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A Former Dallas Cowboy Learns to Fight the Pain That Once Ruled His Life

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Teammates called him Quicksilver back in his days as a Beet-footed pro football receiver. Buddy Dial (real first name, Gilbert, “but nobody calls me that”), then a strapping 6’1″ 180-pounder from Texas, seta string of Steeler pass-catching records and earned two consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl before moving to Dallas in a 1963 trade. There, however, a rash of football injuries sent Dial into a sudden downward spiral. Repeated spinal surgery reduced his height by more than an inch, and Dial’s ensuing addiction to painkilling drugs damaged his kidneys and led to the breakup of his marriage. By 1977 the onetime athlete bad become an ailing 132-pound recluse, and rumors began to circulate that he was dying or dead. Learning of his plight, Dial’s former Dallas teammates and business associates raised $35,000 to send him to a California clinic that treats chronic pain sufferers. Thanks to its program of self-hypnosis and exercise, Dial finally kicked his daily drug dependency and last year, back in Houston, launched his own National Pain Foundation. His health still fragile but steadily improving, Dial, 46, spoke to PEOPLE’s Kent Demaret about the odyssey that nearly took him from the gridiron to his grave.

The bad thing now about my kidneys, or what’s left of them, is that I never know when they’re going to shut down on me. I have maybe 15 percent of normal kidney function because of a disease called renal papillary necrosis. It was brought on by my abuse of the pain medication I took because of injuries I got playing pro football.

I was All-America in my senior year at Rice University and joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1959. As a receiver I set a lot of club records that still hold—most yards receiving in one season, most touchdown passes receiving in a season, and most yards receiving in one game—but toward the end of the 1963 season I told coach Buddy Parker I’d kind of like to raise my family in Texas. He just looked at me kind of cold and said, “You mean you want to be traded?” I found out later that I was the only player who ever asked to be traded from Parker. But the team obliged me, and in 1964 I went to Dallas.

On the fourth day of training camp, Don Meredith threw me a long pass; I jumped off my right leg, and the thigh muscle just ripped apart and tore off my knee. I lost that whole season. The second year I got hit on my left side and broke two ribs off at the spine. My third year I hurt my back lifting weights. I was in the hospital in traction for three weeks. I learned later that a piece of bone had gone through my spine and could have cut through the nerves. I could have been paralyzed. I went ahead and worked out with the team the rest of the year, taking codeine every day.

That was my first experience with pain pills. The pain from my back injury was incredible, a high-frequency, sharp stabbing. But when I took the codeine, I would feel a kind of euphoric high. Before that, I’d never even had a beer in my life. I ended up having three operations on my back and leaving the Cowboys in 1968 after figuring in only two games the whole time I was there. By the early 1970s I had four children and was making a lot of money in several different business deals. Every weekend my family and I went camping or water skiing or something. My back hurt so much that unless I took the Darvon, I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t ride a motorcycle or build a campfire.

Pretty soon I needed Darvon when I played golf, and I did that three or four times a week. By the mid-1970s I took probably 25 or 30 tablets a day. The average maximum dose would be eight or 10. You build up a tolerance.

In 1975 a doctor friend gave me some Percodan, and, man, it was magic. It’s the easiest drug in the world to abuse, and I really got into trouble. Of course, Darvon and Percodan then included the drug phenacetin, which in large quantities can damage your kidneys. About this time my real estate, farming, oil and manufacturing businesses began suffering because my judgment was just destroyed by all the pain and the pills. And after separating several times, my wife, Janice, and I split up for good in January 1977. My 14-year-old son, Kevin, moved out with me to a Houston apartment, because he knew I couldn’t take care of myself. He had one of those little toy safes with a combination lock, and he’d put my drugs in it. I’d wake him up at all hours of the night begging for some pills.

About a month later my back started killing me. My son took me to the hospital, and they found that my right kidney hadn’t been functioning fully for months. They removed an obstruction in the tube from the kidney, but then in August my left kidney went out. Again I had surgery. I started taking Demerol for the pain. It was the only thing I could take that wouldn’t hurt my kidneys, and I got hooked.

I began living with my parents in Tomball, Texas. I completely withdrew. I’d wake up, take a shot or pill and then go back to sleep. Once I found a button in the medicine cabinet and swallowed it right down, thinking it was a pill. Demerol is powerful, and when you’re giving it to yourself, you can forget when you’ve had it last. I don’t know how many times Mother and Daddy had to rush me to the hospital when I’d go into convulsions from taking too much.

In the spring of 1981 Cowboy Mike Gaechter, a former defensive back, somehow found my parents’ number and called to find out if I was alive. I answered the phone, and that was the beginning. He came to see me and invited me to spend Fourth of July with him in Dallas. It was the first place I had gone in years. About an hour outside of town, though, I blacked out from renal failure again. Mike called my urologist, Dr. Sam Axelrad. He told Mike that eventually I was going to have to have a kidney transplant, but there was no way I would ever be approved for a transplant as long as I continued to need kidney-damaging medication. Dr. Axelrad described a clinic his brother David, a psychiatrist, was starting in Sacramento to teach chronic pain sufferers new ways to handle pain without relying exclusively on drugs.

With money collected by Mike and other Cowboy alumni, including Lee Roy Jordan, I checked into David’s clinic. He marveled at my capacity to tolerate the pain they calculated I was experiencing. He started self-hypnosis training to fight the pain. I learned to re-create in my mind the pass I caught from Bobby Layne during my first practice with the Steelers. I remember seeing the ball in flight and the latticework at the top of old Forbes Field in the background. I reached up and tipped the ball, then tipped it again and finally caught it. It was the most memorable catch I guess I ever made. I’m not sophisticated enough to explain the hypnosis part, but I know that stretching out on a bed and reliving that scene helps me to relax completely, and that in turn helps me overcome the pain. After two weeks I was able to relax the spasms in my back, and my psychological need for drugs decreased.

After five weeks I returned to Houston and co-founded the National Pain Foundation. Its purpose is threefold. The first is to educate people that the best way to handle chronic pain is through mental and physical fitness. The second is to accumulate all the research information regarding the development of endorphins, a natural chemical in the brain that resembles morphine. Third, we refer people to pain centers in their area.

I now regularly exercise in a swimming pool to lessen the strain on my back and kidneys. I still need pain medication for my kidney stones, and the doctors say I’ll have to have a transplant someday. But hypnosis has helped enormously, and I’m in the best shape I’ve been in for 16 years. I do not consider myself a courageous person. So if I can develop the ability to manage pain, there is a message in my life for the 50 million other Americans who suffer every day.