Hobbled by mental and physical ailments, retired Seahawk offensive tackle Jerry Wunsch is waging two legal battles that cast a harsh light on the scope of painkillers used in the NFL.

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Jerry Wunsch used to plow into the biggest, strongest players the National Football League had to offer.

Now, the onetime Seahawks offensive tackle struggles to walk a few blocks, climb stairs at his Florida home, or tie his size-17 shoes. The 43-year-old divorced father of three suffers debilitating headaches, forgets what he did a week ago, can’t keep a steady job and worries his two teenage sons and younger daughter will someday need to put him in institutional care.

His knees and lower back strain as a wincing Wunsch, 6-foot-6 and pushing 400 pounds, rises from a chair at his lawyer’s office in Edmonds. Wunsch attributes his ongoing pain and deteriorating mental state to the blows he absorbed while numbed by painkillers he says the Seahawks freely gave players to keep them on the field.

“It’s frightening as hell,” Wunsch said. “I drive home and I forget my way home. My girlfriend — and thank God for her — she helps me put my pants on. And I hate to say it, even underwear. That’s where it’s at.”

Wunsch was never a star during his 113-game career, starting less than half the time. He played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1997-2001 and the Seahawks from 2002-2005. Then, during training camp in August of ’05, before the season in which the Seahawks made it to their first Super Bowl, his career was cut short by complications from a shredded ankle tendon.

In retirement, Wunsch has emerged as a forceful NFL critic, waging two legal battles that cast a harsh light on the scope of prescription drug use in the injury-prone league.

 

Former Seahawks offensive tackle Jerry Wunsch discusses the culture around getting a shot of Toradol before NFL games. (Katie G. Cotterill / The Seattle Times)

 

Here in Washington state, Wunsch has fought for more than two years to win workers’ compensation for his physical and mental ailments. The Seahawks have opposed him at every step — even hiring private investigators to conduct surveillance of him — and the state’s Department of Labor & Industries initially denied Wunsch’s claims.

Last month, a state industrial appeals judge overturned that decision and ruled Wunsch eligible for compensation for “neuro cognitive disorder-dementia due to head injury”and for residual pain from injuries to his knees, back, neck, elbows and ankles.

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But the legal struggle might not be over: The Seahawks have until April 19 to appeal the judge’s decision.

Meanwhile, Wunsch is one of 13 plaintiffs named in a federal lawsuit accusing all 32 NFL teams of administering abusive levels of painkillers to keep players on the field — putting profits over safety. The lawsuit, in U.S. District Court in Northern California, alleges that by masking players’ pain signals, the drug use aggravated injuries and led to organ damage and other complications including addiction to opioid painkillers.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers have nearly 2,000 retired players as clients, and are asking a judge to certify the lawsuit as a class action on behalf of former players.

Players often have been eager to take such medications — some insist on it — to help them continue earning paychecks during often-brief careers. But the ethics and repercussions of the league’s drug use are being scrutinized like never before.

Depositions of NFL physicians and trainers are under way in the 2-year-old federal case, and court filings — including one recently unsealed — detail widespread use of powerful prescription drugs such as Vicodin and Toradol. An amended complaint filed earlier this year alleges that actions team doctors have admitted to taking are violations of the federal Substance Control Act.

The NFL and its teams dispute the claims, saying medical personnel provide quality medical care and control players’ drug use. A response to the amended complaint says the suit should be dismissed, in part because most claims exceed the statute of limitations.

 

Seahawk Jerry Wunsch pushes off in a preseason home game Aug. 24, 2003.  (Rod Mar/The Seattle Times)
Seahawk Jerry Wunsch pushes off in a preseason home game Aug. 24, 2003. (Rod Mar/The Seattle Times)

 

A mix of potent NSAIDs

While the broader legal battle plays out, Wunsch’s little-known compensation case in Washington offers a detailed and unsettling study of one player’s battle with pain — and the drugs that kept him on the field.

Wunsch shared his medical files with The Seattle Times so they could be compared with records the Seahawks were compelled to produce in the compensation hearings. Along with those records, depositions of two athletic trainers who worked for the Seahawks when Wunsch played, Sam Ramsden and Ken Smith, as well as team physician Stanley Herring, indicate prescription drugs weren’t always controlled and distributed by doctors, nor accurately accounted for in records.

The records show Wunsch received injections of Toradol — a powerful nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) — before 28 of his 34 regular season and playoff games with the Seahawks. They also indicate he was given prescription painkillers Vicodin, Indocin, Hyalgan, Bextra and Vioxx, while he was taking the sleep aid Ambien along with weekly fistfuls of Tylenol and Advil.

In some cases, Wunsch took additional NSAIDs — most notably, Indocin — in the hours before and after his Toradol injections. A “black box” warning from the FDA, the strongest it issues, cautions against using Toradol while taking other NSAIDs. It says Toradol misuse can cause serious complications, including cardiovascular and kidney damage and a rupture or ulceration of the stomach lining.

It isn’t only mixing Toradol and other NSAIDs that carries risk. High doses of any NSAID — including over-the-counter Advil, Motrin or Aleve — over prolonged periods can do damage.

“Anti-inflammatory medications, they’re not benign,’’ Dr. Jonathan Finnoff, medical director of the Mayo Clinic’s sports-medicine center in Minnesota, and team physician for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, said in an interview. “The more you are exposed to anti-inflammatories, the more it potentially erases the protective lining of your stomach so that the acid in your stomach will start to eat through it.’’

Wunsch’s medical records indicate his maladies include hypertension and Crohn’s disease, which was diagnosed in 2009 and can cause stomach and intestinal ulcerations. In 2015, Dr. David Becker, a Florida gastroenterologist, wrote that he believed Wunsch’s condition was worsened by chronic use of NSAIDs.

But in Washington state, an industrial appeals judge rejected a claim that his gastrointestinal condition had been caused or aggravated by his NFL painkiller use. Wunsch’s Edmonds-based lawyer, Bill Hochberg, said he plans to challenge that ruling.

Seahawks doctors, in written documentation of the injections, noted they explained the risks of GI bleeding and other Toradol complications to Wunsch, and often noted that he accepted those risks.

But Wunsch maintains he wasn’t warned verbally by the quartet of then-Seahawks doctors — Herring, Bradford Shoup, Ed Khalfayan and Kevin Auld. He described lining up with Seahawks teammates outside a trainer’s office for pregame Toradol injections in which he’d be told to sign a slip of paper before getting a needle to the buttocks.

“It would take 30 minutes to an hour and the pain went away for the most part,’’ Wunsch said, adding the injections were as much to block out anticipated in-game pain as to lessen existing aches. “You’d get hit and hurt something else and you wouldn’t even know it.’’

That dulling of pain is what Wunsch says enabled him to batter his body far beyond what it would ordinarily tolerate. He says he suffered three serious undiagnosed concussions in which he was “knocked out” temporarily, and perhaps 20 minor ones during his career. But he kept playing — even when he’d vomit in the huddle or locker-room tunnel.

His body, he adds, was so sore he’d need painkillers to make it through practice. In addition to prescription drugs, he said, Seahawks trainers told him to take 1,000 milligrams of nonprescription anti-inflammatories — like Aleve and Motrin — twice daily.

 

Offensive tackle Jerry Wunsch, seen here in 2004, played for the Seahawks from 2002 to 2005. (HO)
Offensive tackle Jerry Wunsch, seen here in 2004, played for the Seahawks from 2002 to 2005. (HO)

 

Records don’t match

The Times found discrepancies between information the Seahawks included in Wunsch’s medical files and the team’s prescription-drug log, used to track medications given players.

On 17 dates, the drug log says Wunsch received 30-milligram Toradol injections, while signed slips in his medical records cite 60-milligram doses.

Wunsch says he almost always got a single 60-milligram dose, which is the maximum noted in a prescription guide approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Haphazard team record-keeping is a significant allegation in the national lawsuit. In that case, former players claim athletic trainers had access to and distributed prescription medications without recording what they were doing.

They tell of road trips where doctors and trainers wandered aisles of postgame flights, handing out Vicodin or muscle relaxants until players were numbed to sleep.

In Wunsch’s compensation case, assistant Seahawks trainers Ramsden and Smith stated in depositions that they had access to a locked training-room safe containing medications. Both said they’d hand prescription painkillers to players if doctors were otherwise occupied.

“The athletic trainer that was in the room at the time would basically take the bottle out of the cabinet and give it to the player with the physician in the room,’’ Ramsden stated.

But team physician Herring stated in his deposition that trainers occasionally distributed medication with no doctors around. “If we weren’t there and we were going to be there soon they would call us and say, ‘The player would like a refill of this medicine.’ I’d say, ‘Go ahead.’ It would be under my control.’’

Ramsden corroborated this under oath, stating trainers sometimes gave out prescription anti-inflammatories with no physician on-site if a player was out of medication, or had lost it. He also said nonprescription painkillers — like Advil, Tylenol, Aleve and Motrin — were given with no records kept.

On road trips, Ramsden and Smith testified, trainers stockpiled and safeguarded medical “bags” or “kits” of prescription drugs. Ramsden testified the bags contained Toradol, Vicodin, the muscle relaxants Flexeril and cyclobenzaprine, Valium or Diazepam for back spasms, and prescription NSAIDs Indocin, Bextra and Vioxx.

Former trainer Smith stated in his deposition that trainers were responsible for stocking the kits and “making sure they got on the bus and plane and to the stadiums.’’

He said the bags were kept near trainers at all times.

The trainers stated the team’s drug log was for tracking prescription medications. Numbers were reconciled with a Kirkland pharmacy supplying the team’s painkilling medications.

Pill bottles had loose labels wrapped around them and secured with elastic bands, Ramsden testified. Whenever a player received the medication, the label was removed and attached to a doctor-signed prescription pad.

Those moves were logged on a spreadsheet that was returned to the pharmacy so medications could be restocked.

The Seahawks declined to answer questions about the drug log or Wunsch’s allegations, deferring to the NFL.

League spokesman Brian McCarthy issued a statement calling the allegations meritless: “The NFL clubs and their medical staffs are all in compliance with the Controlled Substances Act.”

McCarthy said the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was invited to meet with team doctors and trainers to ensure compliance, and he maintained that controlled substances are not stored at any NFL club facility.

“The NFL clubs and their medical staffs continue to put the health and safety of our players first, providing all NFL players with the highest quality medical care,” he wrote. “Any claim or suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong.”

 

Former Seahawk Jerry Wunsch has been in a legal battle with the Seahawks over disability payments due to injuries he said were masked by team-supplied painkillers.  (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Former Seahawk Jerry Wunsch has been in a legal battle with the Seahawks over disability payments due to injuries he said were masked by team-supplied painkillers. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

 

‘Out of my mind’

Documents from Wunsch’s compensation case paint a detailed picture of the drugs he received.

The records show that during a six-week period in August and September 2003, Wunsch received six pregame Toradol injections while also being prescribed the NSAID Indocin on at least three occasions.

Later that season, in November, Wunsch “tore up his side’’ while playing Washington. Records show Wunsch was put on a daily regimen of Indocin then for his pain.

On Nov. 15, 2003, still badly bruised, he got a Toradol shot from Shoup before playing against Detroit.

Wunsch testified in the compensation case that the team feared he still had internal bleeding a week later, when the Seahawks were in Baltimore to play the Ravens.

The day before that game, records show, Wunsch complained to Shoup of gastroenteritis and abdominal pain. Gastrointestinal problems are a potential complication of long-term NSAID use — or combining Toradol and other NSAIDs.

After his stomach complaints, the team decided against Wunsch taking Toradol before playing the Ravens. Instead, he took an Ambien pill to sleep the night before, then woke up at 4 a.m., took his regular Indocin and headed to the stadium. When he arrived, Shoup gave him a codeine-laced Tylenol 3 pill and Wunsch underwent acupuncture sessions to loosen up.

But Wunsch, in an interview, said he still felt too sore and told then-Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren he couldn’t play. Holmgren, he added, had once told him he’d always have a job if healthy, and Wunsch took that to mean he needed to do whatever it took to stay on the field.

In Baltimore that morning, Wunsch said Holmgren summoned trainer Ramsden and another team doctor, who gave him a 750-milligram “extra strength” Vicodin pill and sent him into the game.

By halftime, Wunsch again complained of being too sore to continue. At that point, he said, Ramsden, standing on the sidelines, reached in his pocket and handed him another Vicodin to finish the game.

“I knew it was not in my best interest to have 1,500 milligrams of Vicodin in me playing in an NFL game,’’ Wunsch told the Times. “I was out of my mind. People had to point to where to go.”

Wunsch said he was still “high as a kite” when the team flew back to Seattle postgame. He woke up the next day unable to remember driving home from the airport.

The team’s drug log shows Wunsch receiving the Tylenol 3 from Shoup and one Vicodin from Khalfayan that day, but no second Vicodin from anybody. Ramsden said under oath in his deposition he couldn’t specifically recall handing any players narcotic pills but “it’s possible that I did.’’

Holmgren said in an interview he never pressured players to take drugs. He said his protocol for players with pain was to work them out pregame to gauge how they felt.

“If he did come to me and say ‘I don’t think I can go’ then my typical response would be let’s get the medical people involved and let’s see what this is,’’ Holmgren said.

He added: “I never overruled a medical decision. It may not be the right decision but I never overrode it. And that was the last of it.’’

Holmgren said he did know players were being given painkillers.

“I think anybody who says they weren’t aware of players taking pain meds or whatever to play is not being truthful,’’ he said.

But NFL culture, he added, was very different even a decade ago and not as strict with medication.

A week after that Baltimore game, still taking daily Indocin, Wunsch received a Toradol injection before another game — and suffered a season-ending ankle injury.

He played only five 2004 regular-season games, receiving yet more injections and pain pills. On Dec. 26, he complained to Shoup of stomach pains, and he was diagnosed with gastroenteritis just before a game.

Mayo Clinic sports-medicine director Finnoff said players risk complications if they receive Toradol and other NSAIDs too close together.

In his deposition for the compensation case, team physician Herring said he was unaware of any defined “safe” gap between using Toradol and other NSAIDs. His general rule, he testified, was “maybe not mixing them the same day.’’

Wunsch said Seahawks doctors always had him stop other NSAID use the night before a Toradol injection.

But he also said he’d “crash’’ after games, as his Toradol wore off and fresh pain from that game mingled with old aches. To cope, he’d head home and load up on NSAIDs — prescription or nonprescription — from his stash.

Wunsch’s Toradol injections continued into January 2005, when he was given a shot so he could withstand a playoff game against the Rams. That game, which the Seahawks lost, turned out to be Wunsch’s last.

 

After an injection of Toradol, Wunsch said,  (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
After an injection of Toradol, Wunsch said, (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

 

‘Pain is a good thing’

Some teams and doctors cited in the Harvard Law School study released last fall say Toradol use has declined since 2012. That’s when a task force of NFL physicians recommended using the drug’s pill form rather than injections and only for existing injuries — not to block out anticipated in-game pain.

But filings in the federal lawsuit show an October 2014 NFL survey — with responses from 27 of 32 teams — indicated an average of 26.7 players out of 53 on a team were still taking Toradol on game days.

Pittsburgh Steelers physician Anthony Yates testified that players were still lining up for “the T-Train” — pregame Toradol injections — last season.

Even chemists Joe Muchowski and Robert Greenhouse, who helped create Toradol for post-surgical use before FDA approval in 1989, told SB Nation last August they were alarmed by its NFL use. Greenhouse likened it to “drug abuse” and said anyone allowing players to use Toradol weekly should be incarcerated.

“Pain is a good thing,’’ Greenhouse said. “It tells you that there’s something wrong. And if you mask that pain, you allow yourself to worsen the injury.’’

In November 2014, DEA agents conducted surprise inspections of the Seahawks and at least three other teams following road games. They searched bags and questioned team doctors about drug distribution.

A federal official declined to comment on the status of that investigation.

Wunsch welcomes anything that helps current players avoid his fate.

He has qualified for part of an NFL class-action settlement of a 2015 lawsuit alleging that the league concealed the risks of concussions. And, he has received disability ratings qualifying him for compensation from the Social Security Administration and the NFL’s retirement plan.

While Wunsch played in his final year at Tampa under a multimillion-dollar contract, he got cut and collected just a fraction of the full amount. He signed on for less money with Seattle. His years of NFL paydays are now long passed, and these days money is tight.

On bad days, when his pain clamps down like a vice, he stays confined to his 1,000-foot house near Tampa, Fla. Other times, he’s frightened by the memory lapses that get him lost driving his 11-year-old pickup truck just blocks from home.

He still loves football. He has two sons playing the game in high school. But he’s adamant that NFL doctors must be hired independent of teams — and that the league must make it a priority to safeguard the long-term health of players.

“Football needs to continue. It has to continue,” Wunsch said. “But I want to know I’ve done everything I can to protect everybody that’s coming behind me.”