Third Place Writing – Sports


Seeking Relief, McHale’s Life Took a Fatal Turn

Family and Longtime Friends Say Prescribed Painkiller Hastened Decline of Former NFL Player
By Andrew Astleford

On the last night of his life, Tom McHale arrived at the suburban Tampa apartment of Martin Jackson, a 29-year-old furniture salesman McHale had met only a few months earlier at the drug rehabilitation clinic they attended. McHale had been staying at the one-bedroom apartment in Wesley Chapel, Fla., after a falling-out with his wife.

According to the account Jackson later gave Pasco County sheriff deputies, McHale was drunk when he stumbled through the doorway at 10 p.m. At some point, he inhaled cocaine and swallowed no fewer than three Xanax pills. He also told Jackson he was looking forward to going to rehab the next day.

At 8:30 the next morning, according to Jackson’s account, Jackson awoke to find McHale sitting on his couch, crumpling a just-finished can of Coca-Cola and eating leftover pie. Then McHale got up, walked past the clothes that were strewn about, entered the apartment’s lone bedroom and settled into the ruffled sheets on Jackson’s bed.

About 45 minutes later, Jackson noticed that McHale wasn’t breathing. He called 911, dragged McHale onto the floor and administered CPR. McHale vomited just as paramedics arrived, but they could not revive him.

With that, Tom McHale, the son of a Gaithersburg surgeon, the charming focal figure of some Montgomery Village kids who came of age together in the late 1970s and remained friends for decades, the barbecue perfectionist and restaurateur, the former undrafted free agent who carved out a nine-year NFL career on the offensive line, and the husband and father of three boys was pronounced dead at 9:28 a.m. on May 25, 2008. It was exactly three months after his 45th birthday.

It often is difficult to pinpoint when a life begins to unravel. Those left behind can disagree for years about the exact moment a fatal turn occurred. But in McHale’s case, his family and longtime friends describe a rapid descent fueled by a painkiller prescribed three years earlier to deal with the lingering soreness of playing professional football.

There also was unanimity in the value of what they believed was lost in McHale’s downfall, with friends still finding it difficult months later to delete his number from their cellphones.

“He was everything to everyone,” said Mark Moholt, who knew McHale since the second grade. “He was everyone’s best friend. He made it a point to make everyone feel good. He found the good parts of everybody, not the bad.”

* * *

By the time of his death, McHale no longer was the strong-willed renaissance man who still was admired by childhood friends, most everyone agrees. They had lived in the Whetstone neighborhood, attended Whetstone Elementary and graduated from Gaithersburg High School in 1981.

After graduation, McHale played defensive tackle at Maryland for two seasons before transferring to Cornell so he could enroll in its School of Hotel Administration. While there, he met his wife, Lisa, who was a manager for the football team. She declined to be interviewed for this story.

Cornell’s former sports information director, Dave Wohlhueter, watched McHale forge a playing career that landed him in the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. “He was a man amongst boys when he was here,” Wohlhueter said. “He was a great person. In my 33 years as an SID, I only had two athletes who came into my office and thanked me for whatever I might have done for them. One of them was Tom McHale.”

After college, McHale signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent, switched to offense and spent nine years as a 6-foot-4, 282-pound guard and tackle for the Buccaneers (1987-92), the Philadelphia Eagles (1993-94) and the Miami Dolphins (1995).

On nights when he returned to the Washington area, he sometimes rented a limousine and treated friends to dinner, drinks and laughs.

His friends characterize their teenage years as comfortable, never wanting for anything. They said they drank alcohol — which was legal for 18-year-olds at the time — and smoked marijuana at high school parties as an adventurous escape. Some moved onto harder drugs, while others stopped by the time they were in college.

His friends said McHale never was a particularly heavy user.

“Most of the guys we grew up with in that era, alcohol and drugs were a large part of us having fun,” said Brad Jung, who met McHale in the third grade. “I wish that was never a factor, but it was. Most of us had to walk away” from doing drugs.

As a boy, Tom McHale barbecued for siblings Jim, Mary, Nora and Margy. At age 14, he opened his first produce stand. Households within the Whetstone neighborhood were close, and McHale and his group of friends enjoyed relatively carefree lives.

When he entered high school, McHale became known for his inclusive personality. He made conversation with everyone, no matter the ethnic background or clique.

“He was everybody’s guy,” said Aaron Carter, who knew McHale since the second grade and now is the head of security at Gaithersburg High. “He was a type that was loved by all. He fit in with everyone. He was a leader. He was there for everyone. He was just Tom.”

McHale spent his freshman and sophomore years at Georgetown Prep, where by all accounts he was well liked, too. Margy McHale, who served as the McHale family’s spokeswoman for this story, said her brother transferred to Gaithersburg to be with the friends he had known since childhood.

He distinguished himself as a physical offensive and defensive lineman and as a skilled shot putter. McHale became known for his work ethic and selfless exuberance; once after practice, an assistant coach walked toward the school building carrying a first-aid kit. McHale ran toward him and said, “I got it, Coach!”

“The good ones practice and do everything you ask them to do,” said Francis Parry, McHale’s former assistant football coach, assistant track coach and physical education instructor at Gaithersburg High School. “The great ones are the first ones on the field. They do everything you ask them to do, and they’re the last ones off the field.

“After busting tail at practice, he would help out coaches.”

McHale’s ethic influenced many. Childhood friends viewed McHale’s success as a slice of their own. On Sunday afternoons, some switched on their television sets and said: “Hey, that’s my best friend out there! That’s my best friend, Tom McHale!”

After retiring from the NFL, McHale settled with his wife in the Tampa area. He served as Tampa chapter president of the NFL Players Association’s retired players division and opened restaurants — McHale’s Sports Pub and two branches of McHale’s Chop House — before going into real estate. He loved to barbecue and to relax by his pool at his upscale Tampa Palms residence.

For friends looking on from Washington, McHale had a dream existence: a loving family, friends’ admiration and a successful career in and out of professional football.

* * *

About three years ago, according to Margy, her brother was suffering from acute shoulder pain, another symptom of the body soreness that was a constant since his football playing days. His doctor prescribed oxycodone, a time-release narcotic pain reliever similar to morphine, to help him relieve the pain.

McHale later told Margy that his addiction to the medication was almost instantaneous.

Former NFL players such as McHale might face an increased risk for substance dependence because of their heightened exposure to medication, said Alex Stalcup, a doctor in Lafayette, Calif., who has treated current and former NFL players for pain issues.

“What makes me sad is that these guys give everything, and many of them know that they are hurting their bodies terribly,” Stalcup said. “They get in trouble with pain medications, which are incredibly abundant in the locker rooms.

“Some of those guys will become dependent, and they are going to need specialized treatment from that point forward. From the group that becomes dependent, some of them are going to get addicted, and some of them are going to have terrible difficulty controlling their use, discontinuing their use. They’ll be beset with craving for the drug. It’s tragic.”

Friends and family said they noticed McHale’s personality change. He became sad, losing his zest for life.

Not long after McHale started using oxycodone, another Maryland friend, Patrick Gatons, visited him in Tampa. Gatons remembered long walks in the woods with McHale when they were classmates at Gaithersburg. Gatons considered McHale bright and introspective, someone who was cognizant of his life’s direction.

But during this visit, McHale showed hints of his helplessness. McHale and Gatons drove together through the Florida neighborhoods where McHale had lived. At one point, McHale paused and asked Gatons if he was happy.

“Well, yeah, I have a new wife and a kid,” Gatons said, somewhat confused. “Everything’s fine.”

McHale didn’t respond.

Later, the two men stopped in front of a house near McHale’s residence. McHale told Gatons that the former occupant was involved in a serious car accident and became addicted to pain medication upon recovery. McHale said the man later committed suicide. Gatons considered the dialogue odd.

“It added to the whole ‘he’s unhappy’ feeling,” Gatons said. “He’s pointing out this house, and he’s telling me this story for a reason, now that I look back on it.

“I wanted to believe everything was fine with him. I didn’t want to hear the bad news. I figured Tom was always strong enough and smart enough, I thought, that he wouldn’t be stupid. I chose to put my head in the sand and believe in the power of Tom. I believed he was strong enough and intelligent enough to beat it, whatever it was he was going through. I let him down.”

Moholt, McHale’s friend since second grade, said that five years ago, McHale flew from Florida to Maryland to help Moholt beat his own drug and alcohol problem. After that experience, they continued to correspond. But a year ago, Moholt said, McHale stopped returning his phone calls.

McHale was one of five members of a Christian accountability group that met once a week at a Tampa restaurant. They discussed their lives as husbands, as fathers and as men of God. They trusted one another. Some shared insights not normally discussed among friends, such as admitting to losing their temper in front of their wives.

In April 2007, McHale began skipping their meetings. By that point, the depression brought on by his oxycodone abuse had led McHale to experiment with cocaine, Margy said.

Before long, members of his Christian group grew curious about his condition.

“His frequency of meeting with us was less and less, and I was starting to get concerned,” said Chris Marino, a member of the group who knew McHale since the fourth grade and moved to Tampa to work with McHale in real estate.

“We could tell if he was overmedicated, let’s just say. We tried to confront him a few times. Eventually you would get denial, but then you would get: ‘Oh yeah, you’re right. I have this struggle.’ ”

Another member of the group was Rob Taylor, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers tackle from 1986 to 1993. “We would question him about certain things, and to be honest with you, I don’t know if he was telling us the whole truth,” Taylor said. “I think he was trying to hide some of that at one time. It came out from his wife that he was having deeper troubles than we ever knew.

“He did a great job of showing himself to be in total control and having his life going in the right direction without us knowing it. A lot of people, myself included, were totally surprised when we heard some of the things that were going on.”

In May 2007, McHale’s family intervened, entering him in a Tampa area rehabilitation clinic. For almost a year, McHale’s condition improved. Aside from one relapse, Margy said, he stayed clean.

But his progress proved fruitless. This year, on May 24, McHale had another relapse. Margy had been in contact with him that day and said she knew he was using. That night, Margy cried. For the next few hours, she typed text messages to her brother and offered him counsel.

She wrote that she loved him. She pleaded with him to be safe.

At 12:01 a.m., he responded for a final time, about nine hours before he died.

“Thanks. I love you too.”

* * *

Margy McHale remembers her brother as a man who was as comfortable in an apron as he was in football pads. She remembers her brother as a man who insisted that she give him a shopping list before he visited her Montgomery Village home so he could stop by the grocery store and help her prepare a feast. She remembers her brother as a man who drew inspiration from his wife of 18 years and their sons: T.J., Michael and Matthew.

The Tom McHale who died wasn’t the man she knew, she said. That was a man who fell victim to the power of addiction.

Tom McHale met Jackson at the rehab clinic, and later moved into Jackson’s apartment. Jackson, believed to be the only person with him at the end, said he would not discuss McHale’s drug use or death with a reporter.

Deputies found no narcotics among the unkempt conditions at Jackson’s apartment on May 25, only a bottle of Jackson’s blood pressure medication in McHale’s right front pants pocket.

The autopsy report prepared by the District Six medical examiner’s office of Pasco and Pinellas counties revealed that McHale tested positive for oxycodone and cocaine, as well as ethanol, cocaethylene (a cocaine/ethanol byproduct) and benzoylecgonine (a cocaine metabolite). No foul play was suspected. The official cause of death was accidental multi-drug toxicity.

McHale’s autopsy mirrored those related to oxycodone that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has studied since 1996. Of the hundreds of deaths linked to abuse of oxycodone, according to the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control, the majority involve multiple drug toxicities.

“I have a lot of faith, and I think it’s hard for us on earth to understand,” Margy said. “I think God takes you out of your pain, too. I don’t know if that always makes sense, because there are family and kids, and it doesn’t seem right. But sometimes in life, I think people are in so much pain that there’s the faith that they’re not in pain anymore.”

McHale’s friends from Montgomery Village still feel pain. They lost a powerful presence who had faults but made everyone feel as if he was genuinely interested in their lives. They lost someone with whom they shared hunting memories, late-night house parties and deep thoughts about confronting an uncertain world.

On May 30, friends, family and former teammates filled pews at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Tampa for McHale’s funeral. They heard about his large lifestyle and his legacy of generosity. They heard about his incorrigible laughter and those looks — his short, wavy brown hair and sharp grin — that they never again would witness.

They also heard about waste. How drugs will keep his lips from kissing his wife’s cheek another goodnight. How drugs will keep his thick biceps from cradling those three beautiful boys on his knee, smiling at their downy faces and recognizing a piece of himself in them.

“I don’t have an answer for why Tom had to die of addiction,” said Mike Sears, who knew McHale since the fifth grade. “I just know that on our own we can’t overcome it.”

Said Moholt: “Hopefully, [McHale’s death] will open the eyes of other people who are struggling from this that it can happen to the best person in the world. Hopefully, somebody will see the power of addiction, and if they’re in that situation, maybe this can help them and [make them] ask for help. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help.”

A day doesn’t pass when Margy McHale doesn’t think about her brother, or his final message. She said he was a gentle man, and his time came too soon.

“I have a great peace,” she said, “for knowing he’s at peace.”