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My NFL Career Ended With A Needle And A Scam

A football is being balanced on top of a syringe and vaccine vial.
Alfieri via Getty Images

The HGH showed up in a FedEx package left on my front porch. Inside the box was a collection of little vials in dry ice. I lined them up on the counter in my kitchen and ran my fingers through my hair. It had come to this. After six years with the Broncos I was out of the NFL, and I wanted back in. The problem was my body didn’t. My right hamstring was hanging on by a thread. The procedure the Broncos had done a few months earlier—when my season ended in Week 12 with a SNAP!—hadn’t worked. And now I was cut. Damaged goods, really. I needed to get healthy so I could get back on a team, and this, I had decided, was how I would do it.

I would deal with the drug testing later. No one was going to test me until I got signed anyway. And when they did, there were measures one could take, I imagined, to cover one’s tracks. I wasn't sure what those measures were, exactly, because I had never tried this before. And I was fairly certain they didn’t test for HGH anyway, but also didn’t know shit about shit. The only drug-testing concerns I ever had were for a little weed I smoked in the offseason, or the pill or two I took in Vegas. But that was out of my system in days, and we always knew when the “street drugs” test was, anyway. The testing window started in minicamp and they went position group by position group, and by the middle of training camp, the whole team was done. On the day they got tested, certain guys went home with some pep in their step, as they were now free to pursue different remedies for their pain.

But the PED test was not as predictable, so finding a way to beat it would be new territory. Unlike the street drugs test, it was random and happened throughout the year. One offseason I got the call, and since I wasn’t in Denver, they sent a regional pee man to come to my parents’ house and collect my urine in my childhood bathroom. 

When it was during the season, which was more common, you’d come into work and there was a piece of paper hanging in your locker: “You have been randomly selected for the NFL’s drug screening. You have four hours to produce a sample.” You walk into the bathroom and there’s a guy sitting in a folding chair next to the urinals. He’s got a brown flannel on and he has a mustache and a combover and he’s wearing glasses and he’s reading a newspaper and he’s got a Thermos next to his chair and the room smells like coffee and poo and he folds the newspaper, puts it down on the tile floor, and stands up.

“You ready, Nate?”


And he points to a bowl full of individually wrapped cups and you hand him one and he opens it with his newspaper/coffee/pee hands and he instructs you to “remove your shirt and drop your pants and underwear below your knees.”

“Below my knees?” you wonder, and he sees you wondering and repeats it. You sidle up and position the cup to catch your urine; he sidles up and positions himself to watch it, at an angle that will allow him to visually verify that this is indeed your actual penis the urine is exiting, and not some prosthetic schlong.

After you pee, you hand him the cup and he pours it into two different cups. You think he’s going to spill it, or maybe you just hope he spills it, but he never does. He is good at what he does. He seals the two samples, marks them, you initial them, then he puts them in a box and seals that, too, and you say goodbye and walk back into the locker room. You won’t speak with him until it’s time for him to look at your penis again.

You have become used to it, and in making this decision to acquire the HGH, you have done so in full knowledge of the process by which the league attempts to discourage it. It actually is a pretty effective system. People don’t believe me when I tell them I never saw steroids in the locker room, but it’s true. I never saw it around, and I never heard anyone talking about it. During my time in the league, one, maybe two guys on our team got popped for PEDs. I believed then and believe now that NFL players are the way they are because god made them that way. The ones who need steroids just aren’t as good at football, and ultimately, it’s your football skill—not your strength, or the number of veins on your arm—that seals your fate. 

That said, I understand things were different in the ‘80s. Back then, according to our old trainer, Greek, syringes would be lying around in the locker room and guys would be walking through it with skin bubbles on their butts from where they shot up. But it was a different time; there were ashtrays in every locker back then, too. 

I filled the syringe with the clear liquid and stuck myself in the ass while looking in the mirror, expecting to turn into the Incredible Hulk right there in my bathroom. I looked into my eyes. They were still brown. This would take a while, I guess. Better be in it for the long haul, and I was. My mom always told me that I was more than a football player, and as much as I nodded along, I couldn’t see it. Not yet. I was willing to do whatever it took to get back in.

I was actually playing the best football of my life when my Broncos career ended. I had figured out how to be a blocker as a tight end; I could play any special-teams position on the field; and I still had my trusty old receiving skills, which were refined by years and years of route-running practice. In a nutshell, I had a better understanding of the space-time continuum of a football play. I was no longer in a hurry to get anywhere. I knew when I had to sprint, and when I could throttle down. I understood how to set up defenders and how to read coverages and how not to tip off my intentions. I was having fun playing football again, which I hadn’t been in my first two years as a tight end—basically because I was getting my ass kicked in the run game and a nagging hamstring issue had taken away my advantage in the passing game. But I had persevered and earned my way back on the field and now knew exactly how to stay there. Then, as tends to happen in life when things start going well, that old hamstring snapped. And then Mike Shanahan got fired, and then so did I. 

Every once in a while, a guy retires from football because he is old and his skills are diminishing. He can no longer move like he used to and he feels the game passing him by, so he calls a press conference and issues a teary farewell, and walks away from the game forever—a game that has given him so much, including generational wealth.

But that shit is the fairytale. For most guys, including me, you leave when your skills are still ascending, and with cash still on the table. You leave with a lot more football in the tank and nothing close to generational wealth. You leave with “I’ll-probably-be-good-for-the-next-five-to-seven-years” type of money. You leave, you can’t find your way back, and you never, ever get that taste out of your mouth.

Or maybe that taste was the HGH. Either way, I had it on my lips as I instructed my buddy Joe on how to look after my house while I was away. I was leaving Denver and heading to California to get my dream back on track.

“What should I do with your mail?” he asked.

“Let me know if there’s something super-important. Otherwise just put it in a box somewhere.”

“Super-important” was of course relative. For me, a guy who knew he had plenty of money in the bank, super-important meant either a handwritten letter from a woman or something from an NFL team. Bills, bank statements and financial papers were not super-important. 

This myopic worldview had served me well in the previous decade. I had focused solely on becoming as good at football as I could and everything else had fallen into place. My parents were both school teachers; we never had much money. And now that I had some of it, it wasn’t like I suddenly became financially savvy. In fact, it was the opposite. Knowing I had money allowed me to think about it even less. I just knew that I could probably buy that thing, or take that trip, or pick up the tab at this dinner, and not have to look at what it did to my account. 

So that’s what money did for me: allowed me not to think about money. I see your mind working here, dear reader, and you are correct—this wasn’t going to end well. 

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

But for the time being, I had agents and financial advisors to protect me. For my first few years in the NFL, I managed my own money—mostly by not spending it. I bought a car, lived in a one-bedroom apartment, bought some clothes here and there, a few pieces of furniture, but I had no vices and no interest in jewels. After my third season, when I had a little money in the bank, my agent Ryan told me that when I was ready, if I was ready, he would connect me with a financial advisor who could help me manage my money—sorry, my wealth.

So some time in the middle of my fourth season, I told Ryan that I was ready to start taking my finances more seriously. This was a conversation that made my parents happy—especially my mom, because her father worked for GE and had invested money wisely to put nine grandsons through college. My mom took on the role of family financial advisor after Grandpa died but when she sat me down and tried to run me through the numbers and explain it all, it just whistled right through my brain-damaged skull. I really had no aptitude for this. 

This is how stupid I am: The Broncos had a 401(k) program where they would match your contributions 2-to-1, yet for the first several years of my career, I opted not to participate because I “wanted my money now." My friend and teammate, Kyle Johnson, tried to change my mind. He impressed upon me how we really didn’t need the money now, but we would in 30 years.

Thankfully, he did convince me to participate, and then the next year—understanding that there were many more players like me, who, for whatever reason, were not participating—instead of making it so we had to opt in, the Broncos automatically enrolled us, and if we “wanted our money now,” we had to opt out, which meant filling out paperwork. And this, above all other things, was the aversion: paperwork.

I tell you this to help you understand the state of mind of a man who believes that, above all else, he is destined for football glory, and sees the systems of the world as a game for men of lesser destiny. My game was on the grass, and it required my full attention. I told Ryan I was ready for some financial guidance—someone who would allow me to focus on the game and would take good care of my money. I wanted someone I could get along with. Someone I could talk to. Someone I could trust. “We have a guy who I think you’ll like. We feel good about him.”

His name was Billy Crafton, and I’m begging you not to google him just yet. The next day, Billy called me. He said he’d be in Denver the next week on business, would I like to meet? How about Del Frisco’s? That was my favorite restaurant—I liked this guy already. 

He was already seated when I walked in, and he stood up to greet me. A shade over six feet, athletic build, floppy blond hair parted in the middle, dark Italian suit—handsome guy, maybe five or six years older than I was. He had kind eyes that squinted when he smiled, and he was smiling a lot because he was laughing at all of my jokes. We talked football. We talked about girls. We talked about Vegas. We drank wine. We ate steak. All the while, there was a folder next to him on the table that he never looked at. As the dinner wound down, as did the second bottle of wine, he reached over and put his hand on the folder, and we got down to business.

“So tell me about your strategy for your clients?” I asked. That sentence alone felt very unnatural in my mouth.

“Well,” he began, and there I was sitting at the kitchen table with my mom again, feeling the wind whistling through my ears, trying extra-hard to concentrate and nod along when he talked about conservative investments and long-term goals and derivatives and high-interest and reinvestment of short-term dividends—and I swear, there were a few times I really did think he sounded like he was just reading off random financial terms, but what the fuck did I know? And in truth, I was zoning in and out—the steak, the wine, the waitresses, my own soaring testosterone and flagging brain activity. Just like the 401(k) talk with Kyle, none of it impressed upon me. I had the football skill. I was a lock to play five, six more years. Invest this in whatever you think is going to work, Billy. 

After his spiel, he opened the folder, found a certain page, and said something like: “No pressure, but if you feel good about this and want to get started, we can do this tonight.”

I did feel good about it and I was ready to start that night. He pushed the papers in front of me and handed me a pen, and in the low light of a Greenwood Village steakhouse, I signed my money away. One less thing to worry about, I thought. When the bill came he grabbed it and, without looking, dropped a black card.

Just over two years later, I was unemployed and sticking a needle in my ass. The trainers I had access to as a Bronco were now on the other side of a very large wall. I needed someone to nurse me back to health. My agent connected me with someone else he thought I would like: a physical therapist who had an excellent track record helping pro athletes figure out vexing orthopedic conundrums. He worked out of San Diego. I loved San Diego, but did I know anyone in San Diego?

I did: Billy.

Billy and I had become buddies by then, partly because I had sent hundreds of thousands of dollars his way. He lived a jet-setting bachelor life and wasn’t home very often, and he offered up a room in his Rancho Santa Fe mansion. 

So I packed up my ride, put the HGH in a cooler in the back, and drove off toward the Rocky Mountains. I had been taking the serum for a few weeks by then but nothing had happened yet. I was sure the seams of my pants would split somewhere near Zion National Park. But so far I felt no different, other than having a secret—it was not a feeling I enjoyed.

I arrived in San Diego in March of 2009. Billy was out of town, but he gave me detailed instructions on how to get in. He lived in a gated community on a golf course called the Crosby Club, where every street was either a song by Bing Crosby or a Bing Crosby movie. Billy lived on Going My Way.

I parked my car and walked up to the Spanish ranch-style home. “The door will be unlocked,” he told me, and it was. My footsteps on the tile floor echoed through the high ceilings. Not a lot of burglars at the Crosby Club, apparently. Plus, Billy didn’t live alone. Just as Batman had Robin and Starsky had Hutch, Billy Crafton had Marty Struthers.

Marty was the opposite of Billy, and the other half of their company’s namesake, Martin Kelly. (Kelly was Billy’s mom’s maiden name—you see what they did there?) While Billy was the suave young playboy in the Italian suits, flying from city to city, game to game, always a new blonde on his arm, Marty was the 40-year-old virgin who lived in the guest house and played video games. He had thinning blond hair that was parted like a 7-year-old’s, and was the numbers guy, the brains of the operation. He was always a little sad, a little bit downtrodden, moping around the house, saying very little. Every night, he ate one of the five Hungry Man TV dinners he had purchased for the week, followed by two chocolate chip cookies. Every once in a while I took one of his cookies, and I always felt like he knew. 

Mostly, though, we got along well and stayed out of each other’s way. He had his numbers to crunch, Billy was off doing whatever Billy did, and I still had a secret—and it was hidden in the refrigerator in the folds of my deli meat. Nobody better touch my fucking roast beef. 

When it was time to shoot up, I took my roast beef up to my room and drew back the syringe and plunged it in again. My eyes were not green but I was getting pretty fucking buff. I was on the phone weekly with my agent and he was telling me to stay in shape, that teams would be calling when someone got hurt and I needed to be ready. 

The physical therapist was very good at what he did, but he could not reattach what was not attached, and when I ran, I felt a weakness that was most unpleasant. I felt like I could snap again at any moment—and eventually I would—but my goal was to get so strong everywhere else that it masked whatever was happening with my hamstring. I spent most days training—first with the therapist, then I would go lift at a 24 Hour Fitness, then I would run on the track, then I would post up somewhere and scribble some affirmations in my notebook. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. I didn’t stop to think about what was really going on with my body, or what was really going on in my life, or examine the very strange dynamics on Going My Way. 

A few months after I moved in, we got a new houseguest—a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt named Mauricio. Billy had fallen in love with the sport and was paying Mauricio to be his live-in, full-time jiu-jitsu coach. Mauricio spoke very little English, but his room was right next to mine. We both had our own bathrooms but we passed each other frequently in the halls. Mauricio rode a motorcycle and had an infectious laugh and, like me, seemed puzzled by his current situation—living rent-free in a mansion on a golf course. 

All of the inhabitants on Going My Way were living disparate lives, which rarely intersected. Billy was always on the road. Marty was in his quarters with his cookies. Mauricio was at his dojo. And when Billy was in town, he was with Mauricio at the dojo. Billy took his training very seriously. He ate incredibly healthy. I was almost envious of his discipline. His side of the fridge was always turkey chili and blackberries. That’s all I saw him eat in those strange months. He would sit in front of the TV watching American Greed, eating blackberries with a fork. What kind of person’s favorite fruit is the blackberry, I’d wonder. 

I did go out on the town with Billy once. I took a trip to Vegas for a UFC fight with him, his girlfriend, and her friends. After the fight, it was bottle service, of course. Black card, corner pocket.

Another time, I was in Vegas with my buddies and we had ended up at the Spearmint Rhino, like we usually did back then. On this particular evening, I had spent some time in a back room, one that was equipped with private couches and a private bar. As I walked through the dark purple sea of bodies and limbs, shadows concealing the action beneath the belt-line, I looked to my right and saw a dude sitting spread eagle on a velvet couch with his blond hair all messed up and the jacket of his Italian suit thrown open. It was dark, but I knew that guy.

“Billy?” I said.


It was my financial advisor, hard at work, educating the leaders of tomorrow on the proper deployment of conservative long-term strategies.

Part of Billy’s appeal was that he understood the scene. He knew the same people you did. He went to the same clubs. He hit on the same girls. He was at every big event—NBA All-Star Games, big UFC fights, bottle service at every club. That was Billy Crafton: turkey chili, jiu-jitsu, Spearmint Rhino.

Flummoxed by his jet-setting lifestyle, one of his girlfriends cornered me one evening on Going My Way and wanted me to help her understand what she was missing. Why he wouldn’t take their relationship further. Why he couldn’t give more than he was giving. Why he always seemed like he was hiding something.

My big break came in August as training camps wore on and guys started getting hurt. My first workout was in Philly. A young staffer picked me up from the airport. He had lots of empty water bottles in his car. I stayed the night at a small motel and the next day had a workout on an adjacent field while the rest of the team practiced. There were three of us—me and two younger guys. After the workout, they put us all back in the shuttle and we pulled away, heading to the airport. A few blocks away, the driver got a call.

“Yeah, he’s right here,” he said. “We’ll turn around.”

I was going to be an Eagle. When we pulled up, I started getting out of the vehicle.

“Drew,” he said. “They want to speak with you.”

Drew wasn’t my name. Drew went in, and me and the other dude went to the airport and flew home.

Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

My next workout was a week later in Cleveland. Another good workout, another flight home, but they told me they liked me. I thought they were full of shit so I went to Cabo. While I was there, the Browns called me and said they found a spot for me. I had to tell them that I was in Cabo, and it would take me an extra day to get there. I flew home, then I flew to Cleveland and was cut within a week.

My final NFL workout was in New Orleans, a week before the 2009 NFL season began. They had an injury to a tight end in the last preseason game, so they brought in four veterans for tryouts. I knew all of them and we were all in a similar spot: swirling down the drain. Flailing. Reaching. Clawing. My hamstring was barely hanging on. Sean Payton led the workout, and Drew Brees was throwing us the ball. I had a good showing, and so did all of the other guys. None of us got the gig.

A few weeks later, I realized my last option was to accept employment with the UFL and the Las Vegas Locomotives—the only football team that wanted me anymore. I drove out to their training camp in Casa Grande, Arizona, where my football life would take its last breath. My hamstring finally exploded during the second week of training camp. I was 30 years old.

I drove back to Denver for surgery and stayed there for the next several months rehabbing. The sickness was in me so deep that I thought I still had some good years left, and now that I had fixed my hammy, I was ready for my comeback. I needed to get back to San Diego. I trusted that physical therapist to get me in the right shape. I called Billy.

“Still have a room for me?” 

You know he did. But he had moved to a new place in La Jolla by now.

Billy also had some professional good news. His Martin Kelly Capital had been acquired by SunTrust Bank. They had tapped him to run their sports division and had paid him $2.75 million for access to athletes, of which there were now close to 20.

“Congrats!” I said, though I didn’t actually give too many fucks. 

He also had some bad news to share. Mauricio had been involved in a motorcycle accident, and was in the hospital with some serious paralysis on the right side of his body. He had been riding fast down a coastal highway near Del Mar, too fast to stop when a truck pulled out in front of him. He crashed into its side and was thrown high into the air and landed on the concrete. He was going to survive, but they weren’t sure if his arm would ever work again.

I drove back to California determined to get back on track, but really just spent a few more sad and desperate months alone, whiling away the days trying to resurrect the dying embers of my football adventure, scribbling notes in my journal, running at UCSD, lifting, stretching, going to movies, laying on the beach, body surfing. I had given up on the HGH. It was too much trouble. I was sick of the secret.

The La Jolla house was a bit of a downsize—still beautiful but not as spacious. Billy had the front office converted into a jiu-jitsu room, equipped with mats and air circulators. Marty had the master bedroom, and Billy had finally commissioned the art project he had been talking about since I first met him: making a collage out of all the hotel keys he had accumulated.

One of the athletes in Billy’s stable was quarterback A.J. Feeley, who had a room in the La Jolla house that he stayed in from time to time. Our paths crossed once in a while, but it was always brief and random. At some point, A.J. had a falling-out with Billy, and got out of there for good. I remember a foreboding conversation I had with AJ as he was packing up his room.

“Where you going?”

“I’m getting out of here. You better be careful, man.”

“About what?”

“Billy. He’s not who you think he is, man.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t fall for it,” he said, and that was the last I saw of A.J. 

Soon it became apparent that my football career was indeed over, and one gloomy day while Billy was off somewhere and Marty was at work, I packed up my room and left that place for good, taking that long, dark step into my new life—a life without that carrot on the stick. A life where football was not the answer to every question. A life I’d have to face like a man—finally—and address all of the things I’d ignored. 

It wasn’t all bad. I got to start saying yes to things I had always said no to, like a Labor Day camping trip and a late September wedding in Spain. This was a symbol of the end. I stood on a beach in Ibiza at sunrise, cigarette in hand, high as the day was long, and realized that my old buddies were soon about to be getting ready for practice, 5,000 miles away, pulling the pads over their battered bodies. Here I was, on the other side of life—for good.

When I returned to America, I went to my house in Denver and finally sorted that box of mail that wasn’t “super-important.” When I began sifting through the envelopes, I realized what A.J. had been trying to tell me.

He wasn’t hating; he was warning me. Billy wasn’t who we thought he was. Our money was gone.

Letters from SunTrust Bank and the SEC made it clear that Billy was in some sort of trouble and so my money was, too. The issue seemed to revolve around a real estate investment called “Westmoore.”

Westmoore, Westmoore—why did that ring a bell? Westmoore. Oh, yeah. In early 2008, I signed a new contract and got a nice signing bonus—more than I had expected, actually, and sent most of it to Billy. A few months later, around minicamp, I got a call from Billy about an exciting investment opportunity. It was a sure thing, huge returns, he said, but we had to get on it quick. Like, super quick! He was FedExing me some documents and I needed to sign them and send them back ASAP, which I did, probably without reading them, then got back to the business of football.

It turned out that Westmoore was in receivership, and was being investigated. It wasn’t a “sure thing”—it was a Ponzi scheme. It took a few days to get ahold of Billy, and when I finally did, he assured me that the money was safe and that SunTrust was trying to stir up shit. They had had it out for him from the moment he got there. They were jealous of his “roster” and wanted to give his business to different financial advisors and terminate his contract. He was, I’d learn later, buying time so he could move money around and cover his tracks.

But I wanted to believe him, so I did. This allowed me to once again bury my head in the sand and focus on the work I needed to do—not on my football career, but on processing the end of it. That meant becoming a writer. From one myopic pursuit to the next—the rest of the world faded away, including the lawyers who wanted me to be part of the lawsuit against Billy. I had a book deal to write Slow Getting Up and didn’t have the capacity to focus on this drama, and told myself I had enough money and would find a way to make more. It was easier, in my state of mind, to hold out hope that maybe, just maybe, it was all a big misunderstanding. So I disappeared, Billy disappeared from my mind, and my money disappeared forever. 

I had two more interactions with Billy, the last nearly 10 years ago. While I was promoting my book, my house flooded and all of my financial papers were half-destroyed. As I sifted through them, I began to connect many of the dots I never had before, and called Billy. He told me that he was bled dry by lawsuits, had been to prison, was bankrupt, and as part of his plea deal wore a wire for the feds to nab a couple of sports agents plotting to defraud their clients. He wasn’t lying about that, at least. He also wanted to emphasize that he had lost all of his money in Westmoore, too. Everyone got fucked.

The last time I saw him in person was at his San Diego apartment. I can’t recall the date. It was somewhere in the middle of the legal firestorm. I was in town and trying to gauge the situation. I had learned that the lawsuits had proven relatively fruitless for the athletes who had sued him—they had settled for a fraction of their losses, and had received an even smaller fraction of the settlement. 

Billy had gone bankrupt and his life was in shambles, but he had found love. His new girlfriend had stayed with him during all this, and now they were parents to a baby girl. 

We sat in the living room of his apartment in a downtown high rise, large mirrors on the walls to make the small flat look bigger—a far cry from Rancho Santa Fe and La Jolla Shores. Billy was talking and talking, and the baby was crying and crying. He picked up the baby and tried to comfort her, but he just kept talking and the baby kept crying.

“Can I hold her?” I asked. 

He handed me the baby. I held her and bounced her softly, shifting my weight back and forth, and within a minute or two, she was asleep on my shoulder. I handed her back and said goodbye, and that was the last I ever saw of Billy Crafton, and the last I ever will. That thing that brought us together was never made to last, and made fools of us both in the end.

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