Cannabis advocate and former NFL player Eugene Monroe. (Dave Martin, The Associated Press)

I am worried about my NFL family. I am ready to talk cannabis. I am Eugene Monroe.

Editor’s note: Former Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Eugene Monroe made headlines in March 2016 when he became the first active NFL player to advocate for cannabis research. He retired from football in July at age 29 because of concerns about his future health.

As I make an exit from the world I’ve known for the past 18 years, I’m stepping into another that I had avoided for many more. This new world is full of fighters, and while they are very different in stature, their hearts are every bit as large.

Many battles exist here: healthcare, social justice, freedom, choice, research and its barriers — and the dank stench of stigmatization. That loud odor (a scent so strong you can hear it) could have landed me in jail, tarnished my reputation forever, and at one point I believed it could fry my brain.

As I reflect, it’s funny I actually thought my brain would fry like breakfast eggs. Now I know that the U.S. government patented marijuana’s neuro-protectant cannabinoids. And certainly if so, our nation’s brightest minds should have the freedom to research this naturally grown plant to the same scrutiny levels of synthetic drugs.

But there lies another multilayered war zone.

From time to time now, I help myself heal from the battles I once fought by using marijuana. I wake up each day with aches from head to toe. I can feel the painful energy as it transfers itself throughout my body, constantly reminding me of the hits I have given and received. In the pain game, you learn a vital life lesson quickly: It’s better to give than receive. Now I have something different to give: insight. I remind myself before each opportunity I get to be thankful for those who fought to make discussions about cannabis possible. I try to spread information that can help, that can heal.

If I was still playing today, I’d be a few days into training camp. Each game in the NFL is scripted with plays that are run at full speed. The speed of practice must match the speed of the game to create proper timing. This bruising practice is done at the expense of players’ bodies and brains. But it’s accepted as being a part of the game. I would assuredly be taking a daily course of Celebrex, an anti-inflammatory drug that would reduce the swelling in my surgically repaired knee (three operations). As the practices pile up, I’d likely need Vicodin to deal with the pain to keep fighting through camp.

Now, a few drops of THC-A tincture helps me manage both of those symptoms, sans the side effects that come with many pharmaceuticals. If I’m in more pain, a single vaporized hit of CO2-extracted cannabis oil can calm it down. I may also be protecting my brain at the same time, from the more than 50 shots I would have taken to my head each day between drills and scrimmaging.

I’m also thankful for the brave athletes who came before me, recognizing problems within our policies and putting everything on the line to create a better future for the next man. Recently, athletes have made their struggles with opioids and other drugs known publicly. I understand how difficult a task it is to talk about your weaknesses.

I applaud former athletes who understand how barbaric the essence of NFL manhood can be, but who also understand the importance of breaking down that paradigm and carving a path for a healthier future. Your voices offered more than courageous spirit that powered me to stand and fight for a healthier future. In your voices I also heard my future self, talking to the man I am now, warning me of the perils and urging me to make change.

That might also be my post-workout Grapefruit Kush, but it still makes sense.

Eugene Monroe marijuana research advocate
Baltimore Ravens OT Eugene Monroe, center, blocks the Chicago Bears’ Julius Peppers as Ravens QB Joe Flacco throws a pass in November 2013. (Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images file)

I envision a healthier place, where our doctors can prescribe us medicine that will not just treat our afflictions but possibly be an insurance policy. Protecting players’ brains from hits and making the game safer. Understanding how this might also benefit others with brain issues.

At this intersection I find myself blessed with a platform in two worlds: The sport I’ve given everything to for nearly two decades, and a cannabis community that has embraced me for standing up and shouting out the truth with them. On both sides, families are affected by injury and sickness, given drugs that merely put make-up and bandages on problems or cause addiction. In the storm are athletes with no choice outside of breaking league policy, and families forced to make major life decisions because alternatives aren’t available.

Football and cannabis enjoy marriage, and a daily honeymoon, in the homes of battered athletes all over. As athletes retire, we learn from some of them that they’ve coped with the rigors of playing ball by consuming cannabis. We also know that practice is banned for current players, and many are subjected to dangerous opioids and anti-inflammatory pills as their physicians’ prescribed course of treatment. I refrained from using cannabis while playing. Now that I’ve retired, I enjoy healing and knowing I’m managing my chronic pain and injuries in a safer manner than I was allowed to as an active player.

Now I understand the frustration in the voices I heard before, crying out for a better way.

Having open conversations about cannabis can be as difficult as getting some NFL owners to recognize that repeated hits to the head can cause brain disease. Understanding a plant that is saving lives is practically impossible. The available data points aren’t conclusive, and more research needs to be done.

Eerily similar? Understanding how marijuana prohibition disproportionately affects minorities is also a serious issue I’m concerned with. Especially since 68 percent of the NFL is made up of minorities. The NFL has always been a leader of positive social change. We can have an impact on our own communities. I sense a problem that needs to be addressed, and I can’t help getting involved.

Working to have a positive impact on the lives of others is an honor. I also enjoy injecting a little bit of who I am into my messaging. I believe that it’s important for people to understand why I have my perspectives — much like understanding the importance of having profession-centered groups like Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition fight for marijuana law reform.

I am blunt, and Big Pun was an awesome artist, RIP. I’m Eugene Monroe, a father, husband, friend, athlete, entrepreneur, fisherman, gamer and most of all a lifelong warrior.

Those are a lot of hats to wear, although I’ll never wear my football helmet again. As I lay out who I am, I’m reminded of the great people and the immense volume of work it has taken to put me in this place. My great care and passion for helping people blends directly with my current cannabis advocacy.

My football family needs help. I’m proud to fight for that help, and I’m grateful to those who have reached out in support.

I’ve always know that entertaining the masses by playing football wouldn’t be my major contribution to the world. I’m a man of great faith and I believe that God has always had a greater plan in store for me. Anything that I’ve accomplished has been touched by someone who has helped me along the way. Thank you for reading this, my debut column for The Cannabist. I can’t wait to dig more into my learning experiences and challenges in the next phase of my life — and how cannabis will be intertwined in my journey.