When Robert King was a high school wrestler, he broke his foot and doctors prescribed him Percocet to help ease the pain. But he became addicted to the pain medication, and within a few years he moved on to a cheaper alternative: heroin.
“Once I started taking pills I never really stopped,” King told CBS News.
The now 24-year-old is now a recovering addict and struggling to get back on track.
A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that adolescent athletes are 50 percent more likely to abuse painkillers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t tracked addiction among athletes but says the young adult age group has been hit hard. Among 18- to 25-year-olds, heroin use has more than doubled in the last decade.
Jack Riley, Deputy Administrator at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), emphasized that addiction cuts across every demographic group.
“Heroin never discriminates, and athletes are no different,” he said. “This dangerous drug has become a powerful weapon of mass destruction for drug addicts, some of whom are athletes who first became addicted to painkillers while rehabilitating from sports injury.”
Jason Ruggeri is another former student athlete recovering from heroin addiction. He started taking painkillers after injuring his knee during college football practice. Ruggeri said his doctor did not warn him how powerful the drugs can be.
That medication led him to heroin, which led to an accidental overdose.
“It also left me completely homeless and on the street,” Ruggeri said.
Both he and King have found treatment at St. Christopher’s Inn in Garrison, New York, which runs one of the most successful rehab programs in the state.
Director David Gerber said about a quarter of the shelter’s residents are athletes.
“These medications mask the pain but do nothing to treat the injury,” he said. “So it often worsens the injury, making the need for more medications, and they become addicted.”
King’s brother was also an addict. Two weeks ago, he died of a heroin overdose.
“He was trying to help me,” King said. “And he did. He got me to get into recovery in the first place.”
He said his brother’s death is now his inspiration to stay clean.