NEW YORK – Ray Lucas still has his share of bad days, when his body aches and his mind wanders to the dark place he once thought he'd never leave.
The former NFL quarterback is a recovering addict. And, he cherishes the chance to open his eyes in the morning. After all, for Lucas, dying once seemed a lot easier than living.
"I live day by day and one day at a time," Lucas said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday. "I still have a lot of pain that I deal with, but I relish in the fact that sometimes you've got to walk through hell to get to heaven."
Heaven is being the husband Lucas knew he wasn't. It's being the father to the three daughters who just wanted a minute of his time. It's being the son, brother and friend that everyone missed.
"I'm living a dream now," Lucas said, "and it's a far cry from where I was before."
The 39-year-old Lucas struggled for years with an addiction to prescription painkillers. He shares his story as a cautionary tale to NFL rookies and veterans alike — and to help people struggling with addictions. He wants them to know they can get their lives back, starting by using the website www.TurnToHelp.com.
The site, sponsored by Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals, offers people the chance to find doctors who specialize in dealing with opioid addictions for discreet office visits — rather than treatment facilities that might require lengthy stays.
"The hardest thing for an addict to do is ask for help," Lucas said. "We don't want anybody to know who we are or what we think we are. It's, 'I'm ashamed of myself,' or, 'I'm embarrassed.' For stuff like this website to come out, it's game-changing for people who suffer from addiction."
Lucas appeared to have it all a few years ago. He was a popular quarterback who had stints with the Patriots, Jets, Dolphins and Ravens during a seven-year NFL career that ended in 2003. He stayed in the game in retirement by becoming an Emmy award-winning studio analyst who's not afraid to speak his mind about the Jets for SportsNet New York.
But, he harbored a dark secret that was gradually tearing his life apart. He was addicted to prescription painkillers after suffering severe neck injuries while playing football. Lucas was popping pills like candy — about 800 a month — and wondering where it all went wrong.
"When I was going through the throes of addiction, I would pass by mirrors and didn't know who I was looking at," Lucas said. "It was pretty tough to look at yourself in the mirror, especially when you wanted to punch the guy you were looking at."
A deep depression led to suicidal thoughts. He told HBO's "Real Sports" last year that he tried to end it all one day by planning to drive his car off the George Washington Bridge.
"That's the public version, but there were many other times where I tried to do it myself by taking 50 pills a night and praying that I wouldn't wake up because life wasn't worth living," Lucas said. "I wasn't living. I was killing myself from the inside."
Lucas doesn't blame the NFL or the game he played for so long. Professional football is violent by nature, he said, and taking painkillers is all part of it.
"I don't think the NFL is turning out addicts," he said. "I'm not saying that. This is bigger than the NFL. What I'm saying is that when you have prolonged use of a certain narcotic, your tolerance level goes way through the roof, and when you need medication, it's going to take 10 times more pills than the normal human being needs to take."
He spoke of his plight as news broke about the death of former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, who was found shot to death at his home Wednesday morning in what police said appeared to be a suicide. Lucas made no comments about Seau, whose death was still under investigation.
"For two years, I was in a black hole," Lucas said. "I was in an abyss. It was like being in a hole and people reaching out their hands and you're trying to reach them, but you're an inch away and you can't grab it. Every day, that hole gets deeper and that arm that you're looking to grab gets farther and farther away where you just don't care about everyday life anymore."
He grew distant from his wife, Cecilia, and three daughters. But they never gave up hope that they'd get back the man they loved.
"I was blessed," Lucas said. "There were a couple of times where I told my wife, 'Get the hell out, I don't even want to see you. Take the kids. Bounce.' And she didn't leave. She's always been there. My kids have always been there, and so have my parents and my friends."
The first step to recovery came when he sought out Pain Alternatives, Solutions and Treatments (PAST), a New Jersey medical group that performed neck surgery on him in 2010. A few months later, Lucas headed to drug rehab in West Palm Beach, Fla., and chronicled the experience on Facebook while gaining thousands of well-wishing fans in the process.
"During the first five days of detox, I wished I had driven off the George Washington Bridge," he said. "That was hell that I can't even put into words, and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. But every day after the fifth day, I got better and I wanted to keep getting better."
He did just that, eventually returning home to his family and to the television job he loved. Lucas knows if he'll have a bad day as soon as he wakes up, but refuses to give in to the temptation of painkillers.
"This disease is a cunning disease," Lucas said. "I'd be lying to you if I told you that if I have a bad day my mind doesn't wander and say: 'Hey, listen, man. You can take two. You'll be OK.'"
He shuts out those thoughts by going swimming or getting a massage. The conversations with Cecilia help a lot, too, and listening to his kids talk about school — and all those other moments he missed out on for so long.
"Back then, I wasn't even sitting at the table," Lucas said. "People ask if I'm embarrassed or they say, 'Why do you speak on TV? Don't you think people are going to judge you?' I don't really care because I am a survivor. I am a soldier. I made it to this point and now I'm trying to help others and give the gift I received back."