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Nate Jackson Discusses the NFL, Cannabis, and Changing Stigmas

“I was able to access those types of visualization techniques a lot easier when I was high.”

Nate Jackson played tight end in the NFL for the Denver Broncos for six years and throughout his entire college and high school careers. During that time he learned to thrive in the grueling demands of maintaining peak physical fitness and to adapt to the violent nature of a sport that uses a man’s head as a weapon and often a target. In this exclusive interview with NORML Athletics, Nate opens up about how he balanced his marijuana use off the field as a complement to lifestyle demanded by the NFL.

NORML Athletics: Can you start out by talking a little bit about your football and sports history as well as your introduction to cannabis. How did those two eventually overlap?

Nate Jackson: I’ve always been athletic. I’ve always been competing in sports ever since I was a little kid. I was a swimmer and a soccer player growing up. I did not play football until I got to high school. My parents wouldn’t let me play. They thought it was too dangerous. I played a lot of football out in the street and up in the parks with friends, but the only sports I was playing organized was swimming and soccer. When I got to high school I started playing football, and that’s around the time I started smoking cannabis. I was first introduced to cannabis in the summer before my freshman year of high school, so my use of the plant really overlapped with me playing football. I started both about the same time. I’ve been smoking it ever since. It did not deter me from reaching the highest level of performance and making it all the way to the NFL. I medicated with that while I was playing in the NFL. Of course I backed off it a little bit in the run up to it. It wasn’t something I was doing every day or really even that often. It was more to deal with -especially in the NFL – more to deal with injuries or when we’d have the off season and down time I smoked it. In mini-camps and training camps I wasn’t really smoking a lot. The demands were pretty high, I was real focused, and my body felt really good. It was usually when my body would break down that I would smoke. I’ve always reached for weed instead of pain pills. I’ve never really enjoyed pain pills (like Percocet and Vicodin), so when I’d have a bad injury I would medicate with marijuana. I think it’s had a lot of benefits to me, to my body, to my brain. Like you were talking about visualizing. It inspires me. It’s a non-addictive substance in my mind. I never had a physical addiction or feeling towards it like I need to get weed in my system. It was always something I would naturally reach for when the time felt right. And it’s still part of my life.

NORML: So with the visualization, would you reach for cannabis with the intent of visualizing sometimes? Or would you just realize that whenever you would ingest THC that it would naturally show you ways to take advantage of the plant?

Jackson: I think it was probably both. When I would have a severe injury for example, and I would smoke, then I would definitely visualize my body healing. I would break my body into different colors. The affected tissue, the injured tissue, or the injury would be a certain color in my mind and the healing energy would be another color, and I would visualize the healing color overtaking the injured color in my body. I felt like I was able to access those types of visualization techniques a lot easier when I was high. Also through experimentation with athletic performance while high, I believe I strengthened the connections with hand eye coordination and being able to feel things around me. However, I did not perform under the influence of marijuana football-wise. Football is so violent and chaotic, you know. You don’t want to get high and have eleven dudes attacking you, so I never wanted to get high before I went onto the field. There was a time in high school where I experimented going to practice high, because I was in the throes of my social stoner phase. But I found, at least for me, football was better played sober, because of the contact and because of the aggression and violence of it. Some other sports I dabbled with being high and felt like you can find the zone, you can find that muscle memory and that relaxation it takes to perform at an athletic level sometimes. Like basketball or golf where there are times you have to relax and empty your mind. So often in sports these days coaches are imploring people to worry about their technique, and so you’re thinking about so many different things, a lot of times the athlete’s head gets filled up with so much coaching nonsense they have a hard time relaxing and just playing and just doing the thing. It’s very simple, but we make it very complicated in this country playing sports. Weed allows me to simplify the process and turn the light inward and focus on my own instinct athletically, and to trust that instinct. Every wall that I broke down, I gained more confidence in my own personal process.

NORML: With your giving recommendations to other folks who are athletically inclined and also are experimenting with cannabis, if they are trying to simplify the process and just letting go of their mind being full of clutter as they’re trying to learn, is there some baseline level of practice they would need to have before ingesting cannabis would be useful? Do they need to be an expert and be solid with the fundamentals? Or could cannabis actually be helpful for a novice is just trying to let go and let their body do what comes natural?

Jackson: I think you probably could do that as a novice. But you don’t want to rely on the plant to do the thing you’re trying to do. You have to rely on yourself. You have to trust your own body, your own mind, your own spirit, whether you’re under the influence of a plant or not. For me it always helped to develop the skills sober, and then refine them with a bit of experimentation. Stepping into a skill right off the bat and getting high before it, I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to learn that skill. I think you want to circle the wagons first in a sober state and get your body used to the motions it takes to do it. Get a little bit of muscle memory down, then you can fortify that with the use of cannabis. That’s at least how it worked for me. Everyone is different. I’m a very athletic individual. My hand-eye coordination is on point and always has been. I’ve always been really good with my hands, my body and my feet, so it’s always come very naturally to me. Someone who it comes less naturally to or someone who takes a lot longer to learn something might want to experiment with it a bit differently. Once you have a skill or a grasp for what it takes, then you can start tinkering with it. It’s important to push through that realm first with a sober mind.

NORML: As far as the opiates that are prescribed for a lot of the NFL players, how does that normally work? I’ve heard stories about doctors freely giving out opiates. Is that really the case? And to what extent is that dangerous in your mind and how much of a replacement could cannabis offer to opiates?

Jackson: I wouldn’t say the doctors are running around the locker rooms just throwing out pills like it’s Halloween and they’re passing out candy. They do definitely try to discern between an injured player and someone who’s healthy. They don’t want to give healthy players pills. They traditionally they only give pain pills to guys who are dealing with an injury – a certifiable documented injury. That said, there are tons of certifiable documented injuries in the NFL. Every single player in the NFL is getting hurt in some point of the season and going in to get medical attention. It’s up to the doctor to decide the severity of that and whether or not the player needs pills. I think it varies from team to team. From medical staff to medical staff. In general, pain pills and anti-inflammatories are a constant reality in the NFL. It’s not hard to get them if you get injured, of course. If you get injured they’re going to hand you a bottle of anti-inflammatories. They’re also going to hand you a bottle of pain pills if you ask them, and often times even if you don’t, if the injury is severe enough. They’ll have several refills on that. If you have them, you can get what you need especially if it’s a season ending injury and puts you on injured reserve. Last year about 300 guys ended the season on injured reserve which means if you get an injury severe enough to end the season you get pulled off. Your roster spot gets freed up when you get put on injured reserve and you’re done for the season. Those guys have severe enough injuries where they’re all being handed pain pills. All 300 of those guys at least have the option to use them. If it’s severe enough, you have a bottle, you eat all 30 pills, you refill it and eat another 30, you refill it once more and you’ll find yourself physically addicted to those pills. What it’s creating is a lot of physically dependent guys who are dealing with a lot of pain – orthopedic and brain as well – and so they’re reaching for those pills just to perform the job duties of the profession. That pressure to get back on the field and that constant reality of pain and injury is what keeps those doctors giving these guys pills. I don’t think it’s necessarily malicious intent on the doctors’ part. It’s certainly compassion that’s making them do this. These doctors are torn between two worlds. They’re torn between the education that they got which is to protect the patient and look out for his best interest. On the other hand they’re in this environment where it’s nearly impossible to do that because the same thing that injured this man, well, you’re pushing him out there on to the field to go do the exact same thing over and over and over again. And they know they can not look out for this patient’s best interest health wise. So they’re trying to dull the pain they understand is inherent to the game and so it is kind of a Catch-22 there.

I do believe that cannabis could be an effective substitute for a lot of players. A lot of them are already using it as an effective substitute for pain pills. It’s just banned by the league as of now, so if they get caught doing that then they’ll be put in the substance abuse program, they’ll get suspended and fined. I do believe that if the league took it off their banned substances list and opened their minds to it, I don’t know if they’d necessarily see them prescribing it anytime soon, but at least allowing the players to medicate on their own if that’s what they see fit. I think it could have a positive ripple effect, and it could prevent some of these addictive pills from landing in the wrong hands. It could protect these guys’ brains in the long run.

NORML: Do you have an idea of what percentage of NFL players are actively using cannabis?

Jackson: I don’t, because it would just be a ballpark figure for me. I would say about half. It’s hard to tell, because you never have a meeting and show of hands “who smokes weed and who doesn’t?” You never really know. You hang out with your friends on the team. You hang out with the group of guys that you like, and some of them smoke weed and some don’t. You don’t party with everybody. You don’t hang out with everybody all the time, so it’s hard to tell. These guys are products of America. They’re young men. They’re very familiar with their own bodies, their own release, they’re very familiar with socializing. Football teams at every school are kind of the center of attention in a lot of ways. The guy who’s best on the team, he gets a lot of accolades. He has people wanting to party with him. People wanting to get him high. People wanting to get him drunk. And so he’s very familiar with the social aspect of life. If he makes it to the NFL he has been able to navigate that in a way that’s allowed him to be an elite athlete and not compromise his play with partying. In a lot of ways, marijuana allows these guys to take the edge off off the field, but not lose any edge on the field. So I think a lot of guys do it. If you make it to the NFL and you smoke weed, well, your weed use is under control because the demands that are put on an NFL athlete are incredibly intense from being punctual every single day, to memorizing a very complicated playbook, to speaking to the media, to going out onto the field and performing, to being in tip top shape, to satisfying your coaches. You have to do that on a daily basis. So if they’re able to do that and still smoke marijuana, then marijuana is not a problem in their lives whatsoever. These guys in the NFL are the very best in the world at what they do. If they use marijuana, it says a lot about marijuana. It’s not deterring them from being the best.

NORML: As far as the uses of marijuana as being a neuroprotectant, we’re seeing several preliminary studies that suggest if someone suffers from a head injury introducing THC could be one of the best things for preventing brain damage associated with a concussion. Have you looked into that world at all?

Jackson: I’ve read those same studies and hearing the same whispers about that. All I know is my own anecdotal experience with it. Like I said, I started smoking weed around the time I started playing football. In my freshman year in high school I sustained a pretty bad concussion at practice. That was right around when I started smoking pot. I don’t remember if I medicated that week with it, but relatively soon after I was smoking weed. Then I went on to play four years in high school, three years in college, and six years in the NFL. Football is about using your head as a weapon, so I was very familiar with what it meant to get hit in the head, to hit with my head, to see stars, to feel like I got dinged. I was knocked out a couple of times, all the while medicating with marijuana naturally. Not thinking this is going to help my head, but it was a natural lean toward the plant to take my body, my mind, and my brain off of what I was doing. But I believe in hindsight that it did protect my brain and it helped it heal.

NORML: Considering your healthy track record, it’s potentially noteworthy that you’re not currently suffering from the same [neurological] problems that a lot of other guys are and you were ingesting cannabis all along. Do you have preferred strains or methods of ingestion?

Jackson: It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that the whole strain thing started to be something people were aware of. Most of my life I was just smoking marijuana, and that was it. Smoking what I found. Smoking what I could get. You buy weed and that’s what it was. In the last couple of years, I started to experiment with strains a little more. I prefer sativas more so than indicas. I still like to smoke it. I do vape sometimes. Sometimes I eat some CBDs I’ve been experimenting with lately. I’ve always just enjoyed smoking. Smoking it has always been my favorite.

NORML: What about salves? We’ve heard several athletes mention that they’re rubbing topical ointments and salves onto their joints to help with pain and inflammation. Have you tried them at all?

Jackson: I have some of the salves and lotions. I don’t have joint pain. Thankfully I’ve never really had a problem with my joints. So I haven’t really experimented a lot with the topical stuff. I’m open to it.

NORML: What are your plans now? You’re very outspoken about the value of the plant. Do you have a plan of attack here?

Jackson: I don’t have a plan of attack. And I’m actually not necessarily reaching out to media outlets. With the New York Times piece, I saw an opening to relay some of my own anecdotal experience and inject a bit of realism into the discussion about what’s going on with these players and the demands that are going on with their body and their brains. I don’t necessarily have an agenda. I’m not rallying for a specific company or a specific cause. What I want to do – and it’s not just marijuana, but everything – I’m a writer now. I’m focused on being honest and helping out my football peers, current and former players. And I just feel like I’ve developed the ability to articulate the things I’ve been through and the things I feel about that stuff. A lot of these guys can’t do that. Current players certainly can’t, or else they’ll be fired. And former players feel indebted to the brand and they can’t speak up on their own behalf and talk about how it affected them as individuals as human beings. That’s what’s most important to me. That individual. That human being. I’m not in the NFL, and the NFL doesn’t care about me anymore. So it’s important for me to speak my truth, and really that’s what I’m doing. With the cannabis stuff it’s gained momentum because I’m the only guy who will talk about it. So people are asking me to explain things and talk about these things that most other guys won’t talk about. So really, that’s the entirety of my objective. I don’t really have necessarily a big plan. What I’d like to see happen, is the NFL remove cannabis from the banned substance list and stop punishing guys for it.

The way that they enforce it, it just doesn’t look good. I challenge you to find a white player who’s ever been busted in the NFL for smoking weed or testing positive for marijuana.  You will not find it. So what you’ll find is a cultural shift even in the NFL. The NFL’s drug laws just feel a little bit off. So what I would like is to stop demonizing these players for reaching for something that’s only helping them, while the demands of the game are incredibly violent. It’s maiming these guys. Have a little compassion for them. Listen to what they’re doing. Pay attention to their bodies and their minds and help them. Help them get better health care. Help them do the things that are going to preserve their brains long term and ease their pain that they’re going through to make a lot of people a lot of money. There’s a lot of really, really rich people that are getting rich off the NFL that aren’t sacrificing anything physically. It’s only those players that are sacrificing the physical for that game. For those guys we need to be more compassionate and open our hearts so they can treat their injuries.

NORML: So have you had pretty good response from your book [Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile]. How big of an impact has it had?

Jackson: It’s hard to tell. When you write a book you write it by yourself, you put it out and you hope people read it. But you don’t know. The response has been really good. I haven’t had anyone be upset by what I’ve said. I didn’t throw anyone under the bus. I tried to be as honest as possible. I threw myself under the bus several times. But for the most part everyone has been real positive. I did get some emails and calls every once in a while expressing thanks that I was able to talk about this stuff and bring it to light. It was very cathartic to tell the story in a way that was not sentimental. I was not affected as a writer and I could lay it flat and talk about what it did to me as a human being. I think because it’s a very similar story for a lot of these guys. It’s not the superstar narrative. It’s not Peyton Manning’s life. It’s not Tom Brady’s life. It’s not even Peyton Manning’s life for Peyton Manning. It’s a fairytale that ESPN tells. All these guys are caught in this box that these productions build for them and stuff them in. They’ve got to deliver their lines. It’s a very restrictive life for these guys, and the public thinks it’s the opposite. They think it’s a fairy tale. They think it’s wealth and privilege. Well, there’s another story going on there, and that’s the story I wanted to tell. That’s the more common story, that’s been pretty well received. But it didn’t get a lot of mainstream attention because it goes against the mainstream narrative. It goes against the ESPN narrative. It goes against the TV fairytale narrative, but those who are interested in the story have been very responsive and positive.

NORML: We’ve had a lot of these conversations over the past five years or so, and when we talk to people they have their own perspective about why this issue matters. Listening to you speak, you have a compelling story to tell and you are a lot more articulate as far as how you tell the story. So I would imagine you’re going to find more and more people reaching out to have Nate Jackson tell his version of the story and how this all works and why it’s valuable and why the plant should be made available, at least for medicinal reasons. I saw that you spoke at a Sports and Medicine discussion at a cannabis conference in Colorado recently. Do you have plans to speak at other conferences?

Jackson: I played for the Broncos and I have a house there, so I’m in Colorado often. A friend of mine who is a former player, he has a bigger name than I do. He has a recognizable name and he uses cannabis. They had been trying to get him to come out and talk to tell his story. He tentatively agreed to be a part of that conference at first, but then he back out. He just wasn’t ready. Like a lot of these guys that just aren’t ready to come into the light as a marijuana user because these guys feel indebted and beholden to the league. They still carry water for the league, and they don’t want to tarnish their image in the eyes of the league or the eyes of the people who believe that they’re superheroes because of the league. So he backed out last minute and asked if I would do it. I just happened to be around, so I agreed to do it and I didn’t really know what to expect or what was involved with this conference at all. I thought I was just going to be part of a panel of guys talking about sports and cannabis and stuff. That’s pretty much what it was. But i also had the floor to give a speech prior to it, and I winged it for about 15 minutes about what we’re talking about right now. It was pretty well received, and that kind of got the ball rolling. There was an AP reporter there who did a story that a lot of [publications] picked up. I’m reluctant to make that my cause. I’m also a writer. I have other interests. I’m working on a book. I don’t want to battle a team of NFL lawyers and NFL team doctors’ lawyers and beat my chest about how they need to change their policy. But if I can help, and as time goes by I learn more, then I think I’ll feel comfortable doing it.

NORML: It feels like the whole movement is trying to find its voice right now. As time goes by and more people are stepping up and able to be a part of that voice, I’d say yours is one people are definitely going to be paying attention to. Do you have any final words to share in this discussion?

Jackson:  The guys in the NFL are at the tippy top of the mountain. We shouldn’t be feeding them pills. Marijuana isn’t right for everyone, but for those who naturally lean toward it and get to the NFL anyway we should listen to them. There must be a reason they can use cannabis and still be at peak performance. It’s important to recognize the plant is beneficial to some who still manage to remain at this elite level. That says a lot about the plant and the people using it.