SAN FRANCISCO — The flesh-colored bandage is sealed to the southeastern region of Reggie Williams’ knee.
The former Cincinnati Bengals star linebacker doesn’t go anywhere without his 96-hour pain reliever. It helps him live with a right knee that is as gnarled as redwood burl.
The patch has turned Williams, 62, into a disciple of cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive ingredient found in the marijuana plant that many say has therapeutic value.
“I’ve tried everything,” said Williams, who lost two Super Bowls to the 49ers. “More than even smoking, this patch is consistently making a positive difference.”
He needed crutches to walk before trying the CBD dressing 1½ years ago. This is the consequence of 24 knee surgeries. Williams almost had a leg amputated because of infections and bone complications.
Now Williams is one of the legions of retired NFL players extolling the virtues of medical marijuana. Players such as Williams have become outspoken advocates for cannabis use while demanding more research that could lead the league to permit its players to use marijuana instead of highly addictive opioids and the anti-inflammatory Toradol.
“That’s why there is an urgency for the NFL,” Williams said during a recent visit to San Francisco. “They could be banning the one thing that is a godsend to the players.”
The former NFL Man of the Year has a vested interest in promoting medical marijuana. He has become an ambassador for San Diego-based Pure Ratios, whose patch he discovered 1½ years ago when a friend sent him a boxful of cannabis products to try to help the aching body.
“That was the only one that worked out of the huge box of products,” Pure Ratios co-founder Chad Conner said. “He is always living with a patch. It’s his baseline treatment.”
Williams’ connection to marijuana led him to the Bay Area last week as a featured speaker for the 420 Games, a series of lifestyle events to promote changing perceptions about cannabis.
While in town, Williams attended a speech by Bennet Omalu at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. The famous forensic pathologist is credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease that is being found in the craniums of deceased NFL players at an alarming rate.
Williams told Omalu: “I played 14 years in the NFL. I lost two Super Bowls to San Francisco. I have CTE. What can I do now?”
Omalu: “There is no cure, I don’t want to mislead you. Visit a university hospital that has a good TBI program. It is just help. The best cure is prevention.”
Williams shook his head and said aloud, “I didn’t like that answer at all.”
Later that evening, he amplified his frustration.
“His life story is about hope,” Williams said of the Nigerian-born Omalu. “To dismiss any hope we may have was probably the most depressing thing – if it is true.”
Williams, who gets around with a special elevated shoe that evens out the length of his legs, recalled how orthopedic surgeons said he needed an amputation.
“If I listened to every doctor I would be without a leg,” he said. “By having hope I don’t see any difference than the challenges that face me with CTE. It’s finding the path out of the labyrinth.”
Unlike some of his fellow retirees, Williams is not experiencing significant outward signs of degenerative brain injury. After his career ended, Williams was elected to the Cincinnati City Council and later worked for the NFL and the Walt Disney Corporation.
But Williams still figures after so many years in professional football, he is a likely candidate for CTE.
Some physicians and medical researchers are interested in investigating the value of cannabis as a way to slow or even reverse damage to the brain. But getting funding for traditional clinical trials is difficult because the U.S. government lists cannabis as a narcotic like heroin.
The politics surrounding the plant have confounded marijuana supporters.
“That’s where I need the medical system to explore whether medical cannabis can be the one and only solution,” Williams said. “What is the best variation, what is the best strain, what is the best delivery mechanism that can possibly impact the quality of the future of my life?”
Williams considers himself an ideal test patient because he has used marijuana since his days in Flint, Michigan. He said he “took care of my body and brain with marijuana” at Dartmouth.
Williams continued using while playing in Cincinnati, recalling how he rejected the pain-killing medications teams made available. He credits cannabis with keeping him from getting addicted to opioids.
But marijuana hasn’t erased painful memories of facing the 49ers. They could be summarized in Super Bowl XXIII in 1988 when Joe Montana passed to John Taylor with 34 seconds left to score a 20-16 49ers’ victory. The Niners also defeated the Bengals 26-21 in Super Bowl XVI in 1982.
“It’s as negative any one of the three concussions that I have,” Williams said.
But those traumatic defeats have led to another kind of nightmarish aftermath with the potential for brain disease.
“Those games you lost, guess what?” Williams said. “It’s going to be worse in your future.”