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Ex-NFL player, Shaheen tackle topic of opiates

By: Alex LaCasse

PORTSMOUTH — Former NFL player Jeff Hatch hit rock bottom while watching the 2006 Super Bowl from his hospital bed while he was recovering from a prescription opioid overdose.

When he was forced to retire from pro football after a spinal fusion operation, his big house, souped-up car and million-dollar pro football contract could not mitigate the fact that he was not happy after all his hard work to become a pro athlete. He was left broken and alone.

“I pursued all these material things and I (was) miserable. I was so me focused in that time, everything was about Jeff Hatch and my success. Now the only time when I can find real happiness is when I make it about more than me,” said Hatch, who played in three NFL seasons between 2002 and 2005. “It’s very important for me as we move toward a solution for this opiate problem that we defeat the stigma that surrounds it. A lot of times people put a face on who they think suffers from this problem and this disease, and one of the goals I have is I want people to understand that it really does cross all classes, all races and all faces.”

On Monday morning, Hatch was part of a panel led by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., at Portsmouth High School in front of student-athletes to highlight the risk they face from opiate use coming off a significant injury. Shaheen touted her Student and Student Athlete Opiate Misuse Prevention Act that would set aside $10 million to help protect student-athletes from opiate misuse.

“There’s a lot of work being done in New Hampshire to help stop the opiate problem, but there’s nothing targeted at teachers and people who deal with student-athletes in a way that tries to address prevention,” said Shaheen. “We want people to recognize the threat that exists and we want everyone who is involved in athletics to be more aware of what some of the problems are.”

Hatch said he began drinking early in high school because he would go to parties with some of his older varsity basketball teammates, and he felt a sense of belonging when he drank. He said that when he went to college the athletic, academic and social pressure intensified. By the time he had been prescribed opiates to help recover from an injury he suffered playing football, he would always take a couple extra pills to numb his emotional pain as well. Looking back, he knew that point was the start of his downward spiral.

“For you guys, it might serve you better if I were to tell you I was 16 and I had a problem with opiates, but the reality is that wasn’t the case,” said Hatch. “I remember getting that bottle of pills and on that bottle it said you take one to two ever four to six hours as needed for pain. And I remembered my experience with other drugs and realized that amount would cure my physical pain, a few more would kill the emotional pain.”

According to Partnership for a Drug Free NH Executive Director Devin Rowe, students who are involved in any kind of after-school activities are at a much less of a risk of substance abuse. However, she said, student-athletes are in a slightly compromised position because if they suffer an injury while playing, they may be given an initial prescription of opiates to help with pain management.

“Athletes have more risk factors because they are more prone to injury,” said Rowe, who was on Monday’s panel at PHS. “When it comes to opioids, there is a much more slippery slope because on one hand they may be necessary to an extent to help with recovery. But that can quickly spiral into misuse.”

Dr. Joshua Siegel of Access Sports Medicine said the medical community and the pharmaceutical industry is partly to blame for the availability and over-prescription of opiate-based medication. He said doctors need to explore alternate forms of treatment before defaulting to opiates.

“As physicians, we don’t have a lot of options other than opiates to prescribe first thing, post op, to help someone deal with pain,” said Siegel, who also served on the panel. “So education of physicians is paramount, they know there’s an epidemic but they don’t necessarily understand their role in it. They need to be educated on the other methods of pain relief such as cryotherapy, pain blocks or mind and body treatments such as acupuncture or reiki.”

PHS Principal Mary Lyons said the presentation allowed students to see all of the forces working to help bring a solution to opiate misuse.

“We look to athletes as leaders sometimes, but there is a concern that they may have to be prescribed this medication for a legitimate purpose,” Lyons said. “Knowledge is key, so I think this was a good choice of audience. We have kids for the most part make really good decisions but this problem is prevalent in Portsmouth and the state of New Hampshire and we want to make sure they have everything they need to keep making good choices.”

Junior Trevor Van Allen said athletes were in a good position to identify potential problems.

“This was very informative, and the athletes here know what’s going on in this community,” said Van Allen, who plays on the PHS baseball team. “As athletes, we need to be leaders in our school and our community, so this was useful to help explain how this problem can spiral out of hand for anyone.”