washington University in St. Louis, co-funded by ESPN and the National Institute of Drug Abuse, said that retired NFL players were at four times the risk of addiction as the general population.
Former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, who played mostly for Green Bay, has spoken about his pain pill addiction. Sweetness, a recent book, suggests the same was true of former Chicago running back Walter Payton. Other former NFL players who have struggled with pain medication include Kyle Turley (who played for three teams), Ryan Leaf (who played mainly with the Chargers) and Dan Johnson, the old Dolphin tight end. In 2010, a former Saints security officer sued the team after a theft of Vicodin; reports suggested that some of those pills were for coach Sean Payton. Payton denied it.
Given the size of the problem, what does a recovery coach do? What do you need?
There was a patient who struggled through the night. So Grimes dragged a second twin bed into his room, and for a week, he slept there.
Another time, Grimes had to bring back a patient from Philadelphia. But the would-be patient slipped a syringe through security, and shot up in his neck in the men's room. Grimes cleaned up the blood and took out one of his shirts for his companion.
He does interventions. He talks to former NFL players who need help. He has talked to players just out of the game who tell him the problems continue.
Also, he talks. He opens his scars and revisits the bad times in the hope that someone will hear, someone will read, someone will get help. (The phone number for Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches is 1-800-251-9445.)
"If you get to this point, you don't have a lot of options left,'' Grimes said. "It's death, or it's jail or it's a mental institution. Those are the choices, and you don't have a lot of time."
Still, Grimes says survival is possible. He managed. The relationships he damaged have begun to mend. The life he squandered has been reclaimed. To Grimes, it feels a lot like winning.
After all this time, it seems, Grimes is finally on the right team.