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Jeff Hatch, A Former NFL Player, Finds A Personal Victory In Sobriety

October 04, 2016

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

“This is my truth,” he says in the hours before a recent Hartford HealthCareBehavioral Health Network community forum on addiction in Enfield. “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.”

Hatch, now 37, 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 rookie – yet he played only four games for the Giants, his career over two teams 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 says, “is that there’s a huge problem with opiates in the NFL. You’re asked to be superhuman and you have 300-pond 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 says, “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 says the drug is less consequential than the addiction.

“My disease was in me long before I had a drink or took a drug,” he says.

Hatch sought help after the 2006 overdose at a Louisiana substance abuse, 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 belongs 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 says. “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.”

Even at that age, the indications now seem obvious that Hatch viewed himself as an outcast, as someone who didn’t fit. He acknowledges he would have become an addict even if he hadn’t played a down in the NFL.

“Absolutely,” he says. “I’m an addict and an alcoholic. Opiates was 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.”

How addiction is viewed, and how it’s treated, are evolving. Addiction is not a choice, but a disease whose only comfort is drugs or alcohol.

“For us,” says Hatch, “that’s the only answer. It’s almost like a survival mechanism. . . . It’s not a disease of bums and junkies. It’s a disease that affects everybody, across every social, racial and economic spectrum.”

Patricia Rehmer, the Behavioral Health Network president who moderated the forum and appeared with Hatch earlier in the day on FoxCT, says 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 says during the FoxCT segment. “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, says Rehmer, is medication-assisted treatment.

“We see some peoples struggle with this for 10 years, as Jeff did,” she says. “There’s an 87 percent better chance of getting into recovery and staying in recover if at least initially – it’s not a lifetime commitment – if you’re treated with some medication that helps you stay away from drugs and alcohol.”

Recovery, and sobriety, has its own rewards – different, perhaps, from a $1 million contract but in some respects more rewarding.

“I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve been through,” says Hatch, “because I can’t tell you as a man today if I would feel that way if I hadn’t had the opportunity to be gifted those material things and to have achieved that success. Only seeing it through those eyes did I realize that, ‘Oh, wow, this isn’t really anything. There’s so much more.’”

For information on Rushford’s Medication Assisted Treatment Close to Home (MATCH) program that treat’s opiate dependence and drug addiction, click here.