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Ex-Eagle Rayburn coming back from addiction

CHICKASHA, Okla. - More than two years after his last NFL tackle, former Eagles defensive lineman Sam Rayburn recalled lying in bed at night, striking an internal bargain.

Sam Rayburn. (File Photo)
Sam Rayburn. (File Photo)Read more

CHICKASHA, Okla. - More than two years after his last NFL tackle, former Eagles defensive lineman Sam Rayburn recalled lying in bed at night, striking an internal bargain.

Tomorrow, he would stop taking the pills.

This past winter, Rayburn said, he thought he could control his spiraling intake of narcotic painkillers. Under the influence couldn't apply to him. He was an athlete - at least a former athlete. He had played in the Super Bowl. He wasn't an addict.

Of course, that meant ignoring how Rayburn acquired some of the pills - by his own admission, he stole a prescription pad from a doctor and forged prescriptions for the painkillers Percocet and Lortab.

"Especially toward the end, when I was taking obscene amounts, I was hiding it from everybody - I was even hiding it from myself," Rayburn said recently at a coffee shop near his home here.

Rayburn said he began self-medicating when he played for the Eagles from 2003 through 2006, finding painkillers on his own to deal with nagging injuries he didn't want Eagles trainers or coaches to focus on or even know about. He didn't become addicted, he said, until he was out of the league. The problem eventually grew "out of control," he said.

Rayburn and investigators in court documents say that on March 19, at Rayburn's request, two local men entered pharmacies here and tried to fill prescriptions that Rayburn had forged.

Nathan Ballinger, 23, and Brian Burdex, 18, were each charged with one felony count of obtaining or attempting to obtain a controlled substance by forgery or fraud. They are free on bond.

Rayburn said he told police that he was responsible for the forgeries and had made the requests. In turn, Rayburn was charged with two felony counts of obtaining or attempting to obtain a controlled substance by forgery or fraud. He is free on bond.

Rayburn's attorney, Al Hoch, said a meeting with prosecutors was planned for June 24. He said plea-bargain discussions have begun and he expected "some type of probation."

Rayburn said he hoped the charges against Ballinger and Burdex will be dropped.

A conviction on one such charge could mean two to 10 years in jail and up to a $10,000 fine.

Grady County District Attorney Leah Edwards did not return calls.

While Ballinger could not be reached for comment and Rayburn said he hadn't spoken with him recently, Burdex remains closer to Rayburn. Indeed, Burdex lives with Rayburn and his wife, Ashley, and their two young sons. Burdex is a friend of Ashley's brother, Chad.

Rayburn once got a $1.3 million signing bonus from the Eagles and said he spent his money wisely - except for perhaps "hundreds of thousands of dollars" spent on painkillers after he finished playing.

Ashley works as a real estate agent. Sam, still shy of his degree from the University of Tulsa, is not working, but said he hoped to coach football one day.

For now, he said, he is concentrating on beating the drug addiction. He entered a treatment facility in 2008, but it did not work. Then after his arrest in March, he spent 45 days in two rehabilitation facilities. He said he has been clean for more than 80 days after taking more than 100 pills a day earlier this year.

"I think it would have led me either to jail or to death - I don't think there was really any other option," Rayburn said.

Another side to the game

Rayburn's story illustrates a side of the game that doesn't make the flashy introduction to Monday Night Football. Forging prescriptions may not be the norm, but the whole scenario of football players in pain, then becoming addicted, sounds familiar to some experts

"To hide a pain condition is considered by some [pro football] players to be the cost of doing business," said Alex Stalcup, medical director of the New Leaf Treatment Center in Lafayette, Calif.

Rayburn played in Super Bowl XXXIX against the Patriots - he took down Corey Dillon twice in that game - and he had six sacks that season in helping the Eagles get there. The Eagles released him in May 2007. He went to training camp with San Francisco and was on Miami's roster for three games in 2007, but he never played in another regular-season game after he was cut by the Eagles.

"It all stemmed from playing football," Rayburn said of the pain. "My knee, my elbow, some spinal problems - if I was to bend down, I couldn't stand up. Immobility was really the only thing that could alleviate the pain - or medication, obviously. Most of the orthopedic [specialists] I've gone to say I'm going to need a knee replacement."

Rayburn said he increased the dosages as the addiction grew.

"They dull the pain, but they don't turn you into a zombie," he said. "They would give me energy to the point where I could function. If I didn't have them, I couldn't do anything except lay in bed and throw up and roll around and ache."

As his tolerance went up, Rayburn said, "it gets to the point where you don't need them for the pain, you need them just to function. You need them to eat, to sleep, to get up - to do anything at all. You can't even watch TV without taking pills because that's the first thing on your mind."

Rayburn was raised in Chickasha by his mother, who works for the Department of Human Services. His grandmother used to work at the Grady County Courthouse with Ashley Rayburn's mother. During college, Sam was home, got Ashley's number, and they began dating.

Ashley Rayburn said her husband is a guy you would want to be around. "He's an amazing father," she said. But during the months before his most recent stay at a treatment facility, Sam was different, she said.

"Honestly, I didn't know he was doing pills for the last six months," Ashley said. "He had gone into the hospital [in 2008], and we'd ask the doctor for help, and I thought he was doing fine. I thought he was off them for the past six months. The past two months, he was weird. He was just shut off from me and the kids. He would stay in a different room to watch TV. He wasn't really eating."

"You go into a depression," her husband said.

Old-fashioned pharmacy

The Grand Care Pharmacy in Chickasha is an old-fashioned operation, with a purple awning over a glass front, a drive-through window in the back, and three parking spots on the side. You can pick up greeting cards by the door, but there are no aisles of candy or paper products or Snapple, as there are at CVS or Rite Aid. When you walk in, you're at the pharmacist's counter.

When Brian Burdex walked in to fill a prescription for Percocet on March 19, pharmacist Pamela Lee was hesitant. She recognized Burdex from church, she said, and didn't know why he would need such a strong painkiller. She called the doctor's office.

"We make phone calls like that because that's our job, just to kind of dispense safe medication and make sure things aren't being diverted," Lee said in an interview at the pharmacy.

According to court records, Lee was told the prescription was "forged and/or invalid."

On the same day, also at Rayburn's behest, Nathan Ballinger tried to get a prescription filled at a Walgreens pharmacy in town. "The attempt to obtain Lortab was prevented," court records said.

According to those court records, Rayburn had been a patient of the doctor, Joseph Ripperger, a psychiatrist in Norman, Okla., since June 2, 2008. The doctor, who didn't respond to interview requests, told investigators he had never written a prescription for Percocet or Lortab for Rayburn or the younger men, who had never been his patients.

"That was just a spur-of-the-moment thing, it wasn't something I thought about," Rayburn said of taking the prescription sheets. He said he didn't take an entire pad, "just some off the top. . . . When you're addicted, you kind of become insane. You become more impulsive."

Rayburn said he drove Burdex to the pharmacy and waited in the car. All of a sudden, a police car showed up.

"I was like, 'Crap. What's going to happen now?' " Burdex said in an interview.

Burdex was arrested.

Court records say that between June 2, 2008, and March 13, 2009, about 36 prescriptions for medication known as oxycodone were filled under Rayburn's name at three pharmacies, Liberty Drug, Medicine Shoppe, and Walgreens. Oxycodone is a key ingredient in Percocet and some other prescription painkillers. The doctor told investigators he hadn't written a prescription for any of them, according to court records.

"You're not thinking straight," Rayburn said of his mind-set. "Looking back on it ... you can't believe you'd do something that stupid to jeopardize other people's well-being."

A quiet country boy

As an Eagle, Rayburn mostly got publicity for being a quiet country boy who had occasionally chased pigs on his grandfather's farm here and caught catfish bare-handed.

Chickasha (pronounced chick-a-shay), population 16,840, is 35 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. The once-famous Chisholm Trail, where cattle were herded from Texas to Kansas, used to pass along the rolling prairie just outside town.

Chickasha is a little too big of a town for everybody to know everybody. But everybody knows about everybody, and knows Rayburn played for the Eagles.

Rayburn's real interest, he said, was football. He understood from the start that professional football is a business, that an undrafted free agent from Tulsa couldn't afford time on the sidelines.

"The window is tiny," Rayburn said. "It's like reentering the earth's atmosphere, like the space shuttle. They've got to hit a paper-thin window. It's the same thing with the NFL. If you miss, very few guys get second chances."

During his four seasons with the Eagles, Rayburn said, he never had a catastrophic injury.

"But you don't always disclose everything that's hurting," Rayburn said. "You don't want to tell them everything that's going on because there are always young, fresh guys waiting to take your spot. ... You can get by without telling them the whole enchilada."

Rayburn said fans naturally just see "a finished product on Sunday - shiny helmets and clean jerseys." But the body damage accumulates each year.

"I started playing when I was 6," Rayburn said. "When I was done, I had been playing 21 years."

Sam's pain kept Ashley awake some nights in their South Jersey home during his time with the Eagles.

"He would have full-body cramps in the middle of the night after every single game, to where he couldn't move," Ashley said. "I'd have to massage him to make his shoulder work again or his knee work again."

Players endure the pain for the money.

Midway through that 2004 season, Rayburn signed a five-year contract extension that included a $1.3 million signing bonus.

"I had my base, but mostly it was incentive-based," Rayburn said of the contract. "I wanted to make sure I got every snap I could possibly get."

Players endure the pain for the glory, especially a chance to play in the Super Bowl.

"The whole experience by itself was overwhelming," Rayburn said of the title game in Jacksonville early in 2005. "It blocks everything else out."

Rayburn said he wanted this to be clear: Nothing that the Eagles trainers or coaches did led to his getting hooked on painkillers.

"You could get things when it was necessary," Rayburn said. "If you had an injury they were aware of, they would give you a certain amount. They wouldn't give you an entire prescription. Most of the injuries I was dealing with were undisclosed. I was going outside the team doctors and stuff like that to acquire the medicine I thought I needed. It was a deal where I was going out on my own and getting them from other doctors that I knew."

An Eagles spokesman said the team had no comment.

Rayburn declined to specify who else provided painkillers during his playing career.

"I don't really want to implicate myself," he said.

Not surprised to be cut

Rayburn said he was not surprised that he was cut by the Eagles in May 2007. He had only two sacks in his last two seasons and just 12 tackles while starting no games in 2006.

"Looking back on it, if I put myself in the shoes of a scout watching film, I don't think my performance was good enough to stay in the league," Rayburn said. "I don't have any hard feelings toward anybody. It's all on you."

After trying to stick with the 49ers and Dolphins in 2007, Rayburn visited the Lions in early 2008.

"After that physical was over, they gave me a playbook and gave me a rental car and sent me to the hotel," Rayburn said. "About an hour later, I got another call. They said the orthopedic guys wanted to take another look at me. I went in, they basically told me, 'Here's a liability ... here's a liability. Your joints are torn up. There's really no way we can sign you with that type of damage.' "

Rayburn moved back here, to a nice brick house on a hill just outside town. He helped a little bit with a nearby high school football team. He donated money to upgrade Chickasha High's weight room. He fished and hunted, often at a pond maybe 400 yards from his house.

It was hard to admit his career was over at age 27.

"You go from a life where everything is structured - you're told when to be at breakfast, when to be at meetings, when to be at lunch, when to be at practice, when to go home," Rayburn said. "You go from that kind of structured environment to sitting at home, not really having anything to do. You sit in front of the TV and play video games. There's really nothing else to do."

And there was still pain, Rayburn said.

"You double the dosage that you normally take, and that leads to a higher tolerance, and then you need more to get the same effect," Rayburn said. "Eventually, it kind of snowballs out of control. The next thing you know, you're taking 100 a day. And you really don't know how you got there."

He found ways, Rayburn said, to get the pills he needed in Chickasha. They didn't all come from forging prescriptions.

"It's almost like you have a sixth sense for how to get them," Rayburn said. "You can walk by somebody, you can almost tell whether they take pills or not. You can almost sense who to talk to who will get you some, or what doctor you should go to who will get you something."

'My natural enemy'

On a sunny afternoon, Rayburn got out of his pickup truck and took an out-of-towner to see his wife at her real estate office on Grand Avenue just down the street from the Grand Care Pharmacy.

Rayburn walked across the lobby a little stiffly. When he started up a staircase to the second floor of the real estate office, he slowed down. His right leg bent in with each step.

"Stairs - my natural enemy," Rayburn groaned good-naturedly, wobbling up the stairs.

Ashley Rayburn said she cried when she visited her husband at the drug-treatment facility, though not because he was in a treatment facility.

"It was the first time I saw him eat a full meal in probably four months," Ashley said. "He would just snack. He'd lost a ton of weight. When he did eat, it was just crap, nothing of substance at all. He was tearing his body apart."

Said Sam: "I'm pretty sure the pills were doing something to my gastrointestinal tract - anytime I would eat a large quantity, it would make me sick."

He figured he lost 40 or 50 pounds from his top playing weight of around 320 pounds.

Now, his wife said, "I feel like he's kind of back to where he was when we were first together. He's happier. If we go shopping, to the grocery store, he's not so caught up in having to leave so he can get more pills. He can actually be there and be in the moment."

In the previous week or so, Rayburn said, he had cleaned his pool, mowed the lawn, shampooed some carpets, dug up a water pipe, fished for catfish and bass ("caught nothing"), took his family to the zoo in Oklahoma City, got his English bulldog bred (he hopes), cleared some brush with his cousin, and helped Burdex at the weight room.

Now more than 80 days clean, Rayburn said he hadn't been tempted.

"Once I had the initial two or three days of detox, got my mind back straight, you couldn't force a pill down my throat," Rayburn said.

The strongest thing he's taken, Rayburn said, is a dip of Copenhagen chewing tobacco - he had one under his lip as he talked.

One possible route for his criminal case is that it will be sent to Drug Court, an Oklahoma program where he would have a strict probation period of about 18 months. Failing or missing a drug test, getting arrested for any reason, or even missing a therapy session could send him to jail. But sentences often get dismissed if the program is completed successfully.

"The Drug Court is probably a little more intense than he needs," said Hoch, Rayburn's attorney. "It's more for people with long-term addictions. They may want him in there. But he's able to get through treatment programs on his own."

Rayburn doesn't know what the future will bring. He made a few million dollars in the NFL, and even if he's not set for life, "I wasn't an idiot with my money," he said, other than the cash that went for pills.

Still, he doesn't know how his court case will affect any high school coaching aspirations.

"Ten years from now, I'd like to be coaching somewhere - high school, college - doing something football-related, because that's definitely my passion," Rayburn said. "I love to be around it. I love to be around guys that love to be around it. It's kind of one of those deals, I want to be saturated with football at all times. I still sit at home, that's all I watch all day. I like to catch up with what Philly's doing."

The dark days of the addiction included needing a wheelchair in a drug-treatment facility because of the pain. Some people might wonder if he wished he had never played football. If he got a replay, Rayburn said, he would do a lot of things differently after he retired.

As for the game itself and the pain it brought him, "there's no doubt in my mind, if I could go back to when I was 12 years old and I could tell my story to my 12-year-old self, I would still do it," Rayburn said. "Without a doubt, I'd do it in a second."