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Shane Olivea: Former NFL Star Tackles Addiction And Wins
(Novus writes inspirational stories of people in the news who have overcome addiction. This is not to infer that these people are connected to Novus Medical Detox Center but simply to provide hope and encouragement to those fighting addiction.)
Early in his career with the San Diego Chargers of the National Football League (NFL), Shane Olivea was pegged as one of the players to watch, one of the potential all-time greats.
Considered an early draft “steal” by the Chargers in 2004, Olivea rapidly exceeded his humble draft status by making several all-rookie teams.
By 2006, his third season with the Chargers, Olivea had signed a 6-year, $20-million contract extension with a $7.5 million signing bonus.
But late in the 2007 season, Olivea lost his starting position at right tackle, and was inexplicably benched. Soon the 6 foot, 5-inch, 325-pounder ballooned to nearly 400 pounds. And before the real story was made public, he was released by the Chargers in February, 2008 – the NFL term for contract cancellation – and vanished from the Charger’s bench.
Unknown to much of the press and public, by April, 2008, he was at the Betty Ford recovery center in Rancho Mirage, CA.
When he finally agreed to talk to reporters, they were shocked to hear that Olivea had actually asked the Chargers for his release so he could enter treatment for a serious opioid painkiller addiction!
Outstanding college record
Shane Olivea was born on October 7, 1981, and was raised in Cedarhurst, NY, a small town – a village actually – on the South Shore of Long Island just across the bay from JFK International.
Before the big teenager was drafted by the Chargers, Olivea had demonstrated his outstanding ability at right tackle with the Ohio State University (OSU) national champion Buckeyes. He had originally committed to Georgia Tech, but changes in the coaching staff there prompted him to switch his commitment to Ohio State.
Olivea was a Buckeyes star from 2000 to 2003 – so good, in fact, that a decade later in 2013, OSU-Buckeye alumni and fans voted him onto their “All-Decade Team 2000-2009.” The Buckeyes newsletter said Olivea played an integral role in OSU’s 2002 National Championship.
“Along with being a part of that great Buckeye team, Olivea also twice earned second-team All-Big Ten honors,” the journal said.
Olivea left OSU after his senior season in 2003 without having earned a degree. But he says his goals were clear and had been since childhood: “Play a decade or so in the NFL, get rich, and then go on about his life,” he told Bill Rabinowitz at the Columbus Dispatch recently.
“Everybody can tell you what to do to get to your dream. But when you actually achieve the dream that you have when you’re 5, 6 or 7 years old – to be one of the rare few in the NFL – no one tells you what to do,” Olivea said.
125 Vicodins a day
But childhood dreams don’t tell you about the pain suffered routinely by NFL players. Or about the dangers of opioid painkillers that are so widely used – and abused.
Olivea said that all through college and his rookie NFL year he didn’t take any painkillers. But by the end of the first NFL season he “was so sore and exhausted that he barely left his bed for a week.”
Then one night, a teammate had a friend who offered him Olivea a Vicodin. And almost immediately, he says, he was hooked.
“There wasn’t one day in the NFL I wasn’t high on a pill after my rookie year,” Olivea said. “At my height on Vicodin, I would take 125 a day. It got to the point I would take a pile of 15 Vicodin and would have to take them with chocolate milk. If I did it with water or Gatorade, I’d throw it up.”
Olivea told the Dispatch he didn’t get the pills from the Chargers doctors. He “had his own sources” including a taxi driver in Mexico, which is next door to San Diego, who for $100 went to a Tijuana “pharmacy” for him.
“You could buy anything you want if you had cash,” Olivea said. “I’d go buy a couple hundred Vicodin, or by then I’d progressed to Oxycontin. How I functioned and played is head-scratching,” he said.
Withdrew from teammates
Under the opioids, he withdrew from teammates and his relationship with coaches and management soured.
Eventually, his family noticed the personality changes.
“That was never the way our relationship was,” his mother Jean said. “I knew something was not right. You can’t just ignore it.”
Shane’s mom organized an intervention at his home – mostly friends and family, and Chargers teammate Roman Oben, a former Cleveland Brown player who’d become a mentor for Shane on the Chargers. Oben told Shane he loved him as a brother and a teammate, and that Shane “needed to get as much help as possible.”
Rather than put off by the intervention, Olivea says he was relieved. He knew he had a problem and he’d been unable to ask for help.
Too full of pride
“I was too full of pride,” Olivea said. “I always said that my pride got me to the NFL, and it got me to rehab. I’m an offensive lineman. You don’t show pain. We’re the tough guys on the team. We sort of suffer in silence. I wanted to reach out, that I needed help. I wanted to stop. I went through withdrawal, physical withdrawal. But I didn’t know how to ask for help. It almost killed me.”
He went to rehab that same day. And he says that doctors who’d been at the center for 20 years repeated the blood tests because they couldn’t believe the results.
“They both looked at me and said we’ve never seen anybody living with that amount of opioids in you. You’re literally a walking miracle. That was a punch to the gut.”
Olivea spent 89 days at the Betty Ford Center. “I’m like, ‘I just took pills. I’m OK. I made it to the NFL. I can do this,'” Olivea said. “It just shows you how strong and how much of a hook those pills have. I didn’t care about my career anymore. I didn’t care about a lot of things. I didn’t care about myself, unfortunately. You go there and you do a lot of soul-searching.”
A new beginning
Rehab may have saved his life but not his NFL career. Released by the Chargers, Olivea signed with the New York Giants while in rehab. But he hurt his back in training and they let him go too. It was clear that his NFL career was over.
But Olivea realized that he could go back to OSU and complete his degree and start a new life. He re-enrolled in the summer of 2015, took 11 courses to finish his degree in sports industry, and late last year was presented with his diploma.
He says he’s looking for a job as a coach. “I feel I have an ability to connect with kids,” he told Rabinowitz at the Dispatch. “I’m young at heart. Being around young people keeps you young. I feel there’s such a need to teach some of these kids how to properly play and teach technique.”
Shane Olivea is thrilled with his recovery, as are his mom and his family. The last report we saw, he’s got a few job leads for coaching, too.
As for the risks of drugs: “If you got it, you can spot it. I can spot an addict in a public setting. I know the behavior. I know the tendencies. I know what he’s going to do. I’ll be able to notice somebody going down that slippery path and maybe catch them.”
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