The pain was so bad, Cullen Jenkins got to the point where he had to rely on two Vicodin just to get through an NFL game.
The former Green Bay Packers defensive lineman started to feel the aches and strains of football during his final season at Central Michigan, even before his rookie debut in the NFL in 2003. But by the end of his 13-year professional career, pain was a constant companion, from his torn pectoral that had to be drained of excess fluid to his injured ankle and battered quadriceps.
When the 37-year-old retired in 2016 after playing with the Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Washington Redskins, he was regularly using opiates to dull the pain and drinking alcohol to numb the senses. Sleep was elusive.
Jenkins, who came back from a calf injury to help push the Packers to a Super Bowl XLV victory, fell into a deep depression, living with the side effects and hangovers of strong painkillers and alcohol.
“I’m not trying to say a sympathy story,” Jenkins said. “Or say it was terrible. When you play football, you know the risk that comes with it. If I could do it again? I would do it again.
“For me, it’s finding ways to deal with it post-career. With football they have all the programs for continuing education, job things. But if you’re in a lot of pain, you’re kind of just cut off.”
So Jenkins has recently turned to a controversial supplement instead: Cannabidiol, better known as CBD oil.
The chemical, extracted from a cannibals sativa plant, is known to have numerous benefits in the form of managing chronic pain, promoting sleep and thereby reducing depression and anxiety.
Jenkins, who now lives in New Jersey, is in Los Angeles this week promoting the CBD oil company he is working with, Fresh Farms CBD, of which he also has become an investor. He talked about his new method of treating his pain in a phone interview with the Journal Sentinel on Thursday.
Playing for the Giants
Jenkins was playing for the New York Giants (2013-’15) when he relied on Vicodin regularly. He would take a full pill right before pregame, then he would take a half of a pill right before kickoff and the other half at halftime. He was a warrior and it took a lot to pull him off the field.
“Like they say you’ve got to be available,” Jenkins said.
There was only one injury in his whole career – a pectoral tear – that put him on injured reserve, in 2008. Otherwise, he endured everything. The most painful injury was in his third year in Green Bay when he suffered a bone bruise on his ankle.
“It never healed,” said Jenkins.
He didn’t get it fixed surgically until a few months after the pectoral surgery in 2008.
He also believes he suffered more than one concussion. When he played for the Eagles on a Sunday night game, he landed a big hit on Giants running back D.J. Ware, who fell unconscious before hitting the ground.
“I was so excited,” Jenkins said. “When I got in to the locker room and sat down, everything was all over the place. They were talking plays but I had to get some of the smelling ammonia.”
Drinking alcohol was always a way for Jenkins to try to relax and sleep. He had young children at home, too, so his work days were hard and his evenings were busy.
“It would help me chill out,” Jenkins said. “It’s not like you can take all of your issues from work and go home and be frustrated. You find ways to relax and to be happy at home.
“I drank about anything. As it got later on in my career, it became a lot more often. Like, you know, a lot. It’s not something I’m very proud about. But it’s something that’s a reality.”
The depression came in 2017, like it does for so many NFL players who retire after long careers. Football wasn’t just Jenkins’ livelihood; it was his identity. It was a part of his family — brother Kris also had a great NFL career (and also struggled with drinking and depression).
“All of a sudden it comes to an abrupt end,” Cullen Jenkins said. “And before, you’re hurting — but there’s a reason why you’re hurting. Games, practice. Now you’re hurting — but there is no football.”
Jenkins had smoked marijuana in the past for pain, too, but hated it.
“I was paranoid, my mind would be all over the place,” Jenkins said. “If something happened, am I going to be in the right state of mind to be able to deal with it? With my kids? So I didn’t like doing it.”
So when members of his family suggested cannabis and CBD oil for his pain and insomnia, Jenkins was very reluctant. He associated the chemical with the high he got from smoking marijuana. Convinced they were not the same, he started ingesting CBD oil in January.
What is CBD oil?
Cecilia Hillard is a professor and director of the Neuroscience Research Center for the Medical College of Wisconsin. She has her PhD in pharmacology and toxicology and has studied cannabis with animal based research. She’s been at the medical college for 41 years.
She explained what cannabis extracted CBD oil is:
Cannabis sativa is the name of the plant. In the U.S., we call dried preparations of this plant marijuana. Inside the flowering tops, there are several chemicals that are unique to this plant that aren’t in other plants.
THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, one of the chemicals, is responsible for feelings of euphoria. That’s the high; and it also contributes to sleep promotion, pain and anxiety relief.
CBD is another chemical found in cannabis sativa. It does not produce the high that THC does, but studies in rodents show that it can reduce pain and anxiety. Strains of cannabis have been created that contain various amounts of THC and CBD. Some are very high in THC with low CBD; others are the opposite.
Exposure to THC and CBD is through various ways: smoking marijuana; consuming “edibles” where these chemicals are made into in brownies, cookies or candy bars; and cannabis extracted oils. If the cannabis that is extracted has high CBD, then the oil will be high in CBD. The oils also will contain other chemicals, they are by no means purely CBD or THC, explained Hillard.
Cannabis extracted CBD oil is usually paired with olive oil, or some other cooking oil. (Cannabis is not like tea, for example. If you add tea leaves to hot water, that’s enough to extract the caffeine and the flavors. Cannabis plant chemicals have to be extracted with oil because they’re not soluble in water.)
“This oil formulation would be a way of getting these chemicals without needing to smoke a joint or a pipe,” Hillard said.
The difference is that people who purchase CBD oil use it for pain relief and all the benefits, and not to get high.
Hillard said the research supports positive effects such as a greater amount of sleep and quality of sleep, which can improve everything from anxiety and depression to cognitive ability and immune system.
And cannabis is different than opiate drugs like Vicodin, Oxycodone, which are better at treating acute pain.
“They’re not very good at treating chronic pain,” Hillard said. “The cannabinoids are probably better at treating chronic pain.”
Like the pain experienced by Jenkins.
Cannabidiol is legal in Wisconsin but there is a whole load of restrictions.
“Wisconsin legalized Hemp derived CBD oils with no more than .03% or less of THC,” said Craig Wasserman, a California attorney with Pot Brothers at Law, through a Fresh Farms CBD spokesman.
But it’s still controversial. Last November, the governor of Indiana ordered CBD off shelves. Other states have made edibles legal. There seems to be more uncertainty on what could be legal and what could be harmful to us. That raises two major concerns for Hillard.
One, she wishes there were more studies, research and data to tell us more about the effects of cannabis on people.
“We have far too little experimental data in humans about this product because they’re illegal,” Hillard said.
Two, it’s very hard to verify the product really is what the manufacturer claims. One recent study examines commercial CBD and TCH, and the dosage varied greatly, even from the same company.
“The people who are taking the same drug often aren’t getting the same dose every time,” Hillard said. “Which makes it hard for us to compare between people and formulations.”
Hillard does not make social or political stands for or against the use of cannabis. She’s a pharmacologist simply pursuing the facts, and she would like more information so that we know all the benefits and detriments of this drug.
“I’m not a big proponent of flooding the world with more cannabis for people to take,” Hillard said. “I think the vast majority of people that want to use it recreationally and treat it the way people treat having a beer or a glass of wine, that’s fine. But there are people that do have trouble with dependence on cannabis.
“We really need to let it come out of the dark so that we can have formulations that are standardized. Treat it like any other medicine … to really prepare it in consistent ways so people can take it, and know what they’re getting.”
Jenkins has success
Jenkins said using CBD oil has been beneficial “without getting high.”
“It started helping,” Jenkins said. “With the joints, with the pain. It kind of helps with focus. I will take it before class — I’m in two carpentry classes now — and I like to take it before. It helps me stay in the moment.”
Jenkins places a couple drops from the bottle of CBD oil on his tongue. And he noticed during a one-week spring break trip to the Dominican Republic without it that he didn’t feel as good as when he was taking the CBD oil.
He said Fresh Farms CBD is a company he trusts, with founder Vem Miller.
“After trying it and seeing what it did, I started pursuing opportunities and became a part investor,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said he knows he is getting CBD oil — and not THC — because he would be sensitive to THC and feel it. A company spokesman also said Fresh Farms’ CBD oil is lab tested and notes that it contains no THC.
Current athletes beware
Pain is a part of life for boxers, martial arts fighters, rugby players and of course, football players. But current athletes need to know their sport’s rules before taking CBD oil.
“The problem with active athletes using CBD oil is they will test positive for marijuana,” said Mark Hutchinson, a professor and director of sports medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine.
“So if you’re an active athlete, you can’t use it if you’re subject to drug testing.”
Marijuana use is not permitted by the NFL or International Olympic Committee, for example, and those who test positive could be fined or suspended.
There is something called a “therapeutic use exemption” for some needed medicines that may be on a case-by-case situation permitted by a league or sport — but CBD oil is not one of them, said Hutchinson.
Otherwise, there’s still much more to learn. Hutchinson also would like to have cannabis and its potential medicinal benefits researched and better understood by the public.
“The problem I find right now personally is that marijuana and its pieces have all been criticized as a drug, and we haven’t really looked at it independently as a medicine,” Hutchinson said.
“There are hundreds of people who have this exact same story as this Green Bay Packer. They have chronic, opioid addictions, on Vicodin, or Norco. The government says we have an opioid addiction in the United States.
“And there’s hundreds of people that have been able to get off the opioids and instead use CBD oil, or variations of cannabis, to live comfortably. Everything becomes more tolerable and they’re not addicted to narcotics.”
Jenkins jogs now to stay in shape, to keep everything limber and loose, but every morning is a battle with aching calves, his ankle, tendonitis and a painful Achilles. It helps to have a medicine that he believes works, without the negative side effects.