By A.J. Herrington

IG: @A.J.Herrington

For any player in the National Football League, knowing and following the game plan is fundamental. The game plan is the roadmap to victory, prescribing a course of action for any challenge the team may face. Most are formulated over a long period of time, and are based on tried and true strategy, with little room for experimentation.

For much of his football career, former All-Pro offensive tackle Kyle Turley found personal success by sticking to the game plan. When he decided in high school that he wanted to play in the NFL, he knew the path to follow, and it was a straight and narrow one. Kyle avoided drugs and alcohol, and worked tirelessly to condition his body and develop his playing skills. After four years at San Diego State University, Kyle was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the 1998 NFL draft.

But early in his NFL career, Kyle found that the traditional game plan for personal conduct wasn’t working for him any longer.  He’s had his share of injuries, including a concussion in 2003, and a herniated disc that sidelined him for the 2004 and 2005 season. The stress of the game and the league, coupled with an insidious disease creeping further into his brain with every blow at the line of scrimmage, were creating turmoil with his physical and mental health.

I met with Kyle at his home in Riverside, California, not far from where he grew up. After introducing me to his dogs Bob and Marley, we took stools at the bar of a well-appointed backyard kitchen. After Kyle fired up a palm-leaf wrapped joint from his company, Bambino Blunts, we settled in to talk football, marijuana, and mental health.

Turley’s Introduction To Cannabis

A.J. How long have you been smoking? Did you smoke as a kid in high school?

K.T. No, I didn’t. I committed to the dream, dedicated to football, getting to the NFL, being a first-round draft pick, the whole deal, you know. What every kid out there is trying to fight for. I committed to it 100%. No steroids, no nothing, I’m pure. And made it. When I started having serious issues and was in the NFL… I was dealing with a lot of neuro-cognitive issues. They were ignoring a lot of them, the NFL was, the team was, the Saints were. Having episodes of vertigo starting to seep in and be frequent… To depression, and rage control. And that was seeping into my personal life, you know? I could feel it. That being the case, one day, I was going through a divorce at the time, a player, a Hall of Fame guy, took me home, we lived in the same neighborhood. We came home from practice, this was my second year in the league, I was 22 years old. And I had always been around marijuana. I went to San Diego State, weed was everywhere, you know. I never had any problem with it. I hung around it all the time, I got contact highs everywhere I went. But I had to take drug tests, you know, I had a dream. Didn’t want that to be a factor. I saw teammates of mine being punished for this, I thought it was bullshit, I know it’s bullshit now…But I didn’t do any of that. I was committed, 100%. I stayed away from spring breaks, I didn’t drink, I still don’t drink. And then, at that moment when he gave me that and said K.T. you gotta try this, you gotta use this, you’ll get sleep. ‘cause I wasn’t sleeping. I was stressed, there was a lot of bullshit going on, real-world problems that everybody has. And he gave me a joint.

A.J. Is smoking your preferred method of ingestion?

K.T. I believe in smoking. I believe in the history of it.  I believe in the purity of it. I believe in the track record that it has. You know, when you face death, as I have, as a person who has admitted to having mental illness– I’ve been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, clinically. And to deal with all those things, and to have been to the point of suicide, to know that I can sit here and talk to you about this articulately, only through this. Without this, I’m a fucking recluse, a train wreck, absent from my family and society.

A.J. So no edibles?

K.T. I first remember eating like a carrot cake, that my buddy, a comedian Ralphie May, gave to me at his house one time. And going “Oh, this is awesome!” and I ate the whole fucking thing. And, I’ve never been so high in my life. Oh, it was a horrible experience. That one experience just turned me totally off edibles.

After he began smoking pot, Turley noticed that some marijuana strains were having a more positive effect on his mental well-being than others. Unfortunately, he usually didn’t have the chance to select what he wanted. With no dispensaries where he lived then, Turley took what he could get. So, while Kyle was finding relief and relaxation with herb, he also followed the traditional course of action when inevitable injuries took their toll. And a heavy toll it was.

Cannabis As Medicine

A.J. What health issues do you have that are a result of your NFL career?

K.T. Orthopedically– sciatica, I had a bad back injury, bone-on-bone arthritis in pretty much every joint. I wake up every morning and it’s like a popcorn machine. With everything clicking back into place like a fucking robot, you know? And, I’ve had knee surgeries, and ankle surgeries, plates and screws, and all these other things, multiple surgeries, and all the medications over the years. And then the neurological injuries from all the concussions. I played offensive line. The line positions, every play is a concussion.

Kyle believes that the NFL has shirked its responsibility to players who make the business of football possible. For much of his career, he had trusted that the NFL and his team doctors had his best interest at heart. But as time went on, that faith began to wane.

K.T. I got knocked out in St. Louis. And my wife took me to the hospital because she was terrified. The team let me go, to her. I was completely fucked… So, she was scared and she took me to the hospital, to the emergency room, and they kept me for two days. And then the team came in, as the doctors at the hospital were all freaking out, because of what they saw in my brain, which was a lot of damage. The team came in, and I was checked out, cleared to go, and I never saw those doctors again. And the team took it from there. They convinced me they could handle everything. And I was back in the practice the next day, and played in the game that next Sunday.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of repeated brain trauma. A report published by JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) in July 2017 found that 99% of the brains of deceased NFL players studied were diagnosed with CTE. In September of this year, it was revealed that Aaron Hernandez, the troubled New England Patriot who committed suicide in prison, suffered from the disease. And in August, former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason said on his radio show that he assumes he has CTE and that “I think all football players probably have it.”

Turley wasn’t at all surprised by the results of the study. He’s been intimately involved with research into the disease, participating in a battery of cognitive tests for a study at Massachusetts General Hospital. After his death, his brain will be donated to the Concussion Legacy Foundation to be examined for CTE, which can only be definitively diagnosed post-mortem.

CTE can cause aggression, depression, paranoia, and problems with impulse control, all of which Kyle had been experiencing during and after his career. The effects of the disease were witnessed by a national television audience in 2001 when, in a fit of rage, Turley hurled New York Jets safety Damien Robinson’s helmet downfield after an end-of-play scuffle. To deal with his neurological issues, Kyle was prescribed a succession of psychiatric medicines including Wellbutrin, Zoloft, and Depakote.

But as he did more research and experimentation with cannabis, he decided that an environment with legal access to medical marijuana would be best for him. Louisiana, Missouri, and Tennessee, where Turley lived during and immediately after his NFL career, didn’t have legalized medicinal cannabis at the time. After moving the family to Southern California where he grew up, Kyle got a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana and began to visit dispensaries.

K.T. I got to the lowest point in life with the pills, to make me want to find an answer. What I knew to be the case with marijuana, being back in those states, that every now and then, something better came along, that was different. And I used it, and I was better. And I knew that was there. So, when I was able to come back here and realized I could do that, I got my card, went to all the dispensaries, and tried all the strains, and tried to figure it out.

Turley compares the litany of prescription drugs he went through to his own investigation and sampling of different cannabis strains. After trying as many dispensary offerings as he could, Kyle struck on Jack Herer as the one strain that did the most to calm his moods, while allowing him to stay functional. The pharmaceuticals, on the other hand, came with dangerous and unpredictable side effects.

K.T. So then I got prescribed Wellbutrin. And Wellbutrin, within the first week…we had a house in Nashville that was built on a bluff, so we had a three-story drop from a two-story house, to the garage on the backside. I was going to jump out the window of that house, three stories down, because I was mad! I was mad. My wife caught me… in my underwear, running around the house. Fucking… I don’t even remember it. And I was about ready to jump out the window.

Kyle, of course, isn’t the first former professional football player to struggle with mental illness. The suicide of Junior Seau in 2012 was a blow to Turley. Junior and Kyle had become friends doing charity work in San Diego, when Turley was a SDSU Aztec and Seau was playing with the Chargers. After Junior’s death, Kyle decided that a special crisis hotline for NFL players was needed to help save lives. He reached out to Mike Ditka, who is president of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund. Gridiron Greats was founded in 2007 to help NFL veterans in need.

K.T. So that really hit me hard…and I said, “We can’t have this anymore, we have to create a hotline.”   …I was like, without saying it, or admitting it directly to the people at Gridiron Greats charity, that, this is me, man, and I need to fix this, too. And I’ve gotta create these things for me. We need a suicide hotline because I need to call that mother fucker!

No More Pills For The All-Pro

Once Kyle had settled on Jack Herer as the strain that helped him the most, he decided that is was time to punt the pills. It wasn’t an easy decision, because he was finding some relief with Depakote. But the relief he was getting was causing more problems than it was solving.

K.T. The pharmaceuticals and the opiates are so horrible…they turn you into a zombie, where you’re sucked into it, and you’re just a drone, you know? ‘cause it’s resolved this one thing, but it’s added a million things negative-wise to your life. But that one thing…you really have to stop. You have to stop thinking about killing yourself, you have to stop thinking about killing your family, you have to stop thinking about killing other people, you have to stop being depressed all the time, and being angry all the time.

Kyle eventually decided the modest benefits he was receiving from psychiatric medications weren’t worth their risks. In 2013, with the help of marijuana, Kyle quit pharmaceuticals. If not for cannabis, Turley believes he would not be alive today. It’s an experience he believes he must share.

K.T. This is a life-changing experience I’ve had with cannabis, that has saved my life! If I die tomorrow, the first person in the history of the world to die from cannabis use, it still saved my life, period. I would have been gone two years ago, ‘cause I was at that point. I was there. I had already called a suicide hotline before. I’d been in my truck in a parking lot at 35 years old with a gun. So, when you’ve gone to that point and you have now found an answer that resolves this…how can you not tell everybody about it, and then get involved in it, and help get it to everyone?

Kyle’s game plan to get cannabis to everyone is multi-faceted. In addition to Bambino Blunts, Turley is a founding partner of NeuroXPF, a company with a line of supplements and other sports products containing CBD derived from hemp. Kyle has received a license to operate a cannabis distribution company in Moreno Valley. He envisions opening a full-service cannabis wellness center and dispensary, with cultivation and manufacturing facilities to support those operations.

Once he’s established a world-class cannabis facility, Turley is considering a move back to Tennessee. He hopes to return with the lessons learned and experience gained in California, to help shape a medical marijuana program for the Volunteer State. Tennessee currently has no provisions for the legal medicinal use of cannabis, but change could be on the horizon. Kyle is willing to be an agent of that change, and sees a potential return to the Nashville area as a positive move for him, his wife Stacy, and their young son and daughter.

K.T. We loved it there, and we came out for the medicine. And I found my answers, and hopefully, I can take things back there, you know, ‘cause it’s a great place to raise a family, I had a great experience. And I really would love to get back into my music.

Although Kyle has dreams of becoming a cannabis entrepreneur, at this stage in his life he’s decided not to commit to a specific game plan for the future. He’d rather see how things develop, without stressing too hard on any one aspect of his persona. If he doesn’t score with cannabis, Kyle has other options in his playbook. He has coached the offensive line at Riverside Community College. Turley is an accomplished musician, with three albums of country/rock under his belt. He has toured with Hank Williams III, and shared the stage with the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kansas. If another opportunity to take his music on the road comes up, he might jump at the chance. In all, he’s ready to tackle whatever the future sends his way.

A.J. So what’s next for Kyle Turley?

K.T. I don’t know, man. That’s up to the man in charge of this whole deal, you know what I mean? This is a real spiritual thing, I’m just letting it go. Every time I try to do this too much, it doesn’t work. Try and do that too much, it doesn’t work. Every time I submit to this energy that’s flowing with the wind, you know? It happens.

However, things turn out, my bet is the pungent aroma of ganja will be wafting in that wind.