Before he broke through for an improbable NFL career, marijuana helped Boo Williams cope with a struggle that nearly broke him. After football, he's trying to help.
Image courtesy of Boo Williams
Eddie "Boo" Williams, formerly a tight end with the New Orleans Saints, is sitting on a bench and pulling on a blunt not far from his home in San Diego. He is describing the moment, back in 2011, when he decided to take his own life. "I was in a dark place," he said. "I thought I was a small person in a big person's body. I felt like I had no purpose."
In that deep and dark place, Williams walked not far from the Saints' training facility in Metairie, Louisiana and lay down on railroad tracks. He closed his eyes, whispered final prayers to his kids and family, and awaited the end. His life was saved when two homeless people pulled him to safety.
Today, Williams talks openly about the depression he suffered, a condition that he says was triggered after his NFL career was cut short by injury. "You're trying to find an identity because for so long you've just been inside of a helmet," he said. "When you get out of those pads, you're no longer 'Boo the football guy.' You're like, Who am I? What do I do now?"
After his suicide attempt, Williams entered rehab at the Crosby Center in San Diego. His stay extended for months as he began to heal, both physically and psychologically. Beyond the assistance he received from the Crosby Center, Williams attributes his recovery and well being to marijuana.
"I stay medicated," he said, flicking his lighter at the slowly disappearing blunt. "When I got into cannabis, that's when I started sleeping. The racing thoughts stopped. I started processing stuff right."
Williams is among dozens of former NFL players who are publicly and loudly touting the recuperative powers of cannabis. The group includes quarterback Jake Plummer, wide receiver Nate Jackson, fullback Lorenzo Neal, defensive end Marvin Washington, and at least two of Williams' former teammates, running back Ricky Williams (no relation to Boo) and offensive lineman Kyle Turley.
They promote marijuana as a non-addictive, non-toxic alternative for managing pain after games and practices. They argue that marijuana is "cleaner" than the pharmaceutical tsunami of opioids and other painkillers customarily prescribed by NFL team physicians and trainers. They also want the NFL to reconsider its prohibition on marijuana and to study its efficacy for recovery from concussions and brain injury.
Several of the players, including Williams himself, are now investing their NFL earnings in cannabis-related businesses. They're betting that weed will become a sort of 420-infused 401k.
Pot remains illegal in this country, of course, and it is a banned substance in the NFL. Currently, some 25 states have enacted laws allowing for medical marijuana use, and Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana. Those numbers are expected to swell next month, with recreational marijuana on the ballot in five states. November's biggest prize is California. If Proposition 64, formally known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, passes, recreational marijuana would become legal in the Golden State. (Medical marijuana is already legal in California.)
Former Napster founder and Facebook president Sean Parker is backing the pro-Prop. 64 effort financially, and Gavin Newsom, the state's lieutenant governor, has endorsed it. Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, is leading the opposition.
A recent Los Angeles Times poll found that 58 percent of voters favor Prop. 64. Passage of the act in the nation's most populous state (not to mention the nation's most storied producer of marijuana) would shake up the cannabis marketplace.
"The green rush is gonna be on!" Williams said. "They can't stop us."
Some former NFL players who advocate for medical marijuana, like the New York Giants' Leonard Marshall, claim that they never tried cannabis until after their playing days. Marshall told the New York Daily News that he is a "cannabis convert" who now uses medical marijuana for the headaches that began plaguing him after his career.
Boo Williams, on the other hand, was an early adapter. Born and raised in Florida, he smoked marijuana for the first time in the tenth grade, a couple of days after he sustained his first concussion playing football.
He and some teammates from Lincoln High were "hot-boxing" in an old Delta 88. "I can remember, man, we sat there and talked about all kinds of stuff for hours," he said. "That really was a turning point in my football team because we got closer. It's called a peace pipe for a reason because you pass it around and sing 'Kumbaya' and talk about different things."
Williams self-medicated through high school and at his next stop, Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. He says he never smoked during practice or games, preferring to wait until afterwards, when he could relax.
His methodology seemed to work. The 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pound wide receiver was a two-time All-American at Coffeyville before transferring to the University of Arkansas in 1999. The next season, Williams led the Razorbacks with 52 receptions for 739 yards and seven touchdowns. He was ready for the NFL.
Williams came out to California after college to select an agent, and says he smoked the state's famous bud for the first time while at a party at Jamie Foxx's house. He passed out and had to be carried to the limo. "The weed in Kansas and Arkansas was terrible compared to California," Williams says with a laugh. "I was knocked on my ass. That's when I learned about the power of the great cannabis coming out of California."
Williams wasn't drafted, but signed shortly after the draft with the New Orleans Saints, and bonded with running back and fellow traveler Ricky Williams. Boo was told that there would be no drug testing during minicamp, but was misinformed on that front. He tested positive for marijuana, and so was admitted into the NFL's drug program for the next two years. "That program was a bunch of bullshit," he said. "They have doctors and therapists come talk to you about your use of cannabis. They really think something is wrong with you, that you're crazy. They treat you worse than someone who is an alcoholic because of the stigmatization that's been put on this plant."
Williams had to quit "cold turkey." He became, he says, "a hostage to football. I always kept the playbook in my head, even when I was sitting at the table trying to eat dinner." Part of this commitment meant adding about 30 pounds to his frame. The Saints switched him to tight end, he made the taxi squad, and then played with the team for the final 11 games of the 2001 season.
He soon was enduring the game's quotidian violence. He caught a pass on the one-yard line against the Chicago Bears and turned toward the end zone, only to be knocked unconscious by an opponent who also knocked himself out. "I do not remember what happened," Williams said. "To this day my neck is damaged from that play."
He also learned that the NFL is predicated on players managing their pain and, somehow, finding a way to suit up on Sundays. "You can't make the club in the tub," is the old saw that Williams repeats with a sigh.
He ingested the most readily available option available: a shot of Toradol, known as "Vitamin T," fifteen minutes before the game. As a "prophylactic against gametime pain," Toradol allows players to hit for 60 minutes while masking bodily injuries. It also comes with serious long term health threats, including kidney damage and risk of stroke. Former players have sued the NFL over alleged abuse of Toradol. But, for the shortsighted purposes of NFL teams and the players trying to stay on them, it worked. "It was psychedelic, man," Williams said. "It turns you into a different person, to where you're resistant to pain. But when it's all over, it's a big time crash.
"People think it's the big concussions, the knockout blows" he continued, "but it's the small ones you encounter every day. We was bang-bang-bang-bang banging every day. Even those blows in the pre-game, when the linemen thud up against each other, that's a shockwave that's happening."
Williams' life and career were upended in the span of a single week in August of 2005. Just days after he welcomed his second child into the world, he suffered a serious knee injury in the second half of a meaningless exhibition game against the Baltimore Ravens. Two days later, Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans.
Williams spent the 2005 season on injured reserve and rehabbed the injury, which he claims today was nowhere near as serious as the team reported. The Saints released him in 2006; he later found out that the child was not his. Williams signed with the Giants that year, but did not make the club. He never played another down in the NFL. At 27, his career was over. "It's like the saying goes," Williams says. "'It's not when you're done with the NFL. It's when the NFL is done with you.'"
Williams tried to piece together the next chapter of his life. He started a landscaping business, then a security business. He opened a gym. He found no satisfaction. "There was nothing that gave me that adrenaline rush football gave me," he said. "Running out of tunnel with thousands of people calling your name, getting looked at on TV, scoring touchdowns. That's hard to replace. It led to a lot of infidelity on my wife. It led to me not caring about my business. I found myself having only one friend: my drug dealer."
He started smoking spice, a form of synthetic marijuana that is considerably more dangerous and unpredictable than cannabis, but which was legally sold over the counter in many states until recently. Spice is what allegedly landed New England Patriots' defensive end Chandler Jones in the emergency room earlier this year.
After his wife kicked him out of the house, Williams ended up on the railroad tracks, wanting only for his misery to end. "Before, I looked at guys like, 'Man, you want to kill yourself? You must be fucking crazy,'" he says. "The thing is, you can never know a person's mind."
His stint at the Crosby Center convinced him that another way was possible. Williams began to assist other NFL players struggling with post-retirement issues, including bankruptcy, addiction to opioids, depression, and physical and psychic pain. He also turned to cannabis for what he describes as his "brain issues."
"I had to get educated and find the stuff that was right for me," he said. "The sativa [a strain of cannabis] was more helpful than the indica. I can function and do what I need to do. I found my purpose: to inspire and give hope to others."
That led him to Turley, who formed the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition in 2015, to call attention to the issue and encourage more testing about cannabis' effects to treat pain among players. "I think the NFL is trying to figure out how to deal with this," Williams said. "They're starting to understand that it can help to heal and replenish the body and to help the brain."
Others have embraced the cause, including Marvin Washington, a defensive end (primarily with the Jets). During his 11-season career, Washington suffered a litany of injuries. "I had four concussions and seven major surgeries in the NFL," he said. "I've had both my shoulders put back together. I've had tendons reattached. I've had my fingers crushed and malformed."
By denying current players access to medical marijuana, Washington believes that the NFL is mistreating its talent. "I know what it takes to get back on the field," he said, "but if I would've known about another alternative, I wouldn't have done half of the opiates and pharmaceuticals that I did. The toll that takes on your liver and kidneys is tremendous. We've seen so many guys leave the game addicted to pharmaceuticals, but we've never seen a guy leave the game addicted to cannabis."
"Nobody wants to kill football," he added. "We just want to make it safer on and off the field."
Williams, Washington, Turley, and others are quick to differentiate between recreational marijuana—i.e., weed that gets you high—and the chemical compound known as cannabidiol (CBD), one of the 100 or so active cannabinoids found within the marijuana plant. (The "high" that people get from marijuana comes from the active ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.)
CBD is non-psychotropic, meaning that it does not get you stoned. Many players swear that CBD offers therapeutic benefits for a wide range of ailments, including depression, anxiety, and inflammation.
"Once I started taking CBD, I could feel the effect it had on my body," said quarterback Jake Plummer, who played for ten seasons in the NFL. "I want guys that are currently playing to have a healthy option for pain, for stress and anxiety, for sleeping."
Research experts caution that proof about the efficacy of CBD is primarily anecdotal. That's because very few clinical trials, with the kind of double-blind testing with placebos that is considered the gold-standard within the scientific community, have been conducted on CBD.
"There's some evidence that CBD works for anxiety as well as inflammation," said Dr. Marcel Bonn-Miller, an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. "There's also some evidence that CBD serves as a neuro-protectant. But without the clinical trials it's impossible to determine if it's really affecting symptoms."
The lack of funding and the "lingering stigma" of marijuana, said Bonn-Miller, account for the lack of research in the field. "It still falls under the 'Oh, it's marijuana, and that's a bad thing' category," he said.
Bonn-Miller and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University are currently conducting separate studies concerning the effects of marijuana among present and former NFL players. The study was largely funded by Eugene Monroe, a former offensive tackle with the Baltimore Ravens who has become a cannabis advocate since his retirement.
"We want to learn about alternative treatments and ways to improve the players' health," said Bonn-Miller.
Last month, at the Cannabis World Congress & Business Exposition held in downtown Los Angeles, the smell in the air was not patchouli but commerce. Convention-goers were dressed like convention-goers: the convention center was awash in business casual khaki slacks and logo-ed golf shirts.
Vendors with names like Cosa Xentaur Corporation, MP Biomedicals, and Apeks Supercritical pitched their wares in elaborate displays that wouldn't look out of place at CES or E3. The array of glossy magazines devoted to the topic would suggest that print is not yet extinct: Cannabis Business Times, MG, Edibles List, Cannabis Now, Cannabis Culture, Dope, The Hemp Connoisseur, Marijuana Venture, Marijuana Business Magazine. Giddy attendees quoted a market-research report published by New Frontier like a mantra: passage of Prop. 64 in California could produce marijuana sales worth as much as $6.5 billion by 2020.
Williams and other athletes note that the passage and implementation of Prop. 64 would triple the number of professional teams that compete in states where marijuana is legal, to a total of 29, putting additional pressure on sports leagues to revise their current policies.
At the convention, longtime advocate Montel Williams delivered a come-to-Jesus confessional that pivoted from the chronic pain he suffers from Multiple Sclerosis to an announcement that he is launching a line of medical marijuana products. Snoop Dogg's longtime manager, Ted Chung, used PowerPoint to hype the content of Merry Jane, which they hope to establish as weed's go-to cultural platform.
Through his BooBeary Kares company, Boo Williams is seeking to join the "green rush." He is developing several CBD formulas and products—a sports drink, a vape, and a topical rub—that he plans to launch by the end of the year. He recently completed a 20-day, 22,000-mile jaunt across the country to publicize his Black Ghost brand.
His entrée into the commercial side of the medical marijuana business comes as other bold-type celebrities jockey for position in a community previously known for its inclusive, laid-back spirit.
The competition figures to be as fierce, as Sports Illustrated recently reported that Ricky Williams, Boo's former teammate, is starting a 420 gym in Oakland along with other cannabis-related enterprises. Family members of the late Bob Marley are doubling down on their name recognition with major investments in cannabis culture; Rohan Marley, the Marley son behind the effort, played linebacker at the University of Miami and in the CFL.
Whether Williams and his BooBeary Kares line can compete financially with brands the size of Snoop's and Bob Marley remains to be seen. The primary objective, Williams maintained, goes beyond profit and loss. "This is about perseverance and hope," he said, another blunt at the ready. "I know from my own experience that there's a lot of pain out there. We want to help people feel better and live better."