In 10 seasons playing pro football, Lito Sheppard cracked a rib, broke both thumbs, sprained his knees, pulled a quad, and dislocated eight fingers. The Eagles cornerback took such hard hits that he blacked out.
He’s retired now, but the pain and anxiety linger. His antidote has been marijuana, something to dull the aches without fear of getting hooked, like so many ex-athletes, on the prescription painkillers they used during their careers.
“We make so many sacrifices, and we put our body and mind through so much that you look for holistic ways to alleviate some of those issues,” Sheppard said Tuesday. “This is one that I found that helps me.”
Sheppard, 36, is throwing more than just vocal support behind his source of self-medication. He’s one of a crop of former football players and athletes -- some prominent -- making a play in Pennsylvania’s burgeoning medical-marijuana industry. Last week, he and partners in a new venture applied to the state for the right to open a cannabis-growing facility in Chester, Delaware County.
He joined a list that already included Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Franco Harris, seeking a permit for a cultivation operation in Braddock, Pa; former Baltimore Ravens lineman Eugene Monroe, a member of an Illinois-based distribution group and a research donor at the University of Pennsylvania; and ex-Denver Broncos receiver Charlie Adams, who, with former Flyers enforcer Riley Cote, wants to grow medical marijuana at a Pottstown site.
For the retired players, it’s not just a business opportunity, but affirmation of what they learned in years smashing and crashing into and on top of 300-pound opponents.
“It’s a healing venture in both realms. That’s what we hope will happen,” said Harris, 67. “It can help the community and people suffering from physical pain.”
One of the most prominent athletes among marijuana advocates has been Jim McMahon, who came to the Eagles after leading the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl three decades ago. McMahon says the drug has helped him cope after years of debilitating hits; he holds a medical-marijuana card in Arizona.
In Pennsylvania, which has joined New Jersey among more than two dozen states in legalizing medical marijuana, competition for licenses has been fierce. The state expected to receive about 900 applications before its deadline last month for 12 grower licenses and permits to operate up to 81 dispensaries, for patients with valid prescriptions. Sales could begin next year.
Harris, who helped the Steelers capture four Super Bowls, hopes to win a permit to grow cannabis and process it into oil in Braddock, a former steel town outside Pittsburgh. He says the operation could produce between 50 and 70 jobs.
Despite his bruising years on the gridiron, No. 32 said he had had no personal experience with bad pain. Still, he says he is not surprised by the number of NFL players getting into the marijuana business.
“All athletes have problems. They get knee problems and knee replacements, shoulder surgery, you name it,” he said Tuesday. “But as far as the toll on the body, football and hockey is where the impact is hardest.”
A study by the University of Florida’s College of Public Health and Health Professions found that as many as one in seven players leave the league struggling with opioid abuse.
Todd Herremans, an offensive lineman for the Eagles from 2005 to 2014, says teams should consider medical marijuana as a replacement for prescription painkillers. After failing a league drug test during his playing days, he said, he stopped using marijuana, and his recovery time slowed painfully.
“I felt the wear and tear on my body more than ever,” said Herremans, 34, who says he would like the NFL to take a less punitive approach to players using marijuana. “The aches and pains were way more evident.”
For six years, Cote, the former Flyers enforcer, has run the Hemp Heals Foundation, which promotes the use of cannabidiol (CBD), a substance in cannabis that does not provide a euphoric high. CBD, though also considered an illegal drug by the federal government, has shown promise in controlling some forms of epileptic seizures, PTSD, and psychosis.
“It’s a healing plant,” said Cote, who played in the NHL from 2002 to 2010.
Now, he wants to take a more active role. He is part of a syndicate that has applied to grow marijuana in Pottstown in a Cold War era bunker designed to withstand a nuclear attack. A partner in the effort is Adams, the former Bronco and Lancaster native.
Adams played only three years in the NFL, a tenure whose brevity is not unusual. Because of ongoing acute injuries, most football careers are short. So it makes sense that some might look for restorative careers in cannabis.
Sheppard played six seasons in the Eagles' defensive backfield. Living in Jacksonville, Fla., with his family, he is not currently working and said he was looking for a new business opportunity that might bring him back to Philadelphia. He hopes the venture in Chester can also benefit the struggling city.
Unlike some groups that pitched multiple locations, Laso Therapeutics applied only for a plot of land in Chester, near Talen Energy Stadium in the Waterfront District. Laso -- a variation on the name Iaso, the Greek goddess of recuperation from illness -- has the backing of Chester’s mayor, Thaddeus Kirkland.
The proposal includes a promise to donate up to 5 percent of annual revenue to scholarships, charitable contributions, and urban rehabilitation to the city. It touts 20 to 30 jobs, which would go to city residents.
“Here in Chester, we’ve been working diligently to attract new businesses to the city, and the medical marijuana industry would be a welcome and, I believe, extremely helpful addition,” Kirkland said in a statement.
Toward the end of his career in Philadelphia, Sheppard battled injuries and a lot of time on the bench.
“That was a very trying time in my career,” Sheppard said. “I get a lot of pats on the back for how I handled it, but it was very tough."
Marijuana, he said, kept him calm. “I think it gave me the ability to take a step back and take a deep breath. ... It helped keep a calm mentality and not ‘pop my top.’ ”
This is Sheppard’s first venture into medical marijuana; he would not disclose the size of his investment and said his two partners wished to remain anonymous.
“This is about helping people,” he said. “I feel like this is a place that could benefit from a new company, and we plan on doing everything we can to provide the resources to benefit that community.”