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Athletes at risk of opioid addiction after injuries

Posted at 12:14 AM, Feb 05, 2018

ENID, Okla. -- Every summer for years, Austin Box and his father, Craig, went to St. Louis to watch the Cardinals play. Once he got to college, the father-son pair scheduled their trip before Austin started summer football camp at the University of Oklahoma.

The summer of 2011  was no different, except it was the last time they ever went.

On May 19, 2011, the day after they got back, Austin died.

Five prescription painkillers were found in his system during an toxicology screening, including morphine, hydrocodone and oxycodone, as well as anti-anxiety medicine.

"There is no question he hid it from us, but we had no idea until he died," Austin's father said. 

Austin had a competitive spirit on the field. He started in football at the age of four and eventually played both offense and defense for Enid High School and linebacker for OU.

With his football career came injuries. First it was a fracture in a vertebrae in his back in high school. Then, he dislocated his elbow twice and ended up needing surgery. At OU, he tore his meniscus in both knees one year after the next and had surgery each time. In 2010, Austin ruptured a disc in his back.

"My wife and I have always speculated that that last back injury really emotionally hurt him more than anything," Craig Box said. "It really set him back and we have often thought that probably was the last straw."

It was sometime after the 2010 season that Craig Box and his wife think Austin's addiction started.

Even almost seven years later, they cannot say with certainty when or why because they did not know he had a problem.

"I know he had prescriptions when he had his back, but even after he passed away my wife found his prescription at home and he hadn't used all those pills," Craig Box said.

All they can assume is he was getting them off the streets.

"My wife and I have felt extreme guilt because we missed something or we didn't do something we could have done or picked up on any kind of nuance," Austin's father said. 

Dr. Brad Boone is a sports medicine doctor with Advanced Orthopedics of Oklahoma. He also serves as the team doctor for the University of Tulsa Football team.

"The thing about the kids or anybody that is addicted to narcotics, pain medication they actually function pretty normally so you can't look at them and determine if they are impaired," Dr. Boone said.

He said he steers clear of prescribing opioids unless it is post surgery. Even then, he keeps it at a maximum of seven days, depending on the circumstances, before putting the athletes on something that does not have addictive qualities.

The doctor said opioids are not kept in the training room at the university.

"I think we are better at realizing other options to opioids for chronic pain at this point," Dr. Boone said.

He said athletes in Austin's position who have had several surgeries are often times more at risk of becoming addicted. Plus, take into account the internal and external pressures put on athletes to get better and back on the field or court as soon as possible.

"The stigma of addiction needs to go away so families and our patients are able to seek help when they're addicted without feeling socially demoralized," Dr. Boone said. "It's tough."

That is what Craig Box and his wife are hoping to accomplish through their foundation. They aim to educate schools and communities on the dangers of opioid addiction to prevent someone else from facing the horrific loss they did.

"Every month we hear from one or more people from across the country thanking us because somebody in their family was dealing with it and it made them realize that maybe something wasn't right," Craig Box said.