Erik Ainge opens up about drug addiction

March, 29, 2011
3/29/11
2:33
PM ET
Rich Cimini of ESPNNewYork.com has a powerful story on former Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge, who opened up to Cimini about his drug addiction.

[+] EnlargeErik Ainge
James Lang/US PresswireErik Ainge says he was using cocaine and heroin, and was addicted to pain killers as a senior at Tennessee in 2007.
Ainge, a backup quarterback with the New York Jets, said he started using drugs when he was 12 and was spiraling out of control. He missed all of last season and landed in rehab. Had that not occurred, he says he would probably be dead or in jail now.

He has remained clean since July 17, his longest stretch of sobriety since he was 11.

By the time Ainge was a senior at Tennessee in 2007, he says he was a full-blown addict and eventually started using cocaine and heroin once he got to New York.

He broke a finger on his throwing hand during his senior season and says he became addicted to pain killers. Judging from some of Ainge's comments, it sounds like Tennessee medical officials were concerned that there might be a problem, although Ainge continued to play that season.

Here's an excerpt:
"I played my whole senior season with a broken finger on my throwing hand. It was really badly broken. Just taking the snap, throwing the ball, handing it off, getting tackled -- everything that goes along with playing quarterback -- it was very painful. Throughout that process, I became hooked on pain killers. I got them from the team doctor. I went through the prescriptions pretty fast. After he had been giving them to me for quite a while, he said he couldn't give them to me anymore. I was hooked on them and I was playing football, and there was no way I was going to cancel my senior year by going to rehab. I started getting them from people, buying them, getting them off the street. I wasn't the only player on the team that was doing it, so we knew people. It wasn't, like, super sketchy or anything. We knew people who had them, and we were Tennessee football players, so they pretty much just gave them to us."

Ainge had already gone to rehab once in 2009, but started drinking again and relapsed. He said it was a trip back to Tennessee in the summer of 2010 and some trouble he got into there that convinced him that he needed help. Of note, he says the police let him go, and he was never prosecuted.
"I went to Tennessee to visit friends, and I had some trouble with the law. It never got reported because the cops were Tennessee fans, and they saw how bad a shape I was in. It was so bad that I don't even want to talk about it. I was cuffed, but instead of busting me, the cops called somebody in town that knew me. Two days later, I was up in Boston at rehab. I had to get help before I died."

On a personal note, I covered Ainge on a daily basis his first three seasons at Tennessee while working for the The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville. He met with the media on a regular basis, came across as very intelligent and very alert and never gave any impression that he was battling drug addiction. And at least publicly, he was never in trouble off the field while he was Tennessee.

Still, it's a fair question as to how he avoided being caught in Tennessee's drug-testing program if he were indeed using all of the different drugs he says he was and using as frequently as he says he was.

If nothing else, it certainly calls into question the validity and effectiveness of Tennessee's drug-testing program while he was there.

Chris Low | email

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