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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Former NFL player Hal Garner, now living in Midvale, looks at an X-ray of his spine where surgeons used pins to repair the damage.
Second in a three-part series

Everyone in Cache Valley knows Hal Garner, for better or worse.

He's the Logan High School football star who turned down USC recruiters to play for the hometown Utah State Aggies. The big man with wavy blond hair and outdoorsy good looks who married a gorgeous Aggiette. The tenacious special teams player who played in two Super Bowls for the Buffalo Bills.

Those were the glory days.

But the Hal Garner people in this northern Utah community know today bears only distant resemblance to the local-boy-made-good.

He's the man who a few years ago walked disoriented into people's homes and helped himself to their belongings. The one who thought the Taliban was after him. The one police found talking to a wall or unconscious on a bed ... again. The one whose bizarre behavior scared his neighbors and estranged his family. The one whose erratic driving earned him a stint in prison.

Those are the impressions that linger today.

"I was proud to say Hal Garner was my brother," says his older sister, Juli Willden. "I can't say that now."

In 1992, Garner walked away — or rather hobbled away — from pro football, battered, broken and hooked on painkillers. He took so many pills that "the addiction was what my life was about," he says today.

Garner wasn't a big star during his six seasons with the Buffalo Bills. He was a reserve linebacker and determined special teamer who fought for a roster spot each year. In pro football, that means play hurt or lose your job.

"I had to shut my mouth. Being on the bubble is a lot of stress. You had to play with injuries if you wanted to stay on the team," he said in an interview with the Deseret Morning News. "If I couldn't play, they'd get someone else. In a lot of cases, I played when I shouldn't have."

Garner went from the euphoria of pro football's ultimate game before thousands of cheering fans to the despair of a prison cell where no one cared who he was or how he got there.

And in between came the emptiness of losing his wife and children.

"I'm not going to blame anybody but myself," he said, an admission that surprises family members. "It was still a choice of mine. I chose to kill the pain."

Too often it was overkill.

"I think his problem comes from overdoing things," Willden said.

Addiction's costs

Garner, 45, now lives alone in a family-owned Midvale townhouse, nearly 100 miles south of Logan. Except for the jagged scars on his knees, a commemorative plaque from Super Bowl XXV — a heartbreaking loss to the New York Giants on a last-second missed field goal — is the only visible memento of his pro football career.

The golden mane that curled out the back of his helmet has retreated to thinning gray. Though his once full face has become angular, he carries just a few pounds less than his 235-pound playing weight on his 6-foot-4-inch frame. His lower lip quavers the longer he speaks.

Employers, he said, are wary of him because of his bad back. But there's also that felony DUI conviction that labels him an ex-con. He spends his days surfing the Internet for items to buy and sell. He searches for ways to get on the high school speaking circuit. He walks and swims for exercise. He's up late most nights because his body aches.

Regular visits to the Lifetree Pain Clinic help him deal with the chronic hurt of past football glory. He's on his own to fight the nagging emotional heartache.

"It's hard for me at this point in my life to stay positive and keep moving forward. In reality, it's pretty gloomy. The fact that I'm away from my children is devastating to me," he said.

Addiction ruined everything dear to him.

His wife of 11 years divorced him in 1999.

His 17-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter don't talk to him, not even when he calls on their birthdays.

He no longer has his five-acre Cache Valley ranch.

He lost the respect of a community once proud of its hometown hero.

People whispered, "That's Hal Garner. He has a problem...." Some rallied around him, most didn't.

"Everybody judges you different when you're down than when you're on top," he said.

In the NFL, Garner saw most of his game action on kickoffs, kickoff returns and punts where some of the most violent hits happen. He ran full speed into opposing players to make a block or tackle a ball carrier. It wasn't unusual for him to stagger back to the sidelines after a bone-crunching collision.

He relished every second of it.

Injuries mount

His intensity for the game dates back to his days at Logan High School. One week his coach, Perry Christensen, wouldn't let him dress for practice after getting his bell rung in a previous game. It drove Garner nuts.

"You had to tie him up to keep him off the field," said Christensen, describing Garner as not only the most talented player on the team but the hardest working. Garner loved contact. He was aggressive and fearless.

"He put it on the line every day," he said. "That's what made him the way he is today."

One of the highlights of his pro career actually knocked him out.

On a kickoff in the fourth quarter of a tight 1990 NFL playoff game against Miami, Garner hit Dolphins kick returner Marc Logan at full throttle, jarring the ball loose. The Bills recovered and went on to score a touchdown to ice the game. As his teammates celebrated around him, Garner lay unconscious on the frozen artificial turf.

In the 1991 season, Garner played with a bad ankle and a sprained elbow. The year before, he separated his shoulder, sprained an ankle and dislocated a toe. He also had knee surgery for the fifth time a few days after the 1988 AFC Championship game, a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in which he broke his thumb.

Garner quit football at age 26 following that season, which included a four-week suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

After a year working construction like his dad, he changed his mind about retirement. He trained like a man possessed, made the Bills again and played in the Super Bowl the next two seasons, both Buffalo losses.

Though Buffalo stayed on top for two more years, Garner did not.

He injured his back when his feet were taken out from under him as he jumped to block a pass in practice before a 1992 preseason game at Kansas City. He said coaches urged him to play and doctors cleared him.

"I was an idiot by saying yes I'd give it a try," he said. "I tried playing a couple of plays, but I just couldn't do it."

The Bills cut him two days later, ending his six-year career.

Since then, he's had three back operations that left two metal rods, six screws and a fused piece of hip bone in his vertebrae. He blew out his weak ankle on a hunting trip. His gait is that of man much older than his 45 years. He's facing two knee replacements in the future.

Downward spiral

The pain, Garner says, never stops.

"I've seen the guy in pain and crawl to the bathroom because he can't walk to the bathroom," said Mike Hamby, a former teammate at Utah State and Buffalo.

People who haven't experienced it, Garner said, don't understand what it's like to be deprived of favorite activities, which for him include bow hunting and horseback riding.

Garner manages the pain with a pump inserted into his abdomen. The computer-programmed device has a line directly to his spine dispensing fentanyl for pain, a muscle relaxant called backlafen, and clonidine to aid opiate detoxification.

"People say I'm an addict because I have this pump in me," he said.

Truth be told, the addiction started well before doctors installed the pump 10 years ago.

Garner's ex-wife, Becky, watched him spiral out of control after his retirement. Like many professional athletes, Garner had trouble adjusting to life without the rush of the game. Jobs as a pawn shop owner, bail bondsman, bounty hunter and carpet layer, to name a few, didn't pan out.

Though the thrill was gone, the pain was not, and Garner didn't manage it well. He often took too much medication, causing hallucinations, slurred speech and confusion. He did things, as he said, "that are not you." He remembers few of them.

Partly because of who he was — the biggest football name at the time to emerge from Cache Valley since Merlin Olsen — Garner had no problem getting pain pills, especially from one doctor who prescribed them in unfathomable quantities.

Checking up on her younger brother, who was living in her home at the time, Willden called the doctor's office to see what Garner was given. What she was told astounded her: 150 muscle relaxants, 120 OxyContin tablets and 150 pills of a drug she can't recall. That on top of the morphine pump already under his skin.

The toughest loss

Though Garner says he stayed away from illegal drugs, his ex-wife suspects otherwise. She found a vial and syringes hidden in a Styrofoam-filled box. She found empty pop cans that she said reeked from being used to smoke dope. She also found some white powder.

"I became a very good detective," Becky Garner said, adding she would use a flashlight to search the house and his truck at night. She collected the various pills her husband carelessly left sitting around. "We had them every color, every shape and every size," she said.

At the same time, she feels like she enabled his habits because she took care of everything in the home.

"I didn't want people to think badly of me or him. I picked up the slack, made it look OK. I did way past what I should have," Becky Garner said.

She doesn't doubt Garner was in constant pain during their marriage.

"I feel bad about that. It's hard to watch," she said. But the unpredictable behavior — he wasn't physically abusive — and the effect it had on their children worried her. He belittled their son in youth sports, cursing and calling him names to the point the teenager now detests athletics.

Becky Garner insisted she drive when the family went out. She told her two children if their dad ever asked them to get into his car to tell him they had to go to a neighbor's house.

"It was a long haul. I feel like I'm sad. I did love him dearly," she said. "I don't hold anything against him. I really don't."

Garner calls losing his wife and children his biggest disappointment.

"It breaks my heart to think I hurt them in any way," he said in tears.

Police reports on Garner started to pile up after the couple separated.

Officers "found the subject standing in the front room engaged in conversation with the wall. ... It was apparent that Hal was under the influence of some substance and was not aware of his surroundings or location."

At a neighbor's house "Hal was beating on the door and (the resident) and her children were very scared. Hal went around the home and almost fell through a plate-glass window. ... I arrived on scene and found Hal standing in the front driveway staring up into the sky. I asked Hal why he was beating on the door and he looked at me and said, 'Well, it's a little game me and my daughter play. She gets up on the roof and throws the basketball through the hoop so it's like a slam dunk.' Hal had no idea where he was."

"It was insane for a few years," said Willden, who handled the late-night police and paramedic calls, trips to the behavioral health unit and jail visits. "I dealt with it, but I'm the one (in the family) that's been the least tolerant. I don't understand it."

Another chance?

Christensen, his old high school coach, tried to give Garner a hand, but it ended in disaster.

He took him on as an assistant football coach at Logan High School before Garner's divorce. The season went great. What he lacked in teaching X's and O's he made up in enthusiasm and charisma. Players loved him, Christensen said.

At Sky View High School, where Christensen moved a couple of years later, taking Garner with him, Garner fell apart. He often showed up high. One day he sideswiped some vehicles driving to the school. Police found him inside, unaware of his surroundings.

"When he had too much painkiller, he was like a drunk," Christensen said. "I just couldn't have him around those kids."

After Garner's string of DUIs, a district judge couldn't have him on the streets. Garner spent nine months of 2006 at the Utah State Prison on a felony DUI conviction.

While there, he took part in the Conquest program for overcoming addiction. It helped him look deep inside himself. It helped him understand choices and consequences. It helped him see how fortunate he is.

Garner said he's intent on living differently. He's staying away from old friends who helped feed his drug habit.

"It doesn't matter where you are — you can be in Alaska or anywhere — it will find you or you will find it," he said. But he said it hasn't found him nor has he found it since being released from prison a year ago this month.

Garner longs for the love and respect of his family and community again. He'd like to take his children to a movie without fear of embarrassing them. He knows he has to take care of himself to earn back the trust he frittered away.

He wants another chance with young people, not as a football coach but as a voice of experience, someone who knows the hard knocks of sports and addiction and prison and everything in between. He believes it will not only make them think twice about their choices but steel him against a relapse.

Despite painful regrets about the turns he took since he was a kid in Logan dreaming of becoming a pro football player, he wouldn't trade the glory days for anything.

"Was it worth it? No," Garner said. "Would I do it again? In a heartbeat."

The series

Saturday: Painkillers — sports' dirty little secret

Today: An ex-NFL player's struggles with addiction

Monday: What universities are doing — and not doing


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