Sports Nut

Why I Took HGH

On the desperation of an NFL player at the end of his career.

Nate Jackson in his playing days with the Denver Broncos, here in 2008.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

This piece was adapted from Nate Jackson’s new book Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile.

A week after being cut, I fly back to Denver to clean out my locker and say goodbye to my friends who work for the team. All of my teammates are gone for the off-season. I’ll never see them again. Our equipment manager Flip, our trainers Greek and Corey and Trae, our strength coaches Rich and Crime, and everyone else. They have become my extended family. When I came to Denver, I came alone. All players do in one way or another. The Bronco organization was my lifeline. They were very good to me. I love them. I want to tell them how I feel about my time there. But I don’t have the words.

I sit down in my locker for the last time. It was always a bit out of sorts, full of clothes and shoes and tape and gloves, notebooks and letters and gifts. Do I even want these cleats? These gloves? These memories? Yes. I fill up my box. Six years as a Denver Bronco. Six more than most people can say. Still feels like a failure, though. So this is how the end feels? Standing in an empty locker room with a box in my hand? Yep. Now leave.

I get home and call my agent, Ryan. He knows that my prospects aren’t great. I am an undersized tight end with injury problems and I am pushing 30. I need to find a team that wants a player with my skill set and won’t be turned off by the injuries. That won’t be easy, especially because the most recent one hasn’t healed. What I couldn’t convey honestly to Greek I can to Ryan. There is a problem—a deeper problem—that’s affecting my body. It’s not simply that my hamstring is shit. The entire functional movement of my body is off. I can feel it with every step I take. Something is amiss.

Ryan sets me up with a biomechanics specialist/physical therapist in San Diego named Derek Samuel. Ryan thinks I’ll get along with him. He’ll assess my situation and we’ll go from there. But I’m afraid this won’t be enough. Desperate times, you know the saying. I reach out to a connection I made a year earlier and acquire a supply of human growth hormone, HGH. The drugs come in the mail in a package stuffed with dry ice. I half expect to see the feds storm out of the bushes, guns blazing, as I pull the box off my front porch.

But no feds. Just me and another needle.

It comes with very little guidance as to the quantity and regularity of the shot. I have a conversation with my supplier and he tells me how to do it. Other than that I’m on my own. I will tell no one what I’m doing. I go to the store and buy syringes and start injecting it in my stomach immediately. I am paranoid about every aspect of this decision. I’ve never used performance-enhancing drugs. Haven’t ever even seen them. I take pride in my natural ability and I don’t want to taint it. I don’t want to test the karmic winds. But I also don’t want to taste the death of my football dreams, not like this.

I pack up my Denali and head over the Rocky Mountains, the vials of HGH stuffed in an ice-filled cooler. My time with the Broncos is up. That’s for sure. The rest of it will reveal itself eventually. But all men must move along. And they must do it with the feeling that they have left business unfinished, relationships unformed, opportunities untaken. I played for the Denver Broncos. I achieved my dream, which confronted me with a naked truth: The dream has been won, and it is not enough. I leave for San Diego to revive the dream, to give it the fresh air it needs, so that I can leave the game on my own terms.

From the moment I step into Derek’s La Jolla office, which connects to a small fitness club, I know I am in the right place. Derek is a 6-foot-3 former volleyball player at the University of California, Irvine, with a friendly disposition and a freaky knowledge of the human body. He asks me questions and lets me talk. He is interested in what I think and not just what I was told. He is interested in how the treatments I got in Denver affected me, how I responded to them and how I felt about them. He wants to know the backstory so he can make more sense of what he discovers on his own. It is refreshing, truly. For the first time in years I am free to look at my body through my own eyes and to own my own flesh.

After an examination, Derek determines that not only is my hamstring incredibly weak, but my hips are drastically misaligned, my pelvis is tilted forward, and my core strength is very poor. We get to work immediately, realigning my body and strengthening its foundation: the core. This isn’t accomplished by snapping it back in place. It takes a soft touch, a gradual redirection of the years of bad habits that I formed while playing football. The body must correct itself. And it must be listened to every day. Derek’s genius lies in his ability to hear the human body’s cries. But in order to do that, he also has to hear the cries of the mind. He is simultaneously acting as physical therapist and psychotherapist, easing me into a transition I am denying. I think my football days are far from over, yet I rail every day about the oppressive nature of the industry. Between sets of exercises, I go on and on about the meat market of the NFL, the hypocrisy of coaches, the false glamour of fame, and the inevitable meltdown of the players who play football.

He sees many football players in his practice, and knows firsthand what I’m talking about, but he never lays it on me with any air of finality. He is too smart for that. But the fact that I am here at all, seeing Derek for my treatment, means that I have cleared an existential boundary in my pursuit of football absolutism. I have turned my back on the modern philosophy of NFL injury treatment, and in doing so, have taken one more step away from the industry I think I am running toward. Certainly, I am getting superb treatment. But my mind is doing something else. It is picking apart a system to which I have bowed my entire adult life. It is, as a defense mechanism I suppose, finding all of the reasons why I should cash in my chips and walk away. But I can’t.

Along with Derek’s workouts in La Jolla, I am meeting a track coach at the University of California, San Diego. My first day on the track is a sad realization of how unhealed my hamstring is. To be medically cleared by the Broncos, I had to pass a series of strength and endurance tests. But those tests did not include running. I haven’t run since the corner route that tore it three months earlier. And when I try to open up and sprint on the track, I can’t. I simply cannot run. Judging by the look on the track coach’s face, it’s a sad sight. I wish the drugs would fix me already.

I’ve been hiding the vials in the refrigerator of my friend Billy, who I’m staying with in San Diego. I become a master of refrigerator organization with the express purpose of concealing contraband, wrapped in the folds of my deli meat. Nobody touch my goddamned turkey!

When it’s shooting time, I get the turkey and retreat to my room, where I mix the active ingredient with the solution, pinch my belly, plunge the needle into my skin, and push the poison into my body. I imagine the HGH as a fleet of noble warriors. I am doing God’s work, after all. There is nothing dishonest about it. HGH is a hormone naturally produced in the body, and my body is starved for it. I am broken. I am unable to perform the sacred task that I was born for. To turn my back on it would be to spit in the face of God. So I draw back the syringe and poison myself again, and again, and again. I don’t know what I expect to happen: a miraculous recovery perhaps. A newfound clarity. A bigger dick. But nothing happens. The only noticeable effect is that my body aches viciously. I don’t know what this means and I’m too afraid to ask anyone about it, so I assume it is part of the process. My muscles are big and well-defined, perhaps slightly more than normal, but perhaps not. I was always muscular, and I am training like a madman. My body looked the same when I was in Denver shooting tequila instead of HGH. Either I’m not doing it right or my body doesn’t like it. And the fact that I’m doing it at all, sneaking around, carrying this secret, makes me feel mentally weak and undeserving of good fortune. Regardless, after a few months of intrastate trafficking and refrigerator espionage, I throw it all away in one dramatic garbage-can dump, and I close the lid. If I am going to play football again, I’ll do it clean.

This piece was adapted from Nate Jackson’s new book Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile.