TOMS RIVER – It’s hard to silence a thousand teenagers, but when Ray Lucas started explaining how he planned his suicide, you could hear a pin drop inside Pine Belt Arena.
“I had a plan,” he said. “I jump in my truck, I go to the George Washington Bridge, and that’s where I’m going to do it — I’m going to drive over the side of that bridge.”
The former New York Jets and Rutgers University quarterback told his incredible story of pain, addiction and recovery Thursday to a rapt audience as the keynote speaker of “Playing it Clean,” a forum for student-athletes sponsored by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.
Doctors intervened to save Lucas before he made that fatal drive, and now he preaches the perils of the pill to whoever will listen.
“Before you make that mistake of taking the first one, think about me, think about what I’ve been through,” he said. “I lost everything.”
The story has been well-documented, but it still amazes. Nine post-football surgeries, six on his knees and three on his neck, left Lucas in constant agony and reliant on painkillers.
“I was taking 80 pills a day, pills that would kill 10 of you right now,” he told the assembled.
His weight ballooned to 310 pounds. He would spasm so badly, he once inadvertently punched an elderly woman in the chest on a train. His wife came home one night to find him staring at the walls—he was watching the reflection of a TV show in a mirror, thinking it was the real thing.
Lucas lost his home and had to move his family to a dangerous neighborhood in Newark. He had just about bottomed out when the medical group PAST — Pain Alternatives, Solutions & Treatments — took his case free of charge. They slowly pulled him from the abyss.
“I had no insurance,” he said. “You don’t get insurance after five years (out of) the NFL. Funny thing happens though, 5-7 years is when your body starts to break down.”
Afterward I asked Lucas, who is now a broadcaster for SNY, if he is at peace with the league.
“I’m not mad at the game, but what happens to players after (their career) is where the concern lies,” he said. “If you play a certain amount of years, you should have insurance for the rest of your life. It shouldn’t even be a thought. We’re talking about a $20 billion machine.”
It’s hard to argue. More than a few aching ex-players have completed their own version of the drive off the bridge.
“I’m going to be in pain for the rest of my life. That’s just the way it is,” Lucas told me. “I’m trying to lose weight so my knees don’t hurt and my back doesn’t hurt as much. But every day I take a friggin’ breath is a great day.”
He’s making the most of those days. When former New York Giants running back Keith Elias, a good friend, asked him to speak at this event, Lucas signed on right away. Afterward, he chatted with every last kid who waited in line for him, posing for pictures, signing autographs and dispensing more hard-earned wisdom.
“I want to reach young minds so they don’t have to go through what I went through, so they can see the reality,” he said. “It’s an epidemic. If I can tell my story to where I can scare them to death, so be it.”
You could tell, by the silence, that they were listening.
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