Playing in the NFL is an extraordinarily lucrative way to earn a living. In fact, the league’s median annual salary is $2.1 million and the average length of a player’s career is 3.3 years. Still, despite such an affluent livelihood, football is a notoriously dangerous sport that poses countless drawbacks. The league’s performers constantly face injuries and many develop repetitive brain trauma from jarring hits. Understandably, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been among the most discussed sports topics this year.
As summarized by Michael McCann of Sports Illustrated on August 15, “The study (published in the Journal of American Medicine) detected CTE at distressingly prevalent levels. Of the 202 brains analyzed, 177 (88%) showed CTE. Of particular concern, 48 of the 53 college players’ brains (91%) and 110 of the 111 (99%) NFL players’ brains exhibited CTE.”
Former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested and charged in June 2013 for shooting to death Odin Lloyd. For the Lloyd execution, Hernandez was found guilty of first-degree murder in April 2015 and sentenced to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts. Hernandez hanged himself in his prison cell on April 19 at the age of 27.
On November 9, researchers at Boston University revealed that “Aaron Hernandez suffered the most severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy ever discovered in a person his age, damage that would have significantly affected his decision-making, judgment and cognition.”
This neurodegenerative disease is associated with depression, apathy, emotional instability, suicidal thoughts and many other symptoms. Because contusions and lacerations are commonplace on the gridiron, many players use opioids to cope with pain. Whether due to CTE, substance abuse, a combination of both or some other issue, these 15 NFL players descended into a dark place.
15 BRETT FAVRE
Iconic quarterback Brett Favre was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August 2016. However, Favre’s journey to Canton wasn’t easy. Five years after getting drafted by the Atlanta Falcons 33rd overall in 1991, Favre entered a drug treatment facility in May 1996 to treat his addiction to prescription painkillers. The gunslinger was so reliant on pills that, if he regurgitated, the tablets would be retrieved, cleaned and consumed again.
“I took 15 Vicodin at one time,” Favre said.
“I’d hit rock bottom and I said, ‘I’m going to flush these down the toilet.’ I remember when I poured them in the toilet and it started to flush, I almost crawled into the toilet to go after them because I thought, ‘What in the world did you do?’ I was so dependent on them. I just went cold turkey. That was the worst month. I shook every night, cold sweats, it was a constant battle.”
Favre overcame his habit and proceeded to lead the Green Bay Packers to a victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI in January 1997.
14 TITUS YOUNG
Allegedly because of a severe mental disorder, former Detroit Lions wide receiver Titus Young periodically terrorized residents of Los Angeles for nearly four years. Within a five-day span in May 2013, Young was arrested for DUI, attempting to steal his impounded car from a tow yard, burglary, resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.
"We knew that something had happened to him or he was locked up again," said Titus’ father, Richard Young.
"His mind is not capable enough to go out and deal with society because of this situation. I hope they just forgive Titus because this ain't none of Titus; it wasn't none of his fault. I look at my son right now, I don't see my son. That's not my son. I know my son."
Young was hospitalized on a few occasions due to his erratic behavior. Alas, while freely roaming Tinseltown’s streets, Young was arrested on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and felony battery following a street fight in January 2016. The 28-year-old Young is currently serving four years in prison for his crimes.
13 LAWRENCE TAYLOR
Lawrence Taylor is arguably the premier defensive force in the annals of the NFL. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Taylor, who the New York Giants took out of North Carolina with the second choice in 1981, is also one of the most controversial figures in league history. Taylor immediately embraced the swamps of Jersey and was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1981. The badass Virginian, a 10-time first-team All-Pro and 1986 Most Valuable Player award winner, revolutionized the linebacker position and was enshrined into the NFL Hall of Fame in August 1999. In spite of his vast achievements, L.T. battled substance abuse and legal issues from the moment that he arrived in the Big Apple.
"I saw coke as the only bright spot in my future," Taylor told 60 Minutes, in 2004. “I had gotten really bad. I mean my place was almost like a crack house, not where you sold it, but I had a lot of stuff in my house.”
In May 2010, Taylor was arrested and charged with third-degree rape for allegedly having sexual relations with a 16-year-old girl. Taylor avoided jail time by pleading guilty to two misdemeanor offenses.
12 VINCE YOUNG
Vince Young is possibly one of the most decorated quarterbacks in the annals of college football. Five months after willing the University of Texas to the BCS national championship in January 2006, the Tennessee Titans drafted the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Young with the third overall pick. Young initially flourished as a Titan and earned NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2006. Regrettably, the Longhorns’ legend couldn’t handle criticism and he began to mentally unravel. In September 2008, Young’s therapist told former Titans coach Jeff Fisher that the signal-caller mentioned suicide several times before departing his home with a firearm. Fisher subsequently contacted the authorities to locate Young.
"I asked [Fisher], 'What made her worry about him?'" Lt. Andrea Swisher wrote. "He stated, 'His mood, his emotions, he wants to quit, and he mentioned suicide several times.' He went on to state that [Young] left the house with a gun."
Young vehemently denied that he was ever a danger to himself. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to fathom that a mental health professional would fabricate such a story. Young, who became a journeyman in the NFL, was cut by the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League in February. The 34-year-old Young is currently unemployed.
11 JOHNNY MANZIEL
Johnny Manziel is one of the most polarizing, troublesome and frustrating figures NFL history. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound Manziel was an unstoppable quarterback in Kevin Sumlin’s Air Raid attack at Texas A&M. “Johnny Football” was dominant from the outset and he became the first freshman to collect the Heisman Trophy award in December 2012. The diminutive Texan returned to College Station in 2013 and he continued to excel under center for the Aggies. Roughly four months after Manziel decided to forgo his junior season, the hard partier was selected by the Cleveland Browns with the 22nd choice in the 2014 draft.
Mainly due to substance abuse, irresponsibility and a comical sense of entitlement, Manziel was an unmitigated disaster in Cleveland and he was fired by the organization in March 2016. Roughly three months later, Manziel’s father, Paul Manziel, said that he feared for his son’s welfare.
"He's a druggie. It's not a secret that he's a druggie," Paul Manziel said.
"I don't know what to say other than my son is a druggie and he needs help. He just hasn't [sought] it yet. Hopefully he doesn't die before he comes to his senses. He's either going to die, or he's going to figure out that he needs help. It's one of the two. I hate to say it, but I hope he goes to jail. I mean, that would be the best place for him."
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League have mulled signing the 25-year-old Manziel.
10 RYAN LEAF
The San Diego Chargers chose quarterback Ryan Leaf out of Washington State second overall in 1998. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Leaf was abysmal on the gridiron, boorish off the field and is frequently deemed the league’s most infamous bust. The Chargers released the 1997 first-team All-American in March 2001 following three disastrous seasons in America’s Finest City. Leaf briefly cashed paychecks as a member of the Tampa Bay Bucs, Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks before retiring at the age of 26 in July 2002. Leaf, who served two years in prison for a string of drug-related burglaries, has been sober for four years and he works as a program ambassador for a recovery community center.
“(Before the NFL) I had never taken a drug in my life, other than Vicodin after surgeries, but I behaved the same way that addicts do every day. I was manipulative, narcissistic, deceitful, a thief,” said Leaf, 41, who once unsuccessfully attempted to take his own life.
“I just had zero perspective on what was important. Not only that, I was a bad person.”
9 TERRELL OWENS
Wide receiver Terrell Owens, a six-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-team All-Pro selection, compiled 1,078 receptions for 15,934 yards and 153 touchdowns as an employee of five NFL franchises. His dominance on the field notwithstanding, Owens is an obnoxious, egotistical, uncaring and unlikable man. Four days after essentially getting axed by the Philadelphia Eagles in March 2006, Owens signed a contract to compete for the Dallas Cowboys. Sadly, approximately six months later, Owens tried to kill himself by overdosing on pain medication.
According to a police report obtained by CBS News, Owens was asked by rescue workers “if he was attempting to harm himself, at which time (he) stated, 'Yes.'" Although apparently no longer suicidal, Owens is struggling financially due to ill-advised investments and fathering four children with four women.
8 JONATHAN MARTIN
While Miami Dolphins teammates, Richie Incognito terrorized Jonathan Martin so severely that he fell into clinical depression. The 6-foot-3, 320-pound Incognito harassed and intimidated the 6-foot-5, 312-pound Martin via voicemail, text message and in person. In one especially disturbing voice message, Incognito bullied Martin with racial slurs and obscene language.
Martin eventually unraveled and permanently fled from the Dolphins’ facilities in October 2013. A week later, Miami indefinitely suspended Incognito for conduct detrimental to the team.
“I have no desire to ever see or talk to (Incognito),” said Martin, 28, who said he contemplated suicide on two occasions in 2013.
“I’ll get nothing from it. That’s in the past. I don’t know what his thoughts are and I don’t really care, honestly. I don’t even know if Richie wants to be a bad person.”
7 RAE CARRUTH
Rae Carruth is a sinister and unredeemable man. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Carruth, selected by the Carolina Panthers out of Colorado 27th overall in 1997, impregnated a woman named Cherica Adams. Carruth, who as a rookie signed a four-year deal valued at $3.7 million plus bonuses, decided he couldn’t afford to have a child. Consequently, Carruth hired an assassin, Van Brett Watkins Sr., and ensured that the triggerman had a clear view to shoot Adams four times.
Prior to succumbing to her wounds, Adams called 911 and identified Carruth as one of the men involved in the ambush. While Adams fell into a coma, doctors successfully delivered her baby, Chancellor Lee Adams, via emergency Caesarean section. Although Carruth’s son survived, Chancellor sustained permanent brain damage and he developed cerebral palsy. Following nearly two decades behind bars, Carruth is scheduled to be freed from prison in 2018.
“That’s his father. It’s a part of him. Chancellor wouldn’t be who he is without Rae. I want them to bond, or at least to meet again,” said Chancellor’s grandmother, Saundra Adams.
“Rae is still in denial about his part in Cherica’s murder. Not that Chancellor would change that. But if anybody were to ever touch Rae’s heart, to make him want to be truthful, I think it would be Chancellor.”
Carruth is a dark and soulless figure.
6 ANDRE WATERS
The Philadelphia Eagles signed undrafted Cheyney University of Pennsylvania safety Andre Waters in May 1984. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Waters matured into a savage hitter and fearsome presence in the secondary. Waters, who played 10 seasons in Philadelphia, was named to the Eagles’ 75th Anniversary Team. The gritty underdog competed for the Arizona Cardinals for a couple of years before retiring in January 1995. After shelving his cleats, “Dirty Waters” aspired to become a coach and he worked for a number of universities’ programs. Unfortunately, Waters was unable to secure employment as a coach in the NFL and the rejections left him dispirited. Waters died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 44 on November 20, 2006. After Waters' autopsy was released, a leading forensic pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh, deduced that the Eagles’ enforcer suffered from football-related brain damage.
"No matter how you look at it, distort it, bend it, (if he lived another 10 to 15 years), Andre Waters would have been fully incapacitated,” said Dr. Omalu.
5 JUNIOR SEAU
Junior Seau was one of the most effective and accomplished linebackers to ever play football. The San Diego Chargers chose the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Seau out of USC with the fifth pick in 1990. As a member of the Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots, the distinguished Trojan was an eight-time first-team All-Pro who won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 1992. Seau retired in January 2010 and was posthumously enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 2015. Also suffering from CTE, a 43-year-old Seau fired a fatal gunshot into his chest in May 2012.
"I just can't imagine this, because I've never seen Junior in a down frame of mind," said Bobby Beathard, who as the Chargers’ general manager drafted Seau.
“He was always so upbeat and he would keep people up. He practiced the way he played. He made practice fun. He was a coach's dream. He was an amazing guy as well as a player and a person. This is hard to believe."
4 RASHAAN SALAAM
The Chicago Bears chose standout University of Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam with the 21st pick in 1995. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Salaam clinched the Heisman Trophy and every notable college football award for his play in 1994. Salaam showed early promise and he carried the pigskin 296 times for 1,074 yards and 10 scores as a rookie. Regrettably, the 1994 Sporting News Player of the Year was unable to overcome injuries, fumbling problems and marijuana abuse as a Bear.
After getting waived by Chicago, Salaam became a journeyman who was employed by the Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, the Memphis Maniax of the XFL and the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts. Heartbreakingly, Salaam committed suicide at the age of 42 on December 5, 2016.
"It was a very short, private (suicide) note,” said Salaam’s brother, Jabali Alaji. “But it explained a lot ... I’ll never reveal exactly what it said."
3 JOVAN BELCHER
Linebacker Jovan Belcher was a superior Maine Black Bear who was a first-team FCS All-American in 2008. However, primarily due to competing for a lower-tier program, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Belcher went undrafted in 2009. The Kansas City Chiefs’ decision makers liked Belcher’s potential and signed him as a free agent in May 2009. Belcher impressed Chiefs’ coaches and the starter inked a one-year contract worth $1.9 million to remain in Kansas City in March 2012. By late 2012, Belcher’s demeanor had reportedly changed and he constantly got into heated battles with his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins. On December 1 of that year, Belcher shot Perkins nine times in front of her mother. Belcher proceeded to drive to the Chiefs’ facilities with a gun in his hand. Former Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and head coach Romeo Crennel begged Belcher to drop the weapon.
“Guys, I have to do this,” said Belcher. “I got to go. I can’t be here.”
To the horror of Pioli and Crennel, Belcher pulled the trigger and died instantly. Like many individuals on this list, the 25-year-old Belcher was found to have CTE.
2 AARON HERNANDEZ
As noted in the introduction, a 27-year-old Aaron Hernandez hanged himself in his prison cell on April 19 at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Hernandez, who the New England Patriots selected out of the University of Florida with the 113th pick in 2010, was charged with killing three men in two separate incidents between July 2012 and June 2013. For murdering Odin Lloyd, Hernandez was found guilty of first-degree murder in April 2015 and sentenced to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole. Five days after being acquitted for the double homicide of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, Hernandez committed suicide.
Curiously, prior to taking his life, Hernandez wrote a goodbye letter to his fiancée and established an irrevocable trust for his 5-year-old daughter. Furthermore, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Susan Garsh was required to vacate Hernandez’s conviction because he passed before his appeal was heard.
1 LAWRENCE PHILLIPS
Lawrence Phillips is one of the saddest, and most unnerving, stories in NFL history. The 6-foot, 225-pound Phillips was an elite physical specimen who overpowered defenders with his incredible strength and running abilities. While Phillips wowed onlookers on the field as a Nebraska Cornhusker, the irreparably damaged man also frightened students across Lincoln’s campus. Most horrifyingly, Phillips dragged his ex-girlfriend, Nebraska basketball player Kate McEwen, down three flights of stairs before ramming her head into a mailbox. The St. Louis Rams ignored Phillips’ bloodthirsty nature and drafted him sixth overall in 1996.
Phillips’ demons doomed him from the get-go and NFL executives determined that he was unemployable following a stint with the San Francisco 49ers in 1999. After briefly resurrecting his career in the CFL, Phillips was imprisoned for a series of heartless crimes. While incarcerated, Phillips’ mental health worsened.
“I feel myself very close to snapping,” wrote Phillips in a letter dated March 5, 2015. “My anger grows daily as I have become fed up with prison. I feel my anger is near bursting and that will result in my death or the death of someone else.”
Approximately five weeks later, Phillips strangled his cellmate, Damion Soward to death. Phillips later took his own life in his Kern Valley State prison cell in January 2016 at the age of 40.