Former NFL player speaks about recovery at BHN event

Addiction, in all its apparent randomness, is ruthlessly non-discriminatory. As if Jeff Hatch didn’t know.

“This is my truth,” said Hatch shortly before taking the stage at the Oct. 16 National Dialogue on Mental Health forum on addiction, sponsored by the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network. “At 22 years old, I had signed a multiyear, $1 million contract with the New York Giants, I had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, I was dating Miss Maryland and I had won the President’s Award [for work with the homeless]. I had checked every box that I thought success was. I was 22 and I was completely miserable.”

The National Dialogue forums have been ongoing following the Sandy Hook school shootings, when BHN officials, including Institute of Living Psychiatrist- in-Chief Harold I. (Hank) Schwartz, MD, visited Washington, D.C. to meet with federal officials to develop a plan in the aftermath of Newtown – a plan that included a national dialogue on gun control and mental health. Since then the BHN has held regular community education events drawing speakers such as Hatch.

Now 37, Hatch works for The Granite House, a substance abuse treatment facility in Derry, N.H., a long way from a trajectory that began with only two years of high school football at Severn, a prep school in Severna Park, Md. Hatch became a Division I-AA All American offensive lineman at Penn, drafted by the Giants in the third round (78th overall), with a future seemingly as big as his 6-foot-6, 302-pound physical presence. He now speaks to students in local schools, at community forums like the BHN event and wherever else he can offer, as he describes it, service to his fellows. “That’s the thing that brings me the most joy,” he says. Even before the NFL draft, Hatch was filmed as part of a CNN documentary — and was featured in another by ESPN as a rookie — yet he played only four games with the Giants, his career finished two years later in 2005. He endured multiple injuries, including a debilitating spinal fusion that ended his career. Along the way, the drugs that aided his physical recovery also fueled an addiction.

“The bottom line,” he said, “is that there’s a huge problem with opiates in the NFL. You’re asked to be superhuman and you have 300-pound men running into each other at full speed 65 times in a row. A lot of people end up on opiates to help control the pain they’re in.”

He never played in the Super Bowl, but he won’t forget the 2006 game: He watched from a Florida hospital bed, recovering from a drug overdose.

“It was one of those light-bulb moments,” he said, “that was so powerful, so in my face, that I couldn’t hide from it. There were a few of those moments.”

Hatch’s drugs of choice were opiates and alcohol, but he said the drug is less consequential than the addiction. “My disease was in me long before I had a drink or took a drug,” he said.

Hatch sought help after the 2006 overdose at a Louisiana substance abuse facility, which offered him a job when he completed treatment. When he bought a house in the area, a symbolic achievement as he rebuilt his life, his parents shipped some of his belongings in storage from the Annapolis, Md., area, where he grew up.

“One of the things that I found was a sketchpad from when I was 11 years old,” he said. “I open the sketchpad and there are three drawings in it. The first drawing was a man hanging from a cliff. The second was a man behind a cage screaming. The third was a half-devil, half-person. That’s when I was 11.”

He said he would have become an addict even if he hadn’t played a down in the NFL. “Absolutely,” he said. “I’m an addict and an alcoholic. Opiates were the substance that made me the most comfortable in my skin, which is the ultimate goal for those of us who have the disease. That’s what we’re looking for.”

BHN Senior Vice President Patricia Rehmer, who moderated the forum, said public perception prevents many addicts from confronting their disease. “This is not only about stigma, which is how the person feels about their addiction and the shame they experience,” she said. “It’s really about discrimination. There’s not a city in Connecticut that has not been connected by this. It’s still something people are not willing to talk about and share.”

Connecticut public health officials estimate more than 830 deaths this year from substance abuse overdose, an increase from 700-plus in 2015. The best hope for those who do seek help, Rehmer said, is medication-assisted treatment.

“We see some people struggle with this for 10 years, as Jeff did,” she said.“ There’s an 87 percent better chance of getting into recovery and staying in recovery if you’re treated with some medication that helps you stay away from drugs and alcohol.”