WEST ORANGE, N.J. -- The band did its job, bringing the congregation to its feet with a medley of Christian rock. The pastor would come later. Now, between song and sermon, Ray Lucas was on stage Saturday night at the Life Christian Church to share his story with 150 fellow members in the worship room.
Under bright lights, Lucas revisited his darkest times, drawing gasps and an occasional "amen" from a rapt audience.
The former New York Jets quarterback talked about the abrupt and frightening end to his seven-year career, his many injuries, the pain -- oh, the constant pain -- and his addiction to painkillers. Hiding nothing, he described the old Ray as a broken man, depressed and suicidal, so desperate that he once thought about driving his car into the Hudson River.
This could've been an Oprah moment, except it wasn't made for TV. This was real life, with real wounds and real healing, and there was a point in his unplugged confessional when Lucas -- a Jersey tough guy who once punched a teammate for being too carefree after a season-ending loss -- choked up. It happened when he looked into the congregation and saw his wife, Cecy, and their three daughters, ages eight to 16, only a few feet away.
"I got the apple," he said later in a quiet moment. "After all I've put them through, they're still in the front row, and it's a blessing."
Welcome to Ray Lucas' best Father's Day, his first Father's Day in which he's "clean and clear," he said proudly.
It has been a long and difficult journey, which included 42 days recently at a rehab facility in Florida. Lucas, 39, never the shy type, went public with his battle, chronicling his most intimate feelings from rehab on his Facebook page. His plight also has been featured in newspaper articles and on HBO's "Real Sports."
Continuing in that vein, he has decided to speak to groups as part of the recovery process. He's helping himself while helping others.
It started at his church, a modern-looking building -- think dental office -- next to a liquor store on a gritty street in West Orange. Lucas, an Emmy Award-winning analyst on SportsNet New York, is accustomed to the spotlight, but this made him nervous.
Lucas shared the stage with former Giants tackle Roman Oben, a friend, fellow church member and fellow SNY analyst. Oben acted as an interviewer, taking Lucas through the highs and lows of his seven-year career, which began as a wedge-busting special-teamer for the AFC champion New England Patriots in 1996. His most memorable season was 1999, when he replaced the injured Vinny Testaverde and led his hometown Jets to six wins in nine starts.
By 2003, Lucas' body was breaking down. His bid to make the Baltimore Ravens' roster came unraveled with a sneeze on the practice field -- yes, a sneeze. Already suffering from nerve damage in his neck, he lost all feeling below his waist and was taken by ambulance to the hospital, praying his career wasn't going to end this way.
The feeling came back, and so did he, returning to the Ravens' facility that day via taxi. But he was cut the next day. Career over.
So began the nightmare. Seven years in the NFL -- a mere 55 games -- has triggered a lifetime of pain.
It became unbearable, and Lucas began popping pills as if they were Skittles. He said he took 500 per month, draining his bank account and putting an enormous strain on his family life. He had no health insurance and pleaded with the NFL and the NFL Players Association to help him, but he said those conversations were futile and turned nasty.
"I called this group that's supposed to help NFL players, and I said, 'If you don't help me, I'm going to kill myself,'" he told the crowd. "This lady said, 'I'm very sorry, Mr. Lucas, but we're in a fundraising phase.'"
Now he was at rock bottom. He was depressed and couldn't get out of bed. He admittedly wasn't a good husband and father, yet he couldn't grasp that at the time because he always was in a drug-induced stupor.
"I thought everybody would be better off without me," Lucas said. "I actually planned to drive to the George Washington Bridge and make a right in the middle. I couldn't do it at home because I didn't want my babies to see me."
A woman in the second row wept. Another gasped, "Oh, my God."
Seemingly out of options, Lucas found PAST -- Pain Alternatives, Solutions & Treatments, a New Jersey-based medical group that took his case pro bono. Neck surgery was performed last September, and that helped -- but it wasn't a cure-all. In February, he checked into rehab.
"I was a disaster," he said. "I can't even explain it, but sometimes you have to go to hell to appreciate heaven."
Lucas was a popular player because of his indomitable spirit -- an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers -- and upbeat personality, and those attributes are tested on a daily basis. He's sober, yes, but this is an opponent that, like him, is stubborn and has a swagger.
"It's 10 times harder than I thought it was going to be," he said afterward, discussing life after in-patient rehab. "Addiction is a cunning disease. Your mind is always trying to play tricks on you. On days I'm in pain, my brain will say, 'You've been clean for so long, all you have to do is take a couple, you don't need 500.' I have to realize I don't need anything."
Oben marveled at his friend's openness, his willingness to go public with his private battle.
"I think it's tremendous how transparent he's been," Oben said. "This isn't something that happened five years ago. This happened recently and he's still going through it."
Lucas said his goal is to live a simple life, being a good husband and father. As he put it, "I want to get up every morning and be the guy I was supposed to be for my wife and be the father they deserve."
When he was done Saturday night in church, back at his seat after spilling his insides on stage, Lucas' daughters came running over to him. His middle daughter, Madison, 11, holding a tissue, had tears streaming down her cheeks.
After everything, after all the tough times, Ray Lucas' front row -- the most important part of his life on this Father's Day weekend -- wasn't in his audience anymore. It was in his arms.